A Grassroot Struggle for Environment and Livelihood is Causing Protesters in Bhabadighi Dearly


  • September 9, 2018
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The villagers of Bhabadighi (West Bengal) have issued a leaflet explaining their opposition to a railway project that would effectively ruin the massive water-body that gave the area its name, and the adversities that they are facing as the State is punishing them for standing for their own due rights. Groundxero is publishing an English translation of the leaflet, done by Prama Mukhopadhaya. This is being published and circulated on behalf of the villagers of Bhabadighi, Goghat, Hoogly.

 

The sowing season has arrived. But the shops have stopped selling fertilizers to the farmers in Bhabadighi. Land-owners are being coerced into not employing them as share-croppers or daily labourers. Small traders are forced to sit idle as no one is ready to sell them anything. This is the extreme form of oppression the State is inflicting on the protesters of the Bhabadighi movement, since they – the villagers – have stayed firm to their stance for close to a decade now. By no means would they allow laying a new railway track over or by filling the pond named Bhabadighi, after which the area has been named. The Dighi, a natural water-body, spread over more than 20 Acres, is not only a source of their subsistence but is also a necessary component of the ecosystem in the area. Unlike what has been often portrayed by the State Govt. and the mainstream media, the villagers are not opposed to the plan of the much-required railway track. It is the sudden decision of change of route that clearly smells of corruption and nepotism that the villagers are struggling against.

The villagers of Bhabadighi have issued a leaflet explaining their opposition to the railway project. Groundxero is publishing an English translation of it so that a wider audience gets to know about this ongoing struggle.

 

Build the railway lines but keep Bhabadighi intact

We, the villagers of Bhabadighi, are standing firm against an injustice on us for the last 8 years; an injustice collectively inflicted by the ruling party and the Railway department, which will gravely impact not only us human beings, but also the whole environment of our village and its surroundings. Such is their desperation that even after implicating many villagers in false rape cases and imprisoning them, physical violence, torture and threats to kill have failed to break the villagers’ resolve, they have now appointed goons in Kamarpukur and other places to forcibly close down our shops. Those who earlier used to employ us for work in their lands in Nabasan and Golpur are being threatened to stop employing villagers from Bhabadighi. This is how they have decided to end all our means of survival. Not only have the political goons and cadres been unleashed against us, the police, the media, all have joined hands against us in this conspiracy to destroy us. In fact, our honourable MLA has openly threatened to strip the women of the village and thrash them up!

What wrong have we done? Let us state that once again, even though we have been telling it over and over again during our protests. The officials have decided to change the old plan and lay the railway line across the water-body, which means that the pond would be filled up. That we do not want Bhabadighi to be filled up is not because we are ‘obstinate’ or we want to bargain compensation package or a monetary deal.  We are protesting because there can simply be no compensation or substitute for Bhabadighi; for us it is un-substitutable. No, we have not been tutored by anyone from outside, neither are we a part of any group with vested interest in this matter. Nor are we against development. We do not have any other demands or conditions. That we demand Bhabadighi not to be filled up is our natural and simple demand, as this pond is an integral part of our existence. For us to exist, this pond must exist with us. We do have to exist, right?  Or will they kill us for their railway lines?  What would you call this? A conspiratorial movement, or a desire to live? They say, we are opposing the railway track for our own narrow selfish gains, that the railway track is in ‘larger interest’.  Can anything be larger than life itself? Bhabhadighi is our life.

