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Poverty Amidst Beauty

Omkar Goswami

My wife Radhika and I went with some friends to Sundarban for the year-end break. We drove 85 kilometres from the city which I will always write as Calcutta to Gadkhali, a hamlet near a small town called Basanti, where we got on to a steamer. An hour and a half later we disembarked at a jetty on a 16-km long island called Bali, to arrive at a wonderful eco-friendly resort — if five thatched cottages can be called a resort — run by Help Tourism, a group of environmentally conscious Bengalis.

Much has been written and read about Sundarban, especially after Amitav Ghosh’s excellent book, The Hungry Tide. All I can write is that it is an incredibly wondrous and beautiful place — and certainly one of its kind in the world. None of us saw the famous Royal Bengal tiger, creatures that eat fish, drink saline water, swim across various streams to get a meal or two, and every now and then kill some hapless honey gatherers as they encroach the reserve forests in the search of the precious nectar. It didn’t matter that the big cat remained elusive. Going up and down the estuaries, hugging close to mangrove banks, watching various types of birds, spotted deer, the odd crocodile, being awe struck at the vast horizon-less width of the mohonas where many rivers meet and then go their own ways, being on the river in the misty early morning sunrise and the beautiful sunsets are experiences to cherish for ever.

The tragedy amidst such beauty is the abject poverty of the people who reside there. The island of Bali is split into two sub-administrative entities, Bali I and Bali II. Both belong to the Gosaba block which, in turn, is one of the 27 blocks that constitute the district of South 24 Parganas. The 2001 Census of India puts the rural population of Gosaba at 222,822 people, comprising 43,971 households. Today, I would reckon that the population has risen to some 250,000 souls. According to the locals, some 40,000 people live on the island of Bali.

Now for some terrible statistics of poverty, government apathy and neglect.

In 2001, only 0.9 per cent of the households of the entire rural Gosaba block had electricity connections. Keep in mind that having an electricity connection doesn’t mean that you actually get electricity. Even so, contrast the fate of Gosaba with the rural all-India average of 44.5 per cent. Nothing has changed for the better between 2001 and 2008. Bali has absolutely no electricity. The resort we were in ran on a diesel generator which was powered for a couple of hours in the morning, and between 6 pm and 10.30 pm in the evening. We were the lucky ones. Not a single homestead in the village has electricity. A few better off pucca homes have the odd solar cells to light up a room or two, but these are very rare. For almost everyone in the island, light comes from little battis — disused medicine bottles filled with kerosene, with the wick being pulled out of a perforated cap.

But that’s just the beginning. In 2001, only 3.1 per cent of the households of Gosaba lived in pucca homes, versus 40.4 per cent for rural India as a whole. In other words, almost 97 per cent of the households lived in houses whose walls were mud-lapped over a structure of straw and bamboo; and whose roofs were made of poor thatch, which must be replaced after every monsoon. Idyllic to the tourist, and presents great photo ops for capturing thatched hut, dung cake patting women, plantain trees, water lilies sprouting from hyacinth infested ponds and minuscule patches of green with winter paddy shoots — all in one wide framed shot. Dig just a bit deeper and what you see the face of grinding poverty.

Here’s some more. 99.9 per cent of the Gosaba households use firewood and dung cake for cooking. LPG is available only to an exalted 0.1 per cent, compare to 5.8 per cent of households in rural India as a whole. Over 99 per cent of households, male and female, bathe in ponds — the same stale ponds from where they fetch their water to drink.

If you were to construct a composite index of household assets and amenities, Gosaba ranks among the bottom 13 per cent of all the blocks and tehsils of rural India. But, guess what? It is not so poorly off compared to its three neighbouring blocks. Kultali (population: 188,000) ranks in the bottom 4 per cent; Basanti (population: 279,000) is in the bottom 3 per cent; and Canning II (population: 196,000) is in the bottom 1.5 per cent. Hail to the Left Front, then, for all the wonderful things it has done for rural Bengal!

Published: Business Standard, January 2009


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