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The Forests and the Palaces

Villages in the Jangalmahal region of West Bengal show a stark picture of extreme poverty and dispossession among the adivasis. The state is absent in providing livelihoods and basic rights but ever present in its armed avatar of policemen and security forces. A diary of a day-long visit gives glimpses of how an alienated people struggle to survive.











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The Forests and the Palaces We moved to our next place, Shalukdoba
village, Lalgarh (Silda Bananchal, Binpur-
I block). We met Sandharani Hansda who
said that there have been no improve-
Debasree De ments of the roads. The small villages are

Villages in the Jangalmahal region of West Bengal show a stark picture of extreme poverty and dispossession among the adivasis. The state is absent in providing livelihoods and basic rights but ever present in its armed avatar of policemen and security forces. A diary of a day-long visit gives glimpses of how an alienated people struggle to survive.

Debasree De ( is a research scholar in the department of history, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 4, 2012

needed to visit the Jangalmahal region of West Bengal as part of my doctoral research on tribal women. I was keen to go and collect information from Amlasole village which had been in the news for starvation deaths and approached a senior of mine who was teaching in a local college for logistical help. I went on 13 November 2011 with a cousin, Suvojit Sen, who is a journalist with a Bengali daily, and we were met at Midnapore station by a retired schoolteacher of Goaltore who was to be our guide and together we left in a car for Jhargram.

Everyday Maoists

Jhargram block is considered as a stronghold of Maoist activities. The village we visited was Uttarsole (Anchal 1, Jhargram block). We spoke with Sonma Tudu, Kormi Tudu, Sumono Soren, Joba Tudu and other women. They said they have no land in their names and work on others’ fields. They told us how poverty prevents them from sending their daughters to school but encourages early marriages. We came to know about the traditions of bride price still prevalent in adivasi society and that rice under the Rs 2 per kg scheme is very irregular.

vol xlvii no 5

hardly reachable. She also talked about the seasonal outmigration in search of livelihoods. This is called “namal”. They all have below poverty line (BPL) cards but the rationing system is completely corrupt. Chanchala Hansda said no efforts have been made to help them effectively participate in local self-government panchayats. They do not even have time to celebrate their festivals since it is getting increasingly difficult to even arrange two square meals a day.

Sonia Hansda shared her experience regarding the Forest Rights Act. She said one day when she went to the forest for collecting minor forest produce the police stopped her and demanded Rs 1,000. The police also snatched away her cycle on which she was carrying the load. She was forced to arrange the money on debt. Fulmoni Soren talked about the poor conditions of the health facilities and education. We then met Arjun Baske, the former president of the local unit of the Jharkhand Party. He told us about their demands which were written in Alchiki script. He talked about the poverty, deprivation of the adivasi people and the indifference of the government officials. He categorically asserted that there are no Maoists, rather it has become the other


name of protest in order to mar dissenting voices. We also did not find any works under the rural employment guarantee act.

We crossed many check posts, but there was neither any police nor any process of checking. But, yes, we found military camps

– fairly big, well constructed and secured. These appear to be, in fact, the only sign of the existence of “governance” here. It was a complete mismatch, the huts of the adivasis and the camps, two completely different pictures of life in Jangalmahals. I was told that about a crore of rupees are being spent on the joint forces every month, whereas the adivasis of Jangalmahal get only 4 kg rice a month, under the Rs 2 per kg scheme. Given the hard labour they need to put in to survive in these difficult terrains, the adivasis require at least 300 grams of rice per head everyday. The amount of rice being given to them is not enough to even last for a week.

Police Protection

After lunch we set out for Amlasole with a new guide, a private tutor living in Belpahari. Our car reached at the Belpahari Police Station where the road turns towards Amlasole, at which point we were stopped. This was the first time that we got stuck. And I felt insecure.

When I had planned this visit I had faced objections and warnings from family and friends who were concerned that I would be caught in the “war” between the Maoists and the security forces. Some thought the Maoists would abduct me. I was also told that the Maoists were manipulating the poor adivasis in order to sustain their revolution. But, not a single adivasi complained against them. They talked about the atrocities of the forest guards but not of the Maoists.