Few days back, an open letter was published in ‘Lipi’ magazine against us. It suggested that we should sit and negotiate with the authority. Haven’t we already done that! Yes we did, and it was us who even compromised the last time we sat together. It was us who proposed that we give away the land in the northern side of the pond. We did it only because we too wanted the railway track, even at the cost of sacrificing the local Primary School building. We said, we would provide the land for a new school building as well. We have repeatedly asked: why was the old plan for the railway tracks changed? There has been no answer. On the contrary, the party and the government kept pressing us for letting the pond go. The role of media has been the strangest of all. We used to think that whatever the newspaper and television presented were all based on fact and true! What we have realized now is just the opposite. When the local newspapers and television channels could have helped us by showing our real concerns and voicing our true demands to people outside, they just took it on themselves to portray us in a negative light, labeling us as people against development, criminalizing us in front of the society. They are hell-bent on proving that most of the villages are annoyed with us. Most of us are daily wage labourers. We do not wish to gain sympathy projecting our caste identities. But now that we are helpless, we have no other choice but to ask the bitter question: is it because we belong to scheduled castes, and are very poor and uneducated, that we are being made to go through all this?

We had raised our complaint in a very systemic manner at first with our local MLA, right in 2012. He, at that point had showed his sympathy towards our demands. We filed a case in the court on this issue, and he was well aware of that. In 2015, when we saw the Railways constructing concrete culverts on two sides of Bhabadihi, we rushed to him and voiced our concern, to which he assured us and mockingly said that the Railways have excess money, that they are wasting it on these culverts that they would surely have to remove later. He asked us not be bothered. After the 2016 election, however, we realized that the same person, whom we had mistaken to be our leader and representative had been playing games with us all along. After this, the ruling party and our respected MLA slandered our claims and demanded: where were we, when the Railway authorities were building the culverts! They further said that we were creating trouble unfairly by protesting after the work has already progressed so much. (It needs to be mentioned here that we had raised our voice against this plan right from 2010, when there was not even a sign of the Goghat station; the Railways had not even laid the tracks up to the present Goghat station back then.) After maligning us, he led a group to our village that harassed the men and sexually abused the women. This is the role our MLA and the ruling party has played during the entire period.

Then came 16th March, 2017. In spite of the ongoing court-hearing, the administration came with its goons to fill the pond. We fought back bravely and saved it. The strength to resist on our part came solely from the depth of our relationship with the pond. It is inexplicable. It is not just about livelihood. Those who do not understand such a bond will perhaps not be able to to fully realize what is going on in our minds. It’s not like solving equations of financial profit and loss.

There is something called ‘nature’. Mutilation of nature is irreversible. Our pond belongs to nature. It’s part of our existence. We will not allow it to be destroyed.  Forget about rail lines, we will not let them lay a single piece of brick on it.

We have tried our best to explain all this to the administration. They thought, they could buy us by granting us welfare scheme benefits, which we are naturally entitled to get. Ration cards, birth certificates, toilets – these are our rights as citizens. Now we all know this. Filling up this pond and replacing it with two other new ponds is another ploy that the government is proposing, which is totally unrealistic. Nowadays with the help of the JCB monster (earth-digging and removing machine) any place can be dug up but whether that can be turned into a pond is never guaranteed. And if new ponds are dug, let them exist too, but not as a substitute to our Bhabadighi. Let the railway track be laid according to the original plan. We have no problem with the first map. Our honourable Chief Minister ‘surely’ knows how ecologically important water-bodies are, but her officials are clearly clueless. The honourable ex-DM of Hooghly, Mr. Sanjay Bansal had once said, “Let some parts of Bhabadighi be filled up, we will dig up the rest of the pond deeper to substitute for the lateral loss in its dimension, so that the water quantity remains constant’. According to him, it is the quantity of water that solely matters! A few days back, we met Mr. Bansal in a meeting that we had joined with a lot of hope. In that very meeting we heard him say that there is no problem in filling up Bhabadighi, for apparently there is no law for saving water-bodies!

