Battered but still balloting, Sundarbans shows way

By Sabyasachi Roy, IANS,

Gosaba (West Bengal) : They say their lives are as hollow as the promises of politicians. But, walking on treacherous terrain or ferried by boat, as many as 85 percent of voters in the Sunderbans region of West Bengal cast the ballot hoping it would improve their world.

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Battered by cyclone Aila two years ago, the residents of the world’s largest delta are still picking up the pieces, many are yet to be compensated. Yet they reaffirmed their faith in democracy by voting in third phase of assembly polls Wednesday.

“Every year votes come and go, politicians make tall promises, but most of the promises are as hollow as our lives,” Dinabandhu Mete of Gosaba, one of the worst hit areas, told IANS.

“The Aila devastated large tracts of land rendering thousands homeless. Although several lakhs of rupees are said to have been allotted by the government, the majority of affected people are yet to get compensation.”

For people here, exercising their franchise was not an easy affair. For some, it was a walk down three or four kilometres along river embankments. In a few remote areas, people had to sail to reach the polling stations located in big islands.

The area is crisscrossed by narrow creeks and water channels. Yet traverse these, they did. In some constituencies like Raidighi and Patharpratima, the voting percentage was as high as 90 percent, said Sundarbans Affairs Minister Kanti Ganguly.

Ganguly’s own constituency of Raidighi was a star seat as he faced competition from hugely popular actress Debasree Roy.

At Basanti, Irrigation and Waterways Minister Subhas Naskar faced Arnab Ray of the Trinamool Congress.

These are among the 13 constituencies spread over the two districts of North and South 24 Parganas in the Sundarbans, with an approximate voter strength of 28 lakh.

Rehabilitation after Aila was certainly an election issue.

Residents say nothing concrete has been done to repair the damaged embankments. People live in constant fear of another such cyclone taking away what remains.

Prabhudan Halder of Basanti said some infrastructural work had been undertaken, resulting in better communication. But nothing was done to repair the embankments and rehabilitate the affected.

“Definitely post-Aila, rehabilitation of people was a major election issue,” said Tushar Kanjilal, widely recognised for his pioneering work as a teacher and a development leader.

“Since 1966 I have been active in the Sunderbans. The situation was grim at that time with no means of communications and infrastructure. However, with time there has been some development with several bridges, jetties, schools and health centres coming up,” Kanjilal told IANS.

The remote areas of Gosaba, Basanti, Kultali, Patharpratima, Sagar, Kakdwip, Kulpi, Hingalganj, Sandeshkhali and Haroa – located in the South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts – are accessible only by boats.

“Some 20 years back, it was next to impossible for people to cast their vote. The polling booths are now located in school buildings – a far cry from the time when polling centres were housed on big-sized boats and people used to cast their votes on the floating vessel,” said Kanjilal.

In Gosaba, long queues were noticed in all 324 booths. In some booths, women voters outnumbered the men. Polling was peaceful,” Gosaba block development officer Amiyabhusan Chakraborty told IANS.

The picture was similar in Basanti and Kultali blocks. Voters were found travelling in small motor-fitted boats and van rickshaws to reach polling stations.

“In many cases, political parties arranged transportation to bring voters from remote areas,” Aminuddin Sardar of Basanti told IANS.