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Sunday , April 28 , 2013
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Slice of Bengal reborn in Jharkhand

- 50,000 fertile acres lost as river shifts and state sleeps

Panchanandapur (Malda), April 27: The Bengal government has lost about 50,000 fertile acres to Jharkhand but, despite land being a sensitive issue in the state, doesn’t seem to mind it.

The people living there do, though many of them now say it’s better to live in Jharkhand than in a state that doesn’t care about them.

Constitutional experts say the area — chars (river islands) on the Ganga in Malda — belongs to Bengal.

“I was a Bengali once,” says Mushtaq Sheikh, an elderly char settler. He still speaks in Bengali and possesses land documents issued by the Bengal government but holds a voter ID card issued by the Jharkhand administration.

Mushtaq’s family lived in Banutola village in Malda before the Ganga gobbled up most of it in 1958. When the eroded land re-emerged as a char in the ’90s, the family and many others returned to live there.

The settlers call the char “Banutola”. It belongs to “Palashgachhi” mouza, which Jharkhand shows as part of the state’s Rajmahal Assembly constituency. The original Palashgachhi mouza, which included the original Banutola village, was part of Kaliachak II block of Malda before it disappeared into the Ganga in the late ’50s.

“We are from Bengal, we speak Bengali and would like to go back to Bengal. But no Bengal government wanted us back,” says Momjad Sheikh, Mushtaq’s neighbour.

The families have been living here for about two decades. Although most of their original land documents bear a Bengal government seal, they have to go to the sub-divisional court at Rajmahal, Jharkhand, for matters relating to their resettlement.

A settlement on Banutola char, named after Malda’s Banutola village that was gobbled up by the Ganga in the late 1950s,Kedar Mandal. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

River shift

The reason Mushtaq, Momjad and tens of thousands others have “moved” to Jharkhand is that the Ganga has shifted its course 10km eastwards in Malda since the ’50s, eroding its banks.

“The river was chosen as the boundary between Bengal and Jharkhand (erstwhile south Bihar) in 1947,” says river expert Kalyan Rudra.

“During the past few decades, its course has shifted eastwards causing erosion of land measuring around 200sqkm (50,000 acres) from 67 mouzas in Manikchak and Kaliachak I, II and III blocks of Malda, much of which has re-emerged as chars. These areas should be considered part of Bengal but, for all practical purposes, are now in Jharkhand.”

Many of the lost mouzas of Malda have been officially included in the 2011 mouza list prepared by Ranchi.

Local people say that around 25 new chars — “diyaras” in the local language — have surfaced in the past five decades. Some 18 of them are now home to 1.5 lakh people, most of whom were once Malda residents.

Those born here after the 1950s never saw a school in their childhood. Nor did the Bengal government renew any of their official documents since the 1970s.

“Our old ration cards were cancelled in 1971 by the Malda administration,” a settler said.

The Left Front government had an additional reason to be indifferent —the area was the turf of late Congress stalwart Ghani Khan Chowdhury.

Environmentalist Biswajit Mukherjee, former chief law officer with the Bengal pollution control board, recently filed a public interest litigation in Calcutta High Court on behalf of the Ganga Bhangan Protirodh Action Nagarik Committee.

Mukherjee has demanded “specific demarcation” of the interstate border “taking into consideration the constitutional provision” as well as immediate extension of “all rights and facilities enjoyed by the citizens of India to these unfortunate people”.

On April 18, the high court directed the authorities to consider the petition but also observed that the Supreme Court might be the better place to resolve the issue as it involves two states.

Ranchi steps in

If Bengal dumped the settlers, Jharkhand wooed them after a period of almost “no administration” in the char areas till the 1990s. A semblance of governance returned after Jharkhand was carved out of south Bihar in 2000 and the new state turned its attention to potential vote banks.

Ranchi has provided some of the settlers with voter ID cards, ration cards and a police station (at Udhua on the Jharkhand mainland), set up a few schools on the chars, and now occasionally runs the first polio programmes seen in the area.

But the schools often remain shut without notice or because the headmaster is ill -— as was one of the two schools in Banutola when The Telegraph recently visited the chars. The other one was housing livestock.

All the women still give birth at home, and no birth certificates are issued without a bribe. Many allege that Jharkhand is trying to take over the fertile land by providing some administrative and infrastructure support but hardly bothers about the settlers’ quality of life.

“There are a few dispensaries but no proper hospital, no proper schools,” says Kedar Mandal, a resident of Panchanandapur in Malda who is part of the movement to win the settlers their rights.

