Jharkhand’s rice bowl seeks water and security

Bahragora/Chakulia (Jharkhand), Nov 25 (Inditop.com) This small town in the middle of Jharkhand’s rice bowl, just 30 km from Lalgarh, the Maoist battleground in West Bengal, is thirsty for water, funds and an honest administration, as the state starts its five-phase assembly polls Wednesday.

Bahragora and Chakulia, the two blocks which make up one assembly constituency in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, border West Bengal on one side and Orissa on the other.

The two together produce nearly 70 percent of the state’s rice and 50 percent of its washing soap bars, cheap varieties made locally.

While Chakulia with its 59 rice mills processes the grain, Bahragora supplies the paddy. However, the once verdant green blocks now sport a mottled shade of arid brown and yellow.

The area is the hunting ground of Maoists and politicians alike. While politicians are busy mobilising voters along caste lines, the Maoists — on the run from neighbouring Midnapore district in West Bengal — are on an overdrive to consolidate their base here.

Local rice millers and soap factory owners allege the Maoists extract protection money from them.

Voting in this constituency is scheduled for Dec 12.

Almost all the parties have promised to remove corruption, improve the law and order situation and agriculture, ensure power supply and create more employment and education opportunities and empower women in their manifestos.

The two blocks were Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongholds for the last 10 years and a Communist bastion for 20 years before it. This time the Congress is trying to make inroads into the area, and insiders say they are part of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign roadmap.

Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has also fielded a candidate. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) is also in the fray.

However, according to old-timers and party insiders — cutting across ideologies — the unwritten whip is that “the party that will shelter the Naxals (Maoists) and allow them free passage through the blocks to Orissa and West Bengal will win”.

The Maoists have “large support bases among the local residents”, admitted several political workers.

Chakulia, which is home to jailed Maoist leader Chatradhar Mahto’s brother, was “one of the safest hideouts of the Naxal leader”, a senior resident of Bahragora told Inditop.

“Water is the biggest problem here. Large tracts of Bahragora have been affected by drought. Rainfall over the last two years has been scanty. Thirty-six lift irrigation points along the Subarnarekha river have been lying defunct for the last 30 years. They were built during former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure.

“We now depend on hand pumps which do not function because of erratic power. We do not need check dams that are being built under the multi-crore Subarnarekha multipurpose project. We want lift irrigation points restored. The fertile land along the Subarnarekha river is turning fallow,” Sridhar Kumar Panda, president of the block Kisan Cell, told IANS.

The clamour for irrigation water resonates across the block. “In 1999, the Central Groundwater Board had promised to dig tubewells across the two blocks — each with a capacity to irrigate 200 acres.

“A team from the centre visited the district and managed to dig only one tubewell in 10 years at Kalapatra in Chakulia,” Chittaranjan Ghosh, a local resident, told Inditop.

Add to this inefficiency the culture of cuts and kickbacks. “I wanted to dig a borewell on my 20-acre farm, but the Jharkhand State Electricity Board wanted Rs.50,000 to provide power connection,” farmer Jagapati Ghosh said.

“The block administration even wants money to issue death certificates,” he said, adding that bank loans are difficult to come by for farmers because “of lack of guarantors”.

“The rice trade is controlled by middlemen. Most of the farmers are very poor. Two months ago, the government set up an FCI (Food Corporation of India) godown at Bahragora, but the farmers cannot sell their grain directly,” said Panda.

“They have to wait for at least four days before they can sell — while the middlemen sell their stock faster. The touts buy grain at Rs.800 per quintal from the farmers and sell it at Rs.1,050, which is the standard government rate.

“Truckloads of seeds disappear every year without being accounted for. The middlemen work hand in glove with the police and block officials. We need a clean representative who can implement development and infrastructure projects to boost grain production and marketing.”

“The demography of the area is complex. Thirty-five percent of the population are Adivasis (tribals), 10 percent Mahtos and the remaining 55 percent from Bengal and Orisa,” Sandeep Ghosh, whose family has been staying in the area for 400 years, told IANS.