The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 30, 2000
Speaking generally

Whose life is it anyway?
By Chanchal Sarkar

WE don’t know on what a good wicket we are, with the glossy papers and TV full of recipes and restaurants, catwalks and designer clothes, jewellery and tourist hideaways. I wish I could have taken you to Midnapore, the largest district of West Bengal which had risen in 1942 to run a "parallel government", shot three British District Magistrates and faced hails of bullets.

But to what purpose? People, men and women there, get no more that 180 days of work a year and have to spend the rest as earth-diggers or migrant labour under the pitiless sun. Their food, when they get it, is rice, and rice again with little else besides. Their homes, hovels is a better word, are thatched. Literacy is a fancy word for them, at the most they have been taught to write their name. A shop in their villages, if there was one, would have a stock worth no more than Rs 200. If they feel ill, the nearest Primary Health Centre would be 5 or 6 km away and most probably there would be no doctor or medicines there.

  The rural hospital, maybe 20 or 25 km away, is better not talked about. Anyway there would be no ambulance, no car and no telephone. This is Indian rural life in the 21st century.

I have been going to Midnapore and Bankura every year for almost four years and every year the visit makes me question as to what we are about as journalists, lawyers, doctors, chartered accountants, businessman and so on. There is no "safe" drinking water in the Midnapore villages, water is a terrible problem and the lands are arid. The poorest people are those from the tribes and low castes. Literacy among their men is small, among women negligible. What is going to happen in them in the next 25 years. Nothing much, I think.

Government schools and hospitals, be they under Left Front rule or Congress, are in a miserable state. Some NGOs are trying to work there but are always harassed. If you want to start a secondary school it needs a No Objection Certificate from the State and it may take years to come. Christian endowments probably find it easier but they are often small-minded. In a Catholic rural school run by nuns that I visited there are 250 students and 30 boarders. The children get a meal at lunch time — but only the Catholics. The Mother Superior generously asked a doctor friend and me to stay for lunch but we wouldn’t. The school fee is just Rs 10/- a month but only 100 of the 250 students pay. Of course there are church funds. But still there is some education going as the disciplined nuns are at work. In a government primary school nearby (class I to IV) the drop out rate is 50 per cent and about 90 per cent of the parents are illiterate.

Midnapore’s Rama Krishna Mission was founded in 1948. So powerful is the imprint of one person — Swami Vivekananda — that the institution still continues strongly. The Swamiji who headed the school, a youngish man of about 40, had come from the well-known Rama Krishna Mission school at Purulia. The buildings were in very good shape and the boys too. The charitable dispensary was obviously short of funds but it was clean and orderly and it worked. I saw an elderly woman who looked as if she was 25 or 30 kg in weight. A woman friend had brought her because her sons did not look after her. What could the Mission dispensary do? Give her some pills? She could not afford a food-value crammed diet. Homeopathy, which the Mission used also, could do little for her. What can India and its government do for her? The Ashram temple had a beautiful marble statue of Ramakrishna Paramhansa before which people sat in meditation or submission. What we need is a Vivekananda who would stamp his feet in angry impatience and get on with serving the needy. He would have little but contempt for our present rulers.

In a women’s village meeting they did not mention the names of the local MP or MLAs. The women at a meeting in the Jhargram village had never even heard of Geeta Mukerjee though they had heard of Indira Gandhi and Mamta Banerjee.

Denotified tribes with men and women wearing cast off clothing provided by an NGO, some homes funded by a German agency, a strenuous attempt to learn to write their names and a quite unreasonable hope that the future would be better is what we saw.