| The Hindustan Petroleum-owned sugar factory at Lauria in West Champaran. Telegraph picture |
This is the land that once symbolised all that was wrong with Bihar, this was the epicentre of jungle raj, in a more literal sense than any other place.
Located some 280km northeast of Patna, Lauria was the happy hunting ground of the Jungle Party, a dreaded outfit of forest brigands that specialised in abductions — of men, women, children and, hold your breath, even goats and chicken.
For the villagers, the “striking symbols” of change are the “healthy” goats and chicken that are now reared by them. “The Jungle Party cadres roamed freely with guns slung across their backs and lifted our chicken and goats. They argued that oversized chicken and goats are not tasty. They then forced our womenfolk to cook chicken curry-rice or mutton curry-rice for the gang for dinner,” said Chhotelal Oraon (30) of Barharwa village on the Lauria-Bagaha road.
The brigands, he said, had made life hell for the villagers, converting their huts and homes into their makeshift shelters for the night, “forcing our women to prepare chicken and mutton for them and even playing with their modesty”.
Vinay Bihari, folk artiste, poet and now legislator from Lauria, said the Jungle Party ruled the roost, picking people at will for ransom and took away chicken and goats even before the animals grew in size to fetch profit to their owners.
“Earlier, the poor hut dwellers, who survived on domesticating goats and chicken, lost control over their pets before they could grow. Now you can see several chicken and goats growing beyond 1kg and 6kg respectively. The owners sell them when they wish to or have a need for money,” Bihari, an Independent MLA, said.
The region dotted with hills and forests and nestled in the Valmiki Nagar Tiger Reserve on the India-Nepal border was identified withthe infamous gangsters — Basudeo Yadav, Bhagar Yadav, Laloo Yadav, Rudal Yadav, Dhruv Mallah, Radha Yadav, Rab Mia and countless others who ran the Jungle Party, an underworld outfit “headquartered” in the Valmiki Nagar, Saryamon and Madanpur forests. Most of these gangsters surrendered before the courts and landed in jail, undergoing trial in fast track courts. Some like RadhaYadav and Chuman Yadav crossed over to Nepal but have not ventured to re-enter their old habitats which have been converted into camps of the Sashastra Seema Bal, Bihar Military Police and Special Task Force (STF).
Along with the improvement in law and order came a betterment of economic fortunes. Oil major Hindustan Petroleum took over two defunct sugar mills in Lauria and Sugauli (in adjacent East Champaran district) and got them operational after almost three decades.
“I grew sugarcane on my five acres of land and sold my produce for Rs 230 per quintal to Lauria sugar mill. I am well-off and comfortable now. Earlier, we were not producing sugar cane — acashcrop which had no buyer. So we were poor,” said Mukhlal Das of Pakri village.
The opening of the factories has given tertiary employment to thousands of villagers. The construction of roads in the rural areas and buildings coming up in Bettiah and Bagaha towns have also created job opportunities. As many as five new hotels have come up in Bettiah — a sleepy district town which didn’t have much infrastructure even until a few years ago.
Bagaha, where people once feared to tread after sunset, has got two hotels and two more are coming up. Several new garment shops and malls have come up in Bettiah, which is buzzing with construction activity.“I go on evening walks regularly along the Valmiki Nagar barrage. I don’t fear walking up to my official house after getting down from the bus even at 8pm or later,” said R.P. Ranjan, a senior engineer at the Gandak project in Valmiki Nagar.