In withering mango, a lesson for a bloating belt

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By ARKA DAS Our Towns - Malda
  • Published 25.05.10
A 19th-century panthashala (travellers’ lodge) in Old Malda, where time seems to have stood still. (Below) In twin town Englishbazar, new apartment blocks and hotels line National Highway 34. Pictures by Anindya Shankar Ray

Something about Englishbazar resembles a Malda mango ripened prematurely with carbide.

The district headquarters town had chosen the quick-and-easy solution when its population more than trebled in a decade, fuelled partly by a revival of its famed silk industry and a burgeoning of quality schools that drew rural students.

Seeing that horizontal expansion was blocked by the Mahananda on one side and railway tracks on the other, the town turned upwardly mobile.

The newer residents crammed into the fast-sprouting high-rises and apartment blocks, especially along National Highway 34 and its neighbourhood. Real estate prices rocketed, hotels and restaurants grabbed every empty corner, and hawkers took over the pavements.

Those keen to compare the once-green town to the “tenshua aam” (non-succulent mango), the older residents’ term for prematurely ripened mangoes, may not be far out.

After all, behind the rampant carbide use lies the shrinkage of Malda district’s mango orchard area from 25,000 to 23,000 hectares in a decade, largely the fruits of the construction boom in Englishbazar, says Tushar Kanti Ghosh, retired school principal and twin-town historian.

The unplanned expansion means sewerage, sanitation and water supply have turned into problems, and the areas beyond the tracks become flood-prone. And the once mighty Mahananda, which divides Englishbazar from its east-bank twin, Old Malda, has gone bust.

Something about Old Malda resembles the river, polluted and sucked dry by Englishbazar’s growth.

The older town, which too will hold civic polls on May 30 with its 25-ward twin, has been left in the lurch. Most of its 17 wards were till recently part of gram panchayats and even now the municipality tag is a “sham”, avers Ghosh.

“Most of these areas are still predominantly rural. They hardly have any civic amenities, from basic healthcare to drinking water. Some of these so-called wards do not even have electricity,” he says.

The only trickle-down from Englishbazar to Old Malda has been the spillover population, which has built shanty towns and encroachments along the Mahananda’s eastern banks.

All in all, Old Malda, founded in 1680 and home to vintage buildings and mosques, mirrors the dwindling fortunes of what the district is best known for: the legendary Malda mango.

The fruit that once offered over a hundred varieties now comes in less than 60. Residents and mango research experts rue the drastic drop in quality, thanks to the carbide, insecticides and off-season harvest of the two-yearly crop. In 2009, production hit a record low.

“Englishbazar and Old Malda used to be dominated by greenery. With the amount of orchards being cut down and global warming to boot, what else can you expect?” says archaeologist and historian Kamal Basak, 72.

“The fruit now sells because of the Malda name but the quality is nowhere compared to what it was even 20 years ago.”

In contrast, Englishbazar’s vertical journey reflects that of the district’s other meal-provider. Malda district produces 90 per cent of Bengal’s raw silk, and the Rs 1,000-crore industry has regained momentum over the past few years.

The raised import duty on Chinese silk was a key reason, says Azizur Rahman, owner of Starling Silk Mills in Shujapur, 15km out of town.

“The silk industry has two segments: spun silk and reel silk. Spun silk was introduced here in 1994, and we have been able to move 90 per cent of spun silk production from Karnataka to Malda,” Rahman says.

“Reel silk production has increased too, and rearing of silkworm cocoon has gone up in Himachal, Maharashtra and Andhra, with 90 per cent of the produce coming to Malda.”

Even the production of mulberry leaves, which silkworms feed on, has picked up from April after the dip last year.

But while Murshidabad is famous for its silk saris, Malda’s silk industry has been less well-known to city slickers because the district lagged in finished products. Since 2000, though, the local factories have been making kurtas, shirts, carpets and even curtains, doormats and quilts, says Kalyan Banik at Starling.

“Since 2004-05, over 30,000 silk workers had migrated to Gujarat because they were not getting the right prices here,” Rahman says, hoping they would now return.

The immigrants from across the Bangladesh border keep coming, anyway, in search of work at the mango orchards and sericulture farms, some say — a claim many are ready to dispute.

The other prime reason for Englishbazar’s bursting population is the influx of village students attracted by the likes of Malda Zilla School, Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Vidyamandir, St Xavier’s School, Barlow Girls’ High School and North Point English Academy.

So the number of vehicles, especially two-wheelers, is spiralling and causing traffic jams on a scale unimaginable a decade ago. Cycle rickshaws, cycle vans, private cars and taxis honk and holler for space in the narrow inner roads and the congested Ramkrishna Pally stretch along NH34.

Only some of the older colonies like Ghoshpara retain their old charm, their narrow alleyways still flanked by single-storey structures sporting handmade glazed tiles.

But the whirligig of change has invaded all spheres: the civic body of Congress-ruled Englishbazar has in recent years been as quick to switch hands as that of Old Malda, now an island of RSP-CPM control amid a sea of anti-Left support.

So at 4am, as Englishbazar wakes to a humid dawn, the tea stalls near the bus stops on NH34, north Bengal’s lifeline which cuts through the town, are already abuzz. The cycle rickshaws compete for the passengers getting off the overnight buses.

If the highway is busy all day, it’s groaning at night with every kind of vehicle moving up or down, ferrying passengers or goods from this “Gateway of north Bengal” to all parts of the country.

Just one thing hasn’t changed: from the twin towns, the carriers still take away silk and mangoes.