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Buddha beyond barriers

Phansidewa, March 13: The women weren't complaining. The chief minister's bodyguards and police officers were.

Casting aside threats to his life and the tense security scenario in pockets of north Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee mingled freely with Bhaktinagar residents today. And senior police officers fretted and bodyguards broke into a sweat trying to keep up with him.

Arriving at the village in Phansidewa, 22 km from Siliguri, Bhattacharjee alighted from his bullet-proof car next to the shamiana built for the occasion. But instead of heading to his seat, some 25 feet from the audience, he went straight to the women whose work had drawn him here.

Skirting a bamboo barrier, the chief minister was all but lost in the crowd that surrounded him as he asked questions to representatives of six self-help groups, mostly formed and run by women.

The chief minister spoke to Pompa Debnath, the leader of the 10-member Bhaktinagar Mahila Unnayan Self-Help Group, which had saved small amounts and, with the help of a bank loan, been able to cultivate a variety of vegetables on 18 bighas.

'The land used to lie fallow for six months a year. With a bit of guidance, we were able to grow brinjal, cabbage and gourd. We are now repaying the loan, and the earning is almost double,' Debnath said.

So enthused was the chief minister over the success that, led by urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya, he decided to walk 300 m to the fields beyond the village, with mahakuma parishad sabhadhipati Moni Thapa, panchayat leaders, the media and, of course, security personnel in tow.

'There, I can see the brinjals and the gourds... well done,' he said. Bhattacharjee also went to inspect a road about which the women had complained.

'Moni (Thapa), please see that the road is repaired. You also said you had a water problem,' he said turning to the women. 'That may take time, but a solution can be found.' A parishad engineer said an irrigation canal passed close by. 'Water can be drawn from there,' the chief minister said.

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