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Scratch a town and villages emerge

Haldia, June 2: Of all the industrial-grade products that have rolled off the conveyor belts here, nothing could possibly be as unbreakable as the prose lurking at the digital doorstep.

The introductory section on the website of the Haldia municipality, which appears on screen to the accompaniment of an instrumental version of Tagore’s song “Sedin dujone dulechhinu bone”, begins thus:

“Should Haldia be named today as a town of Digital Dewali? Should Haldia be termed as the divisive feeling? Or is it dissociation of sensibility — whatever it might be, it is undoubtedly being admitted that Haldia is the name of undivorcial intimacy of acceptance and creativity... or in other words Haldia is the modern blossom of ancient Tamralipta. As Hopkins said, ‘Send me rain to my roots’. This anecdote is the anecdote of the Port Township which Symbolies the magnificent beauty of eternal acceptance and expression.”

From such lofty and dizzy heights, the landing is hard on the riverside of Haldia township on a humid afternoon two days before the Haldia municipality goes to the polls. Forget “Digital Dewali” — the township turns out to be a lot of village.

A family of three — father, mother and toddler — sits under a makeshift tarpaulin shed contemplating the catch so far: an aluminium handi full of prawn seeds (meen), to be sold to the agent from the wholesale market in Basirhat later in the day.

The young man, wearing a pair of tattered shorts, wades into the waters again. Behind the family a group of children plays cricket. They don’t go to school. They live in the mud-hut villages that lie in a long stretch between the main road and the Haldi river, a tributary of the Hooghly.

The township is a township because of the residential complexes of the several PSUs and private companies that have set up factories in Haldia. The rest is villages, poor and without livelihood.

“All along the riverside in the township you will find us meen chashis (prawn seed farmers),” says Chandan Adi, who is lounging on the riverbank, watching the children play.

“The villages are the township,” he says. “We have no other work. Sometimes I get work at the docks, but you can’t count on it. The factories want people with education or skills.”

Chandan will cast his vote because he has to. According to many reports, especially that of the Trinamul Congress, the party is poised to wrest total control of the municipality from the CPM, which has ruled it for the past 15 years.

The current chairperson is Tamalika Panda Seth, the wife of Lakshman Seth, Haldia’s power that was. He is behind bars, charged in cases that include the Nandigram “recapture”. Trinamul hopes that the results of the civic elections, to be conducted in 26 wards, will put to rest the spectre of Red rule once and for all.

“I will be in trouble if I don’t vote,” says Chandan. Does he expect change? “Lankaye je jaye shei Raban (all powerful people are alike),” he quotes a proverb.

Haldia lies in two stretches, some five kilometres separating the township and the industrial zone: the dock and the factories. The Haldia industrial complex — built around the Haldia port with factories of Haldia Petrochemicals, South Asian Petrochemicals Limited, Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Exide, Shaw Wallace, Tata Chemicals, Hindustan Lever and Mitsubishi — was a Left Front showpiece. The Indian Oil Refinery, the Haldia Petrochemical project and the Mitsubishi chemical plant form the industrial nucleus of Haldia.

The official estimate says that in its 400 industrial units, Haldia has an investment of over Rs 11,200 crore. The factories provide direct employment to about 12,000 people and indirect employment to over 50,000. The Haldia municipal area has a population of 2,00,330, according to the 2011 census.

The road out of the township towards the industrial zone is dotted with Trinamul flags. Almost no red flag can be seen. The drive past the factories behind their high gates, with the dock’s tall cranes marking the skyline, leads to Durgachowk, the real Haldia town.

Under the afternoon sun here, Trinamul leader Subhendu Adhikari, the vanquisher of Lakshman Seth, is emitting high decibels. His one-point agenda is to show Seth up as a monster.

Female supporters make a fashion statement by turning up in Trinamul flower-print white saris with Trinamul umbrellas sheltering their heads. But almost as soon as the meeting ends, shops down shutters and their occupants retreat into afternoon siestas.

Some Haldians retreat into the many bars that are a prominent feature of Haldia town. The hotels and bars, mostly glitzy and tacky, were meant to invite the moneybags. Till recently, some of them were notorious for housing crooner girls from Calcutta and other cities. Some hotels still have them.

The afternoon is spread out like an indolent haze over the industry town.

Two men, after much cajoling, come out of a bamboo shed on one side of the main road, rubbing their eyes. Will they vote? Of course they will. They have no choice. Will there be change?

“I don’t know. I have hurt my shoulder carrying the lal jhanda (red flag) for so many years. I have just picked up the twin-flower flag. Let’s see,” smiles Dilshad, who says he is in the transport business.

“We have no work,” he says, then snaps out at another man who claims the factories don’t employ local people because they are not skilled or hardworking. “Why are you lying?”

To a visitor, Haldia town seems as distant from the gated communities of industry as does the “township”. The “Digital Dewali” is still elusive, but you get something of the “divisive feeling”.