| A trickle of settlers in Nirmalchar. Picture by Amit Datta
Bhagabangola II, Aug. 19: Atikul Islam has changed his address seven times since childhood and he knows his search for his eighth residence will start in a couple of years. The 35-year-old farmer lives in a small mud house in Nirmalchar, an island encircled by the Padma, on the India-Bangladesh border.
With the Padma frequently changing course, the 25-sq-km area has suddenly sprung up in the middle of the river. And lure of this fertile land has drawn more than 14,000 people ' displaced from their earlier homes, on both sides of the border ' to the new settlement.
“We do not have any facilities here and our homes get washed away during floods every year. But still we are sticking to this place as the land is fertile. We will be here as long as the river permits,” says Atikul, in a green lungi and white shirt.
Despite promises from the political masters, the villagers’ demand for electricity, a soil testing centre and a secondary school has remained unfulfilled. Relief teams do visit the area during floods, but administrative support is inadequate, say villagers.
“We are not considered Indians,” says Abul Khayeri, standing near BSF’s last outpost in Nirmalchar, barely a kilometre from Bangladesh. It takes around one and a half hours to drive from Berhampore to Kharibona, from where one has to take a country boat and sail around an hour to reach Nirmalchar.
According to official estimates, only 4,000 out of the 14,000-plus population have electronic photo identity cards while the rest do not possess any documents to prove nationality.
The card is a passport to the world outside Nirmalchar. Only cardholders are permitted to enter the island and the outbound deposit the cards with BSF officials before leaving and collect on return.
“Our movement is restricted. We are harassed if we can’t show the cards and we carry them even when we go to plough our land,” chorus Rafiqul Alam and Abdul Khaleque.
But, for the border guards, imposing these rules is a necessity in the porous border area, where infiltration from Bangladesh is rampant.
“It is virtually impossible for us to distinguish between an Indian and a Bangladeshi without an identity card,” says Sukhwinder Singh, the deputy commandant of the 51 battalion of the BSF, as he keeps an eye on the boats sailing on the Padma and touching the ghats at Kharibona and Shibnagar.
Boats are the only mode of communication between Nirmalchar and the mainland. The residents, who grow rice and jute, are completely dependent on agriculture.
But even farming is easier said than done because most patta holders of land are yet to get possession of plots. And confrontation over ownership of land in Nirmalchar with farmers beyond the border is frequent.
“The borders are not clearly marked here. Since farmers in Bangladesh are strategically located, they take possession of land in connivance with the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles). Then, we try and involve the BSF to settle the disputes, but the recovery process is difficult,” says Samsul Alam, vice-president, Akhriganj Panchayat Samiti, which is controlled by the Congress.
Alam vehemently refutes reports of infiltration and stresses that people in Nirmalchar are sons of the soil. He, however, fails to come up with a cogent reply to why so many people here don’t have relevant documents. Mum’s the word on most others’ lips, too.
But on being pressed, some murmur that at times they go to Bangladesh and their friends and relatives also drop in.
“We don’t understand all these Indian or Bangladeshi citizenship issues. Our movement is linked to our necessity,” sums up Atikul, sitting barely two km from the hazy zero line dividing two nations.