Alok Sarkar, the only child in Lagadori village who goes to school. Picture by Amit Datta
Lagadori (Belpahari), Aug. 8: A seven-year-old boy bears the only sign of poribartan (change) in Lagadori, 225km from Calcutta, in West Midnapore.
Every morning, Alok Sardar picks up his bag and travels 5km through a dense forest to do something no one in his village has ever done — attend school.
In the past 15 months, Alok’s enrolment in Kodapura Primary School is the only positive development the village, which has 27 families and around 30 children, has seen.
“We don’t have any school in our village. Most residents are very poor. Sending our children to school is a luxury that most of us can’t afford. We are slightly better off because we own some land,” said Rabindranath, Alok’s father.
The use of the term “better off” is a pointer to the abject poverty of the villagers — Rabindranath earns only Rs 1,500 a month by selling the paddy he produces during monsoon on his one-bigha plot. The rest of the year, the land remains idle because of lack of irrigation facilities.
He fondly said his son liked books but Alok did not hide the biggest incentive for going to school — the midday meal.
“Sharadine oi ekbari pet bhore khete pai… school-er meal na khele adhpet kheye thakte hoy (the school food is the only proper meal I get in a day. If I don’t eat it, I will have to go hungry),” Alok said.
Others in the village, where the only source of income is collecting saal and kendu leaves, earn less than Rs 25 a day, an employee of the Binpur II block office said.
The seven-year-old boy is aware that he has got an opportunity that has eluded others in his village. “None of my playmates go to school,” Alok said after returning home alone from school this afternoon.
| Lagadori village. Picture by Amit Datta
He got drenched in the rain while returning because he didn’t have an umbrella.
“I eat stale rice every morning before leaving home for school around 9.30am. I walk through the Kodapura forest, the road is so bad. It takes more than an hour to reach school,” Alok said, dressed in his uniform — a tattered sky blue shirt and navy blue pants. This is the only set of uniform he has.
The boy is too young to fathom how he will benefit from education. But he knows the primary school is the stepping stone to Belpahari High School, 20km from his home.
He also knows that he can realise the “dream” only if his father can continue to pay for his books and school fees.
Low income is not the only problem Lagadori in Jungle Mahal has to grapple with. The village’s only source of drinking water is a mud-filled pond. It remains dry during summer and villagers have to walk about 8km to get water from another pond.
Around 20km away in Belpahari, chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced a host of development projects for Jungle Mahal at a gathering of around 20,000 people.
During her six visits to the Maoist hotbed in the past 15 months, Mamata promised drinking water for everyone, new schools, an ITI in every block, better roads, rural electrification and employment opportunities.
“We have been hearing such promises for many years. But nothing has changed here. Our condition remains the same,” Lagadori resident Nikhil Sabar said.
Data available with the block development officer’s office reveal the extent of poverty in Binpur II, located in one corner of West Midnapore, bordering Purulia and Jharkhand.
The block, where Lagadori is located, has 83 primary schools with 236 teachers for 5,800 students. Block officials said the number of children who can’t afford school education was at least “20 times the enrolment”.
While West Midnapore has a literacy rate of 78 per cent, the block has recorded a little above 50 per cent.
“The human development indices in villages in the Binpur II block are among the worst in Bengal. Most of these villages are far away from any metalled road,” a block official said.
A visit to Lagadori, around 4km from the metalled road that connects Belpahari with Banspahari, reveals how the wheels of development have stopped at the road. A common sight at the village is women walking through jungle stretches to collect drinking water.
Even for collecting subsidised rice at Rs 2 per kg from the nearest ration shop, a Lagadori resident has to walk 4km on a moram path to reach the metalled road and take a bus to reach the shop at Asri village 10km away.
“We are entitled to 6kg of cheap rice every week. To buy the rice, which costs Rs 12, I would have to spend Rs 10 on bus fare. As I cannot afford this, I have to walk to the ration shop and back,” Lagadori resident Ramchandra said.
“We don’t know how long it will take for poribartan to touch our lives as well,” he added.