Road to progress

Print edition : August 22, 2014

The road to Nalbagla. Before 2008, this road did not exist, and Nalbagla, though a mere 55 km away from the capital, Agartala, remained one of the most inaccessible parts of Tripura.

The State has 30 hostel-cum-schools for Classes 1 to 5 for girls who come from the poorest sections of society living in remote areas. Here, in a hostel in Ashighar village in West District.

The Industrial Training Institute at Khumulung. There was a time when Khumulung practically became an extremists' headquarters. But in the streets where once fear stalked, youngsters now travel to vocational training institutes and schools and colleges.

The Khumpui community hall, which was built in Ashighar in 2006 four years after a child was killed by extremists. It signalled the arrival of development in the region and became a symbol of social resistance against the extremists.

The footbridge at Briddhi Bazaar, the latest hamlet in the hilly Jampuijala block of Sipahijala district.

A health sub-centre In Jampuijala block.

A commemorative sign at Dushmanta Narayan Para marking the massacre of its residents by extremists on January 26, 2003.

THE road to Nalbagla village is undulating and meanders like a lazy rivulet through the hilly forest area of Mandai block in West Tripura district. Though not broad, it is smooth and wide enough to allow two cars to pass. This 20-kilometre road is the lifeline of the people of Nalbagla and others who live in the region as it is the only route to the Mandai market and the block headquarters. Before 2008, it did not exist and Nalbagla, a mere 55 km from the capital, Agartala, remained one of the most inaccessible parts of Tripura.

The villagers recall a time when venturing out in the night meant travelling in a group with burning torches in hand for fear of wild animals. They are, in fact, referring to a period as recent as the year 2000. Such has been the development in Nalbagla in the past six years that the backwardness of the recent past seems like a distant memory. Today, the village has electricity, running water, schools and, most importantly, a road that is taking them down the path of progress.

“Earlier, a trip to the market to sell our produce took two days. Now, after the road came, we use our own vehicles to go and return the same day. Earlier, we would have water drawn from crude wells, and water-related diseases were endemic in the region; now we get clean water supply,” said Rabindra Debbarman, a resident of the village.

A brief shower had reduced the temperature, but he nevertheless brought out a brand new table fan from indoors and plugged it in for our benefit. In the next room, Purnima Debbarman and her two little boys were watching an afternoon serial on the television set her husband bought a couple of months ago. Reluctantly, she left the serial to speak to us. “Life was hard earlier. The women had to go a long way to get water. Just to buy provisions was an ordeal; and the worst was when the children fell ill as there was no road to take them to hospital,” she said.

It is in the words of the residents of Nalbagla that one can find an answer to the mystery of the repeated electoral success of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in Tripura. At a time when the CPI(M) and other Left parties have suffered major electoral setbacks in Kerala and West Bengal, in the tiny, impoverished State of Tripura the Left is getting stronger with every passing election, defying all laws of anti-incumbency.

In 2013, the Left Front returned to power for the fifth consecutive time with an overwhelming majority. In 2014, not only did it retain the two Lok Sabha seats of the State, winning with greater margins, but it secured a landslide victory in the recently concluded three-tier panchayat elections, in which it won 563 out of the 591 gram panchayats.

No to paribartan

Politically, linguistically and culturally Tripura and West Bengal have close ties. For most of the past 37 years, the two States had CPI(M)-led Left Front governments—for 34 years in West Bengal and 31 in Tripura. But as things stand today, the two could not be more different politically. While in West Bengal the Left was ousted by the Trinamool Congress, with its chief Mamata Banerjee giving a call for paribartan (change), in Tripura paribartan meant no other alternative but a “better Left Front”.

Ratan Debnath, 42, a rickshaw driver in Agartala, put it plainly: “We do not want paribartan, we want unnayan [development]. We have peace, security and a future for our children.” Though poverty prevented him from pursuing his own studies beyond Class 6, both his children go to school. His daughter, like all girls from the weaker section of society in the State, gets a stipend and free books. Moreover, once she goes to Class 9, the State government will provide her a bicycle. “If I were young in this era, I would have been able to complete my school education,” said Ratan.

Conspicuous by their absence are beggars and homeless people, both in Agartala and rural Tripura. People Frontline spoke to said they had not seen anyone begging in the past three years. “Why should there be beggars? We have ensured that no one dies of hunger; no one has to sell her child because of poverty; no one has to leave the State for want of a livelihood. What good is a Left Front government if it cannot ensure this?” Chief Minister Manik Sarkar told Frontline. In fact, owing to the successful implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the various employment schemes of the State government such as the Tripura Urban Employment Programme (TUEP), finding a domestic help in the city has been getting increasingly difficult. “This is why a section of society is furious with us now,” said the Chief Minister with mock seriousness. In fact, for four years in a row, Tripura has topped the list in the country in the implementation of the MGNREGS.

In a nutshell, one may say that tremendous development at the grass-roots level and constant effort at poverty alleviation have been the root causes of the CPI(M)’s success in Tripura. But the development was only possible after the ruling party overcame multilayered hurdles.

