PRISONERS OF THE PAST
Four years after the exchange of enclaves between Bangladesh and India, the new citizens of India are still waiting for basic rights
Four years after the exchange of enclaves between Bangladesh and India, the new citizens await their basic rights
AT THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT ON JULY 31, 2015, 51 enclaves in Bangladesh were celebrating becoming a part of India. After decades of stateless existence, their inhabitants finally had a homeland. The landmark Land Boundary Agreement signed in 1974 had finally come into force, and 162 pockets of land that existed as enclaves in Indian and Bangladeshi territories were merged with the countries that surrounded them. To mark the day, they sang the national anthem, distributed sweets, the festivities lasting for days. Voter ID cards, Aadhaar cards and some ration cards were promptly distributed since the state assembly election was around the corner. The new Indian citizens looked forward to a future filled with hope and possibilities.
Almost four years later, they are still fighting for proper documentation, land allotment, infrastructure and access to sanitation and benefits from various government schemes, such as the Kanyashree Prakalpa, incentivising a child’s higher secondary education, or Yuvashree, to provide financial assistance to young job seekers. For a while, government funds were available to build pucca structures like Integrated Child Development Services centres, community development centres, solar irrigation pumps and greenhouses, but most of these are now defunct. Thirty tube wells installed in Batrigachh, a former enclave which is now part of West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, in 2018, have long stopped working, as have half the solar panels meant to power the irrigation pumps.
“The government spent five lakh rupees to build [a greenhouse] without training us on how to use it. They should have used the money for building toilets instead,” says Bipin Chandra Barman of Bakalichhara, another former chhit (as the enclaves are called), which houses 215 families but only 704 voters. Batrigachh residents, too, are facing similar quandaries. “The block development officer (BDO) came the other day and threatened to arrest us for defecating in the open. I asked him what we were supposed to do in the absence of even a single toilet here in our chhit of 238 families,” says Noor Haq. Since the district administration had already declared Cooch Behar district, of which Batrigachh is now a part, ‘Nirmal Bangla’ (being 100 per cent free from open defecation) in 2017, Haq was publicly reprimanded by BDO Souvik Chanda for his impertinent question.
Under Mission Nirmal Bangla, essentially a rebranding of the Swachh Bharat Mission by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, an individual is supposed to get a subsidy of Rs 12,000 for a constructed toilet, with the Centre and the state sharing the funds in the ratio of 75:25. The funds are yet to trickle down to the enclaves. The one or two toilets constructed have been built by individuals who bore the whole cost themselves by taking out loans or mortgaging a portion of their land to the local sanitaryware shop.
Chanda admitted that the erstwhile enclaves could not be covered under Mission Nirmal Bangla because the baseline survey for toilets was conducted in 2012 when they were not a part of the Indian territory. “We have just completed
“Yes, we have voter ID and Aadhaar cards, but we’re still foreigners on our own land” MOHAMMAD ALI, Fisherman in Batrigachh chhit
the survey of the houses left out. It will take time,” says Chanda. He has no answer as to why no action was taken in the past three years since the exchange of enclaves.
NO COUNTRY FOR NEW CITIZENS
Four years after getting the status of Indian citizens— Aadhaar cards and voter IDs—Batrigachh residents are still running from pillar to post to meet their basic needs. Politicians have little time and no interest in addressing their concerns since out of the population of 14,215 in the 51 enclaves spread over an area of 7,110.02 acres, only some 8,000 are registered voters. The enclave dwellers are yet to receive job cards, pensions, unemployment allowances, widow allowances and other social benefits from government schemes. “Yes, we have a voter ID card and an Aadhaar card, but we are still the outsiders, foreigners on our own land,” says 82-year-old Mohammad Ali from Batrigachh, while repairing his fishing net, his main source of sustenance. Ali was a prominent spokesman for the inhabitants of the enclaves, pressing for both countries to complete the exchange and has, over the years, faced it all—humiliation, harassment, bullying from the Border Security Force, the state police and the political leaders—all to just be recognised as a citizen of India. But citizenship has brought fresh woes.
While Bangladesh has completed the process of land distribution among the residents of the former Indian enclaves it acquired by July 31, 2016, West Bengal has been more lackadaisical about integrating its new citizens and their lands.
