|The Jhargram Rajbari, where Mamata put up on Tuesday night. (Amit Datta)
Belpahari, Aug. 7: In the past 40 years, only one chief minister — S.S. Ray — has visited Belpahari, one of the state’s most backward areas where six starvation-like deaths were reported in the past eight years and where many poverty-stricken people eat ant eggs.
Ray had come to Belpahari, 200km from Calcutta, to meet drought victims in 1972.
A local CPM leader cited “security reasons” when asked why chief ministers Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee never visited Belpahari. “We do not need to bring chief ministers here to gain votes. The people here used to support the CPM till Maoists started penetrating the area since 2004. The rebels set up a strong base within a span of two years. Since then, not even the district secretary of West Midnapore dared to visit Belpahari because of security reasons,” the leader said.
The local Congress accused the CPM of “doing nothing” for the people of Belpahari. “The previous government did nothing for the poor people here. Had any Left chief minister visited Belpahari, what would they have told these deprived people?” asked Subrata Bhattacharya, the Congress president of Binpur-II block.
In 2004, five persons died in Belpahari’s Amlashol, apparently because of starvation. Four years later, a 70-year-old man died, also apparently of starvation, in a Belpahari village.
“We have always been victims of the government’s neglect. No one tried to feel our plight. Now we hear that Mamata Banerjee will come here tomorrow. We believe that she is coming here only because Maoist leader Kishan is dead. Had he been alive, no chief minister would have dared to come here in the next 40 years,” said Gopal Mahato of Chakadoba village.
Belpahari residents are sceptical about any change to their lives after Mamata’s visit.
“The 13-month rule of the new government has not changed our lives in any way. I lost two relatives to diarrhoea in the past month because of lack of treatment,” said Kanai Nayek, a daily wage earner.
A visit to the Belpahari rural hospital revealed the sorry state of healthcare. Patients lay in the open on khatias hired from tea-stall owners for Rs 25 each.
A month ago, a new building of the hospital that was constructed during the Left Front regime was opened so that patients would not have to spend days and nights under trees. District officials said the decision to open the building and paint it blue and white was taken “keeping in mind Mamata’s visit”.
“It has been upgraded to a rural hospital from a block health centre. But posts of five doctors and 11 nurses are lying vacant. There are no equipment, too,” said Rajkishore Hembram, the medical officer of the hospital.
He said the hospital could not accommodate the “flood of patients” seeking treatment for monsoon-related ailments like malaria and diarrhoea. “At least 60 patients come every day. We do not have the infrastructure to treat so many patients as the old hospital has only 16 beds,” Hembram said.
Another hospital official said that though the number of beds had increased to 60 after the new facility was opened, “the shortage of doctors, nurses and equipment has hit us hard”.
Belpahari resident Basanti Mahato, whose 70-year-old husband was admitted to the hospital two days ago with diarrhoea, said: “He is getting weak by the day. He is a daily wage earner. I already had to pay for the khatia and don’t have any money left to buy medicines.”
She wondered if Mamata would tomorrow visit the hospital, 50 metres from the place where she is scheduled to address a meeting.