Anyway, we have not taken a single rupee from the government. They went to give cheques to our sisters and aunts married off in different villages, all of whom are right-holders of Bhabadighi, so that they can later accuse us of accepting money but not giving away the pond! Also, they keep accusing us of being puppets in the hands of the opposition parties. ‘Outside masterminds’, they say, are instigating our movement. Now tell us, when they are pitting everyone – the entire administration, the media against us, if somebody else comes forward with the promise of helping us, is it unjustified to accept? At this moment, we are not concerned about what hidden agenda who might have. (In any case, we know that all parties are the same when they come to power, so we indeed take everything with a pinch of salt.) However, if any of them who are supporting us come to us seeking votes, party memberships or offering us money, we would thrash them out of the village as well. If financial gain was our intention, we would have been rich by now by selling the pond instead of spending such a miserable life, where they are cutting our source of subsistence  and mobility, almost keeping us under house-arrest.

We would like to bring one more thing to your notice: how the media is projecting a few of us to be the leaders of this protest. We say, if you need to name leaders, name all of us and write down a thousand names. Even a child born in this village is a leader, fighting for this rightful cause, for even he is a shareholder of this community pond. Hence all the villagers (except for those who have sold their soul for money) are leaders in this movement. In fact, the name ‘Bhabadighi Andolan Committee’ has no existence in reality. It is a name given by the media. There is no separate committee that excludes any one of the villagers.

Let us now turn to the lies which the print media is spreading about us. It says, we are evil and manipulative and that the administration had come to us with a bouquet of perks and perquisites – things related to our development that we had apparently asked for in earlier negotiations but later changed our minds!

Let us state this once again: we have been forever supportive of the fast construction of the railway tracks. We want to solve this impasse because we too want improved modes of transportation. It does not make life exciting for any of us to receive life threats on a regular basis. We are worried too. We used to work in people’s shops and lands. They are stopping us, ruining our livelihood! Our children need to step out of the village for their studies. We are petrified by the way women are threatened with rape and harassment in order to teach a lesson to the entire community. No one wants to live such a disturbed life.

Hence, we want the authority to stop playing hide-n-seek with us. Sit with us and face us. The information that the administration would be coming to meet us on the 22nd of June was not given to us directly. We gathered this from the local journalists. Only a day before the date of the meeting did the local police station OC finally come to us with the information! This information was supposed to be written in Bangla and reach each of our households. Nothing like that happened. The OC himself would not have come unless we made it known that we would boycott the meeting if not formally invited. In the meeting, we initially saw the presence of a large number of goons from outside. We protested, and only after they left did we started the conversation. With a lot of patience, we kept repeating the one question we had: why did the original plan for laying the railway track change? Obviously, we received no concrete answer. The same old story of ‘development’ was reiterated to us by the Boro and Mejo Babus (administrative heads of various status) as well as the saffron Maharaj (a monk from Ramkrishna Mission brought in to convince the villagers)! Incidentally, our kids were made to clean the school for these ‘guests’ on a school holiday! At such a moment, one of the villagers got irritated and sarcastically commented, “Fine, bring us a list of all your development schemes in black-n-white”, to which everyone – the media and the officials – felt that we agreed to fill up our pond! Alas, we have been trying to raise our voices for one entire decade to these same deaf ears, whereas one stray comment from a villager, and they conveniently think that we have changed our decision!

As soon as the list of welfare schemes reached us through the OC Goghat, we immediately told him that we will not be accepting any of these. Our only demand is the construction of the tracks without destroying our pond. Here it needs to be mentioned, that school-girls from our village have already been threatened by their teachers in schools of not getting any benefits of Kanyashree (a social welfare scheme from the State Govt. for girl students), if we do not give away the pond. Now if the administration suddenly decides to give us all the benefits that we are anyway entitled to get, does that not mean that the government is accepting the fact that we have been deprived of our rightful claims to development for so long?

Yet, a few words must be said about this list. Apart from mentioning some very basic benefits that we are anyway entitled to, the list had two more points:

  1. A railway station is to be built at Bhabadighi

We want to say, that if the Railways think that Bhabadighi is a rightful place for the construction of a railway station, do go ahead.  But please do not do so just to bribe us.

