MGNREGA, MGNREGA workers, MGNREGA payments, Bengal tribal belt, Lok Sabha Elections 2024, Jhargram, Bankura, Purulia, Indian express news, current affairs

Near a memorial to Umakanta Mahato in Birihanri village in Jhargram district in West Bengal, a group of farm workers are sitting in blazing sun. Umakanta was a Maoist leader shot dead by security forces in 2010.

“Maoists are gone, then came the TMC, and then the BJP from this region. Maoists got jobs (following their surrender) and the kin of those they killed also got jobs. But little changed for us. Now 100-day work (under MGNREGA) is also stopped for more than two years. The situation has gone from bad to worse,” says Sukamar Mahato, a 47-year-old worker belonging to the Kudmi (Scheduled Caste) community.

Travel through the tribal-dominated Jangalmahal region in South Bengal – which witnessed Maoist insurgency in 2009-11 – shows that employment and water scarcity remain major concerns for its inhabitants, including tribals and other sections like Kudmis.

The Jangalmahal region comprises four Lok Sabha constituencies – Jhargram (ST-reserved), Bankura, Purulia and Bishnupur (SC-reserved) – which are going to polls on May 25.

In the Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia seats, tribals make up about 15%, 11% and 18% of the voters respectively, with Kudmis accounting for nearly 35%, 35% and 10%.

In 2019, the BJP had won all the four seats.

Festive offer

This time, in a bid to emerge as a political player in the region, the Kudmi community has fielded its candidates from the Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia seats as Independents under the aegis of the Adivasi Kudmi Samaj (AKS) — hoping for a fillip to their demand for ST status.

Jhargram: plea for jobs

“Free ration and little money from Lakshmir Bhandar (state government’s monthly dole for women) are not enough, nor the solution. The government should set up factories here,” says Bachchu Murmu, 37, in Birihanri village.

About 16 km away, in Amlia village in the Lalgarh area, lies the two-storey house of Chhatradhar Mahato, former leader of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), who has been out of prison on bail on the condition that he will not enter the Jangalmahal region. Both Chhatradhar and his wife are now with the TMC, while their two sons have got government jobs.

“My wife has BA and B.Ed degrees, yet she is without any job. And, half the crops which I grow are destroyed by wild elephants.” says Joydeb Mahato, a farmer in Amlia village.

Standing beside him, another farmer, Tapan Giri, whose elder brother was killed by Maoists, says: “The prices of fertilisers and seeds increase every year. Farming is no longer profitable. And we haven’t had 100-day work (scheme) for over two years. What would we do then?”

It is the same story in Chhotopelia village, whose resident Haripada Soren says, “Most of our youths migrate, to adjoining districts like East Burdwan and West Burdwan or other states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, where we earn at least Rs 400 per day. I had to stop sending my two daughters to school.”

In Jhargram, the BJP’s Pranat Tudu is locked in a keen fight with the TMC’s Kalipada Soren, while Sonamani Tudu of the CPM, which is fighting in alliance with the Congress, is also in the fray.

In 2019, the BJP’s Kunar Hembram had defeated the TMC’s Birbaha Soren by just 11,767 votes.

Bankura: Kudmi factor

In the neighbouring Bankura seat, the AKS’s candidate, Surojit Singh Kurmali, is campaigning in Haludkanali area.

“Our demands include ST status for Kudmis and inclusion of Kurmali language in 8th Schedule. We have been agitating since 2017… We will also fight the Assembly polls in 2026,” Surojit, 47, tells The Indian Express.

This is the first time that a Kudmi body has fielded its own candidates, which may have implications for the leading contenders.

About 10 km from Haludkanali, at Khatra, several locals voice their grievances.

“We don’t have pucca houses or proper drinking water for good roads. Only free ration and Lakshmir Bhandar don’t fulfill all our needs,” says Kalpana Soren, 38.

In Bankura, the BJP’s incumbent MP, Subhas Sarkar, is taking on the TMC’s Arup Chakraborty and the CPM’s Nilanjan Dasgupta. In 2019, Subhas had defeated TMC heavyweight Subrata Mukherjee by 1.74 lakh votes.

Purulia: migration woes

Many male residents of Fultar village in Manbazar-I block in Purulia district have migrated for work to nearby areas which have brick-kilns, or to Pune and Gujarat.

Lakshmi Murmu and her husband work in a brick-kiln, while their son Krishna works in Hyderabad. “For making a thousand bricks, we get Rs 800. We make 300-400 bricks a day,” says Lakshmi.

A similar situation prevails across the area. A resident of Ramaidi village in Puncha block, Kamala Mahato, 52, says: “Here we make baskets and other things from bamboo. But, that hardly earns us Rs 2,000-3,000 per month. Our sons have all migrated.”

Another villager from Ramaidi, Dhol Gobinda Mahato says, “At least one man each from 100 families of the total 150 in this village has migrated for work.”

In Purulia town, senior Kudmi leader and AKS’s candidate Ajit Mahato, 70, is getting ready to go out for canvassing. “We do not know whether we will win or lose, but we will fight for our demands. Now, seeing our motivation and popularity, other parties are scared,” Ajit tells The Indian Express.

All over Jangalmahal, the Kudmi outfit’s yellow flags are seen in proximity to the flags of the TMC, BJP, CPM and Congress. Hundreds of youths in motorbikes have been campaigning for the AKS’s faces.

In Purulia, sitting BJP MP Jyotirmoy Mahato is pitted against the TMC’s Shantiram Mahato, the Congress’s Nepal Mahato and the Forward Bloc’s Dhirendranath Mahato. In 2019, Jyotirmoy had clinched the seat against the TMC’s candidate by a margin of about 2.04 lakh votes.

By qhfmb

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