The police inspector asked for our identity proof. My cousin showed his press card first. I showed my university student identity card and voter ID. He took both and got busy with his mobile phone. We got out from the car and followed him. I also gave him my permission letters. Suddenly four jawans encircled us with guns in their hands. I could not understand what was happening, we had no arms! Then the inspector came to me and said, “Today the Maoists have a programme there. I cannot let you go. Go back”.

The manner in which we were being stopped was shocking. The inspector said that if anything wrong happens to us then he would remain answerable to the higher authority. He went on to add, “Why do students from Jadavpur University always come here and want to go to these places?” I explained that I was a bona fide research student with permission letters from university officials. He told me that some days back two women from Jadavpur University had gone to Amlasole and never returned. “You may also start gossiping with them. Is there any guarantee that you will come back?” he asked. I had no answer to his worthless speculations but offered to leave my identity cards with him till I returned but he remained adamant.

Soon a passenger bus came along on the way to Amlasole and I offered to travel alone by it, leaving the car and my companions behind. But all my efforts were in vain. It was clear that the inspector suspected me of being a “Maoist sympathiser” only because I am a student of Jadavpur University. After repeated requests, he asked me to talk to the superintendent of police (SP).

The SP of Jhargram asked me why I had not taken permission from the local police for my research! And then he offered to send his armed forces with me to Amlasole. While I initially agreed, I was told that if I go with the security forces nobody will talk to me. The adivasis are so scared of the joint forces that they will run away at their sight. If anybody talks to me he or she would hardly reveal the truth. They will think that I am pulisher lok (police informer). I was in a big dilemma. I realised that it would be unethical on my part to bring forces into a peaceful village just for the sake of my fieldwork. Later, I was informed that no forces were available and that I would have to go back.

Two Worlds

Despite this disappointment, we were determined to visit some other villages. We arrived at our next place Krishnapur village of Belpahari (Binpur-II block). The women of this village told us that they have not been provided with the bpl cards. We came to know about the absence of any medical facility, the prevalence of bride price and of malnutrition. The people in this village eat only sak-vat (edible herbs or leaves and rice). Yet they showed us hospitality – pulling out khatiyas (cots) for us to sit on and offering us

february 4, 2012

water – which was in stark contrast to the arrogant behaviour of the policemen.

From Belpahari we moved towards Jamboni, which has a large, beautiful, forest. Here in Kopatkanta village (Jamboni block) we were again told by Mainu Hansda that the amount of rice distributed in the Rs 2 per kg scheme was insufficient, even for a four-member family. She also talked to us about witchcraft and how that substitutes for medical explanations. Churamani Hansda said she has not been paid any old-age pension even though she is in her 70s. Basana Baske talked about the market of sal and kendu leaves and how they are systematically underpaid. We came to know that an anganwadi worker comes in the village and talks about the use of contraceptives, “Didimoni talks about the use of bori”, Lakshmimoni Mandi told us. But the women are not always convinced by her. Nilmoni Soren burst into anger, “All our houses were destroyed during the monsoon, and we have not even been provided with a mere tarpaulin”. Rangamoni Soren said, “the government is not worried about us. We have nothing, just look at our huts!”

On the way back, as we were driving through the pitch-dark countryside, we came to know that the police had called my cousin’s newspaper office and my mother asking about us. Throughout the day, travelling through this supposed “war zone” I did not find any hostility from the villagers. Only a fear of the security forces among the villagers and my own experience with the police.

It was late at night when we reached Kolkata and on our way back home crossed the Eden Gardens being prepared for a cricket test match between India and the West Indies the next day, while Nandan was lit up with the ongoing International Film Festival. Everything seemed so delightful and normal, and so far removed from the world of the adivasis struggling for their daily meal and buffeted in this supposed “war”! It was almost as if these two different worlds, alienated from one another, not one state, one country and one people. We educated elites have created this alienation and allow the government to keep us separate to hide all the misdeeds and corruptions. I am already planning my next visit; this time to Amlasole in a public bus.

vol xlvii no 5

Economic & Political Weekly

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