Within a few weeks of being issued identity cards, people saw that their IDs were full of errors, which made getting a job difficult. “For most of us, the first letter of our names is used, N for Najemul, for instance. Employers don’t accept such cards for recruitment,” says the resident of Batrigachh. “There are few jobs for the enclave people. Local people treat us with suspicion even though we are citizens. The men are all going to Delhi, Haryana, Bengaluru and Kerala,” says Roushan, who works as a labourer in a cashew factory in Kerala.
“Our boys are not even considered for the civic police. They have set up ICDS centres but don’t employ people from within the enclaves,” says Nitai Chandra Das of Shib Prosad Mustafir chhit. The young people living in the chhits especially have a deep sense of dissatisfaction with their new lives in India and even held a demonstration last year to express their wish to go back to Bangladesh.
According to Haq, the biggest benefit of the exchange so far has been the allotment of ration cards which entitles them to subsidised ration of 15 kilos of rice and 20 kilos of wheat. “Even here, we have to shell out a portion of our ration to the ration dealer,” he says.
People of Shib Prosad Mustafir chhit, which houses 65 families, are yet to get even the ration cards. Though they have electricity in their homes, there are no street lights or pucca roads, only slim, muddy paths that become swamps during the monsoon. “Between the electric wires and poles hanging loose and the kuchcha roads, we shudder to think what will happen if the area gets one or two spells of heavy showers,” says 65-year-old Biswabandhu Barman of Shib Prosad Mustafir chhit, who maintains that his enclave is among the most neglected ones. “It’s because we support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a district which is a Trinamool Congress stronghold. We often get picked up by the police on false charges. We were not even allowed to vote during the panchayat elections,” he adds.
Though initially all the chhits suffered the same deprivation, things
“The land allotment was done in haste and just prior to the election, obviously to serve a purpose and not with serious intent” DIPTIMAN SENGUPTA, Coordinator, Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Committee
changed after the BJP increased its vote share from 10.5 per cent to 28.5 per cent in the 2016 Lok Sabha by-election in Cooch Behar. The penetration of the BJP in the former enclaves, which are spread over five assembly segments of Cooch Behar, as well as the rest of the district, might prove to be dangerous for the TMC ahead of the 2019 general election.
In enclaves with a concentration of Muslim population, such as Mashaldanga, development has been fast. According to Diptiman Sengupta, the coordinator of the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Committee, this is the TMC’s way to appease the minority group. Sengupta, an active member of the BJP now, believes this tactic will not work since a majority of the chhit people belong to the indigenous Rajbongshi tribe of North Bengal which constitutes 51 per cent of Cooch Behar’s population. “Though the Muslims constitute 28 per cent of the population, they are essentially Rajbongshis, and ethnicity cannot be ignored for religion,” says Sengupta. He added that his party is trying to cash in on the discontent among the Rajbongshis with the TMC.
Meanwhile, the TMC has begun the process of land allotment. The land distribution started only a few weeks ago even though Mamata had asked the Cooch Behar administration to speed up the process at a public meeting on October 31, 2018. But the citizens are still unhappy. “The government is giving us land without specific location and demarcation. Even the quantities distributed do not match with what we had in the enclaves,” says Ali, who says that before the exchange, he owned 96 bighas of land, most of which he had lost due to river erosion. The administration has now allotted him papers for possession of a mere six kottahs, or about 0.3 bigha.
Siddiq of Poaturkuthi enclave has been allotted 16 kottahs of land (about 0.6 bigha) whereas he used to once own nine bighas. “These are not isolated cases. There are complaints in close to 90 per cent cases. The papers or deeds handed over to them just mention the size of the land with no other specification. This land allotment was done in haste and just prior to the election, obviously to serve a purpose and not with serious intent,” says Sengupta. According to Joinal Abedin, a resident of the Madhya Mashaldanga chhit, land without ownership rights makes them ineligible for agricultural loans, kisan credit cards, potato bonds and farm subsidy.
According to TMC MLAs Rabindranath Ghosh and Udayan Guha, the BJP is trying to play with fire. “Everything will be done legally. They are trying to incite the enclave people and Rajbongshis against the Trinamool, but such cheap politics will not pay dividends,” says Guha.
COST OF CITIZENSHIP Lack of street lighting means the residents of Shib Prosad Mustafir chhit have to use lamps if they want to step out of the house after dark
EMPTY PROMISES Residents of Batrigachh stand in front of solar panels which became defunct within months of being installed