“A few lampposts have been installed on some chars but power is hardly supplied for more than four or five hours a day.”

As some villagers gather under a straw shed on a burning April day, the char looks like a desert except for a few mud houses or huts with corrugated sheets and the two schoolhouses.

A meeting is on in the village with its “panchayat” member, a BJP man Banutola elected during the 2011 Jharkhand panchayat polls.

A cellphone rings. Mobiles here bear Jharkhand numbers and you need to make STD calls to them from Malda. In some ways, Malda is farther out of reach than Mumbai.

The men — who till the fertile, silt-heavy land that grows paddy, wheat, corn, onions, garlic and mustard — make short but frequent trips to Mumbai to work as construction labourers or in the fruit trade.

The Jharkhand administration tacitly admits its presence in what should be Bengal’s land. “We have carried out several development projects in the char areas,” agrees A.S. Mutthukumer, deputy commissioner of Sahebgunj district to which the chars have been attached.

Asked how one state can take over a part of another, he avoids a direct answer, saying: “There has been a longstanding border dispute in the char areas.”

Another Jharkhand official claims his government took over the administrative and political control of the chars “by default” as successive Bengal governments washed their hands of the areas.

Finger at Farakka

River expert Rudra blames the Ganga’s waywardness mainly on the Farakka Barrage, whose construction began in 1961, as do many char residents. He feels the barrage’s design has been faulty and has arrested the waters in such a way that they flow back and turn destructive.

“There was erosion earlier too but large-scale erosion on the Malda banks began only after the installation of the barrage,” says Kedar Mandal. Several official documents corroborate the claim.

In 2002, P.K. Parua, a former superintending engineer at Farakka, complained: “The construction of the barrage has disturbed the river’s apparent equilibrium and (the) river started to adjust this huge human interference by aggradation (silt accumulation) and degradation of its bed and channel pattern by erosion and siltation.”

The 2004 report of the 13th legislative assembly committee of Bengal noted: “It is accepted at all levels that the construction of the Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of (the) river Ganges in Malda district.”

Boat and auto

A motor-propelled boat ride from Panchanandapur, the village on the right extremity of the char land where Jharkhand now unofficially “ends”, to Piyarpur on the islands’ left extremity where it officially should, takes four hours.

The river is serene and beautiful under a hot April sun. Gangshaliks, kingfishers and shamuk-khoals are the only signs of life for vast stretches.

The new chars are barren as they are just sand; people watch for the kash flowers to come up on them. These flowers are the sign that the river has layered the char with silt and that crops can grow now.

The boat stops at Palashgachhi at a bank that marks the end of the mouza. It looks as deserted as any other char. But the scene changes as one explores the area on foot. The first vehicle — an auto-rickshaw — is sighted after a few hours. A road too appears, if kuccha.

The auto negotiates the undulating, dusty and narrow road from inside the village to emerge onto a narrow but pucca road. The houses on either side, some of mud and some of concrete, are plastered with signs put up by the Jharkhand government. Every few metres a house has a poem painted in rough Hindi, a paean to the state’s toilet-building capacity.

Left in the lurch

S.K. Chaki, additional district magistrate (land reforms) in Malda, refuses comment on the chars’ administrative status.

Retired high court judge and constitutional expert Bhagabati Prasad Banerjee stresses that the char areas should be part of Bengal.

“According to the Constitution, the borders between the states are fixed and a change in a river’s course cannot change a border. The state (Bengal) should claim its legitimate land,” he says.

Few political parties or leaders from Bengal have shown any interest in the chars or the settlers so far. Almost a decade ago, Left Front minister and Malda heavyweight Sailen Sarkar had written to Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Pranab Mukherjee, both central ministers then, about the “boundary dispute” and the “change” in the inter-state border. Nothing happened.

Mausam Noor, the current Congress MP from Malda, promises: “I will soon raise the issue in Parliament and write to both state governments to settle the issue. The chars should remain with Bengal,” she said.

State tourism minister and local Trinamul leader Krishnendu Chowdhury has promised to take the issue up with chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Some settlers have worked out one consolation. Even if the river displaces them again, they cannot be exiled from their village because they carry it in their head. This is the third “Banutola” that Mushtaq and many of his neighbours have lived in.

“After most of the original Banutola vanished in 1958, some of those displaced shifted to nearby Chatiantala in 1960 and called their settlement ‘Banutola’,” says Nurshed Ali.

“When Chatiantala too collapsed into the Ganga, we moved to our current Banutola on the char,” says Nurshed Ali.