ABOUT 55 km from Medinipur town and 12 km from Garbeta police station is Maita, one of the 26 villages under the Benachapra panchayat. To reach there one has to cross a 640-foot-long (192 metres) wooden bridge. Weighing over six tonnes and strong enough to support heavy vehicles, the bridge was constructed by the panchayat's residents with their own money.
Driving into Maita on a firm red-soiled road, one would not believe that before 1977 this was a completely undeveloped area with houses built with straw and practically no roads. Today all the houses in Maita, which has 312 families and a population of 1,560, are solid structures with at least tin roofs, and have electricity connections. There are hardly any landless labourers in the village.
Gour Samanta, 65, remembers the hardships of the days before the Left Front government. "You see the roads around us," Samanta said pointing to the main road and the numerous little roads connecting it, "all these were not there before the Left Front government came. During the monsoon people had to wade through water and mud, carrying their belongings on their heads. There were no shops. This place was so undeveloped that jackals used to roam around in broad daylight. Today, thanks to the Left Front government and the panchayat, the whole region has become livable." The panchayat has sunk 44 wells and 72 tubewells. Maita, which covers about 10 sq km, itself has 11 tubewells and two wells.
The 14-member Benachapra panchayat committee consists only of women - an indicator of the progress that has been made in the uplift of women in the area. Archana Rai, the Pradhan, told Frontline that since 1978 the panchayat had successfully spread literacy in all the 26 villages at a remarkable pace. There are 14 primary schools and a high school under the panchayat. Of its total population of 12,560, only 1,350 are illiterate. According to Rai, "they were too old with weak eyes. As late as 1978, the total number of illiterates were 4,065".
The school dropout rate has come down from 40 per cent before 1978 to less than 10 per cent. "Most of the dropouts are boys studying in classes between five and six. There are hardly any girls dropping out of primary schools or the high school. Before the Left Front came to power, there were only 11 primary school and one junior school up to Class VIII," said Narayan Nandi, a primary school teacher in Maita.
A large chunk of the inhabitants of Benachapra Panchayat were landless labourers before 1977. By 1985, 538 acres of cultivable land was distributed among them. Moreover, previously where only paddy was cultivated, the villagers now grow potatoes, chillies and oilseeds, to keep them occupied throughout the year. Today only about 50 people in the village are landless, mainly because they came to the village after the distribution of land was over.
Babloo Mollo, 48, of Maita remembers how life was before the Left Front came to power in 1977: "We did not have any land or even a home to call our own, and worked on other people's land for a pittance. There were days when we had to go without food. But after the Left Front came to power in 1977, and especially now, life is much better. We do not have to starve or worry about the next day's meal."
The panchayat has also been responsible for maintaining 300 acres (120 hectares) of forest. Running alongside Maita is a 32-acre mango grove, planted and maintained by the panchayat. "Last year we earned Rs.1.28 lakhs from the sale of mangoes," Rai said. The panchayat also maintains a fishery, which fetches Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000 a year. The panchayats also earn about Rs.5 lakhs as toll from the bridge. "Whatever is left after the maintenance cost of the bridge is used for the development of the villages," said Rai.
On the health front too the panchayat has made remarkable achievements. "Before 1977, cholera was endemic in the region. Today hardly 1 per cent of the people are afflicted by cholera. We have set up immunisation centres and primary health centres in every locality," said Jiten Nandi, a panchayat worker.
The achievements of Maita and its people are nothing less than magical. A region whose inhabitants could barely afford a meal a day not too long ago today look towards the future with hope and confidence.