“The government sees the Sundarbans jungles, but not the human beings who reside in them,” says Gita Mridha, whose husband, a fisherman, was killed by a tiger in February 2012. Despite being eligible for compensation, Gita says she received nothing; several other women in her village too did not receive compensation after tigers killed their fishermen husbands.
“They do not forget to ask for your vote,” she adds. Gita did cast her vote. “I did my duty as a citizen,” she says. Gita is a resident of Rajat Jubilee village in the Sundarbans.
Rajat Jubilee is among 22 villages of the Lahiripur gram panchayat, in the Gosaba block of the South 24 Parganas district. Its population is mainly from the Scheduled Castes (SC).
On April 30, people from Gosaba’s villages voted in the elections for the West Bengal Assembly. Many of them live in areas adjacent to Rajat Jubilee, about 1.5-2 kilometres from the polling booth, which they covered on foot. Some traversed long distances, arriving from Kolkata and other parts of the state by train, boat and van.
Voting started at 7 a.m. and continued till 6 p.m. Some, including 95-year-old Phool Bashi and her daughter-in-law Kalpana Mondol, voted in the early hours to avoid the afternoon heat.
Beena Mridha, a resident of Rajat Jubilee, summarised the problems of her village: “There is no hospital here, only a big one in Gosaba. To reach, you need to change two boats and vans. There is the problem of tigers and crocodiles, which kill our people and cattle regularly. We are also not getting good value for our rice, just about Rs. 650 per quintal, whereas the market rate is Rs. 800 per quintal. The government was supposed to buy grain from us, but that has stopped. The food security cards are full of errors, so many of us do not even get our food entitlements. Our roads need broadening and elevating above the river level.”
Beena also laments the lack of institutions for higher education near the village. “My daughter studies in Kolkata, where we have enrolled her at great expense. There are no jobs here, other than fishing or collecting honey. ”
The polling was held at Rajat Jubilee High School. Inside the school, health workers Lokhi Howly Mondol and Ila Sarkar Mondol from Gosaba hospital were on election duty as a medical team. Lokhi said, “We give ORS [oral rehydration salts] to all voters and medicines to those who feel unwell. Some people also take medicines for the sick in their homes.”
Both women were at the venue from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Were they getting paid for this work? Lokhi said, “We do not know yet [how much we will get]. We will know once our duty is over.”
Vinod and Sabita Sardar, a couple, were also on election duty. Their task was to take care of the needs of polling officers. Vinod said, “The officers need food and refreshments. We bring them tea, coffee and cigarettes. The Sardars belong to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community and do not own any land. Their election duty designation was, strangely, ‘contingent menial’.
Coming out to vote in the sultry and humid Sundarbans is no easy feat. For some relief from the heat, locals, some affiliated to various parties, offered batasha drinks made from sugarcane and nuts to voters. Also on offer were paan and bidi .
Political parties in the fray – such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Trinamool Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party – set up mini tents where party workers helped voters match their voter identity numbers, and guided first-timers on how to vote. The tents had to be located at least 200 metres away from the polling booth.
Central Reserve Police Force personnel were present everywhere, patrolling the village and stationed at the polling booth. They refused to allow their faces to be photographed. One of them said: “We just came out for tea. If you take a picture of us sitting and relaxing under a tree, people will think we are not doing our duty.”
This article was done as part of a PARI fellowship.