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Dwindling but better not to be born
- Penury forces tribe with population of 1360 to opt for family planning

Jaigaon/Siliguri, June 17: Necessity — sired by government apathy — is the mother of birth control.

The Totos of Jalpaiguri have taken to family planning, though only 1,360 of the tribe are now left in the whole world.

Over the past two years, 40 of 284 families living in the district’s Madarihat block have been counting babies and many more are apparently not unwilling to fall in line.

Ask them why, and they don’t mince words.

“Our numbers are very limited but we haven’t received the attention due to us from the government,” said Indrajit Toto, a resident of Totopara who’s decided, along with wife Sarita, that there is no better option. “We are being compelled to restrict family size because it has become a question of survival. Farming and livestock-rearing are no longer adequate for our sustenance.”

So, instead of raising families that used to have at least a dozen babies each, the Totos — yet to be officially declared an endangered tribe — have begun limiting themselves to two or three a couple.

Totopara is in the Dooars, about 25 km north-east of Madarihat. It is spread over half-a-dozen villages — Mitrangaon, Subbagaon, Dungsigaon, Pujagaon, Panchayatgaon and Mandalpara.

Haren Shaibo, former president of Madarihat panchayat samiti and principal of Totopara Primary School, said the reason for the Totos’ decision, surprising to some and shocking to others, was purely financial.

The funds crunch, in many cases, was so acute that families had been forced to sell pieces of their land to outsiders to procure food, he said.

“Ministers and social workers frequently visit this place but none has highlighted the problems we are facing,” added Sugrib Toto, a community elder.

Shaibo said the monsoon months were particularly a problem. Totopara got cut off from the world from June to August every year, he said, because no form of transport could access it.

“Rivers like Howri, Titi, Bangri and Kalikholajhora get so swollen that even bullock carts or push carts cannot cross, forget motor vehicles…. Totopara becomes an island during this period,” Shaibo said.

Ashok Toto, a social worker, said the tribals --- declared such in 1984 --- were in a sorry way. Although they got home grants, death insurance and 50 per cent discount on purchase of domesticated animals thanks to their special status, their land was slipping out of their hands, he said.

“Earlier, Totopara comprised 1,996 acres, of which 50 acres have been swallowed by the Howri. Some 40 families have moved to other parts of Jalpaiguri district to work as farm labourers most of those left behind are landless,” Ashok said.

As though that were not enough, encroachers had been at work too, he said. Only about 1,000 of the 1,946 acres they owned now remained in their hands, the rest have been taken over by Nepalese from the Indian side.

The Jalpaiguri chief medical officer of health, Bhushan Chakraborty, was prickly when sounded on the Totos’ survival strategy.

“There is no bar on the Totos adopting family planning. But because their tribe is diminishing, we have never encouraged them to take up such practices,” he said.

Asked if the numbers had dwindled over the last two years, he said there had been no official report so far.

But health department sources revealed a report would be prepared soon. Some kind of a health camp would also be held for the Totos, whose average life span is about 65 years. Lafe Toto, the oldest surviving member at 80, lives in Mandalpara.

Anthropologists at North Bengal University see the birth control measures as the result of rising awareness and literacy levels among the Totos.

“The tribe has developed a lot in terms of knowing about the outside world and basic human rights. Like others, they have the right to adopt measures that will improve their lot,” Subir Biswas, a reader at the university, said. “Besides, their literacy rate has gone up.”

According to a study done by the university, the Toto literacy rate was about 40 per cent two years ago. Around 270 children are now enrolled in schools.

Community elder Sugrib’s daughter Rita cleared the higher secondary this year, the first Toto girl to do so. About 18 students have so far cleared the Madhyamik and three the HS.

The only graduate is Sanjib Toto, who left Alipurduar College in 1999 with degrees in history and political science.

“As the Totos have been declared a primitive tribal group, they need more economic support from the government,” Biswas said.

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