  1. The land beside the proposed Bhabadighi station is to be allotted to the people of Bhabadighi through lottery and shops will be built for them.

We would like to respond that we believe lottery is nothing but playing on human luck. We do not believe in such luck games! No problem can ever be solved in that manner. Such lucky draws are not even seen favourably in our society. We might be poor, but we can work hard. If we win this movement, it will not be because of our luck, but because of the strength in our conviction, which has emerged out of our true love for nature and our community. Hence, we will not fall prey and will not be a party to your luck-based lottery games! We do not have the stomach or the time for it.

A group of government officials came to our village on the morning of 14th July. We had no prior information about this either. We had by then become frustrated, repeating the same thing over and over again. We would say something, and they would make something else out of it – we were weary of that process, and hence refused to meet them. But we met them in the evening the same day when they came back again. We are not against discussions and lack of courtesy is not in our nature. What we came to know from them was that the DM of our district had changed, and the new DM had sent his officials to gather information about the entire tussle all over again, afresh! We again repeated all that we had been repeating to them!

The schools in our village have remained closed days after days only because the administration has been distributing their development packages from those school buildings! During the discussion with the local government officials, the mothers of the primary students could not contain their concern and rage at this issue any longer. How does it make sense anywhere in the world for the administration to be distributing clothes while hampering the education of young children, we wonder!

Surprisingly, the media started branding us as a bunch of ungrateful folks. While the Babus are trying their best to accommodate us with the railway tracks, we are the ones creating problems, they said. That they were supposedly there to talk to us about development and compensation packages – as portrayed by the media – was an utter lie! If that be so, why did trucks loaded with construction material and cars full of policemen come to the village in the name of a meeting to discuss development!

The honourable High Court of West Bengal has stated that since the Supreme Court has not been able to come to a unanimous decision on the section 226 of the 2013 Land Acquisition Act on the right amount and transparency of compensation for land acquisition, our Bhabadighi case cannot be resolved right away. Thus, a stay order is presently laid on this matter. The HC has further suggested that we could appeal to the SC, if we wished. But we are hardly able to afford the charges of SC.

We would urge all of you to come and without any bias try to understand why we, a handful of common people, are sticking to our demands despite facing so much trouble. You may be feeling angry and disgusted at us since the kind of news that has reached you via the media has portrayed us as misguided agents of ‘anti-development’. But we have enough faith in your independent judgmental capacity. Once you really get acquainted with our case, we are sure that you would realize how necessary this movement is, especially with the rising degradation in environmental matters across the world.

Railway tracks shouldn’t follow a serpentine path as that enhances the possibility of accidents. Trust us, we have seen with our own eyes, how engineers came to survey the lands before the first map was made. They made marks on the trees – 300 meters north of Bhabadighi (the pond), beside the fields for farming and grazing. We ask once again:  why was the original route changed and the tracks diverted over the vast water-body? Doesn’t it imply increasing the expense of the project (coming from all our taxes) by building three new culverts? By increasing the possibility of accidents, by filling up a large pond, by reducing the speed of the train, by increasing the time taken by the train to cover the distance between Bhabadighi (Hooghly) and Bishnupur (Bankura) stations, what benefit will the State Govt. get such that they are so adamant on the need to change the old plan? Who all will be benefiting from it? For whose benefit is this government so relentlessly trying to destroy us? Do you have the answers to our questions? If you do, let us know. If you don’t, join us in our quest for getting these answers. Please do not tell us, like the political leaders did: “Where will the rail-line be constructed then? In the sky?”

In current times, when so much of new research and innovations are taking place all across the world, with new technologies coming in, can’t the Railways administration and the state government not think of any ‘alternatives’! This leaves us wondering whether the authorities sincerely want to build this track at all, or are they using us as scapegoats in their intention of preventing the spread of ‘development’ in our state!

 

Prama Mukhopadhaya is a research scholar pursuing PhD at the Delhi School of Economics.

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