Insurgent menace

Impoverished, food-deficit, Tripura, with a woeful lack of infrastructure, was severely affected by extremist menace for decades. In fact, most of the development started around 2006, after the State government overcame the menace of separatist extremists who had for long, by use of arms, kept the tribal areas backward. Much of the funds that were allocated to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC)—the elected and autonomous tribal administrative body —for social and infrastructure development were plundered by the extremists.

The recent history of Tripura is one of violence and killings. In Ashighar village in West District stands a community hall (a common feature in rural Tripura) called Khumpui, meaning a small flower. The hall was named after a six-month-old baby girl of the region who was killed in 2002 by members of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), who repeatedly dashed her to the ground. Her fault: She was a CPI(M) worker’s daughter. The community hall, which was built in 2006, four years after the incident, signalled the beginning of development in the region, and it became a symbol of social resistance against the extremists. Today, barely 100 metres from the hall stands a hostel-cum-school (for Classes 1 to 5) for girls who come from the poorest sections of society with homes in remote areas. The TTAADC takes care of the education and upkeep of these children. The village where a girl child was killed for her father’s ideology today shelters poor small children from faraway places and guides them to a future their parents never had. No amount of government propaganda or statistics can speak louder than the presence of this hostel in the region. There are 30 such schools across the State.

About 10 km from here stands the small village of Dushmanta Narayan Para. On January 26, 2003, at around 7-30 p.m., the lights went out, and in the sudden darkness they came in hordes, broke into the houses and opened fire indiscriminately. Eleven villagers, including two infants, were killed in this cold, calculated slaughter by extremists. There is a black plaque on a small plot of land in memory of those killed that evening. Five years later, in 2008, adjacent to that plot of land, a shop came up that today sells refrigerators, dish antennae, LCD television sets, and other electronic products. Gautam, the man who owns the shop, lost a cousin in that massacre. “Those days of terror are gone. People here now live without fear,” he said.

Fear was something that Budulaxmi Debbarma and other women of Janme Joynagar village had to live with for years. The village, which is near Khumulung town, the headquarters of the TTAADC, was caught in the crossfire of a deadly conflict between two extremist groups—the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the NLFT. “We could not even go outside. If one group forced us at gunpoint to give them food, the next the day we would face the wrath of the other group. Our menfolk were lined up and beaten mercilessly,” Budulaxmi recalled. Today, she works in a rubber plantation. Incidentally, Tripura is the second highest producer of rubber in the country after Kerala. A large number of rubber plantations and tea gardens have come up at the State government’s initiative to promote small businesses, which in turn generate local employment.

There was a time when Khumulung practically became an extremists’ headquarters. But in the streets where once fear stalked, youngsters now travel to vocational institutes and schools and colleges. In fact, in and around Khumulung, there is an Industrial Training Institute (ITI), which was established last year, and a degree college. A large polytechnic college is coming up in the region.

Today, Tripura boasts a school in every hamlet. The State has indeed come a long way from a time in the recent past when inaccessibility and extremist menace prevented schools from functioning properly and deterred teachers from taking up assignments. There are 6,000 primary and higher secondary schools and more than 10,000 pre-primary schools spread across the State. All “below poverty line” children are given free books until Class 12, and girl students are given bicycles when they reach Class 9 in order to encourage them to continue studies.

There is no area in Tripura, however remote, that has remained outside the ambit of development. Briddhi Bazaar, the last hamlet in the hilly Jampuijala block of Sipahijala district, is a case in point. The road ends at Briddhi Bazaar, and beyond it are the hills. Even though the road up to this point is not yet fully laid, there stands a concrete footbridge that connects the villages beyond to other areas. The entire region was a hotbed of extremist activities. “The women here were scared to leave their houses. We could not earn any money as we could not sell our products. Now we are all doing very well. This government has given us peace,” said Sambhulaxmi, who had come down from her village in the hills to attend a meeting called by the local CPI(M) committee. She has two daughters, one of whom is in Class 10. “I want her to work in an office one day,” she said.

One of the biggest achievements of the Left Front has been ensuring peace and harmony in spite of the conflicting interests of the various ethnic and religious communities in the State. Selim Miya, 48, a small trader in the Muslim village of Chandranagar, feels that not just Muslims, but all communities are happy in the State. He told Frontline: “This government has shown us the path to dream. My father did not know how to write his name; I myself could study only up to Class 8; but I feel proud that my elder son is in college. We have peace, security and work. What more can we ask for?”

The development work has raised the aspirations of the people of Tripura, particularly the younger generation. Tripura today has a literacy rate of 96 per cent as against 55 per cent in 1993, when the Left Front returned to power after a term out of office. Priyanka Akhtar, a Class 10 student in Chandranagar, wants to be a doctor. Her father sells milk at the local village market. “I have not told him of my ambition, but I know he will be happy to hear it,” she said. Similarly, Rabindra Debbarman, though a labourer, has put his daughter in an English-medium school run by the TTAADC. However, with greater aspirations come greater expectations. Sanbul Kaipeng, who comes from the remote, backward village of Tiulaipara, feels that even though the government has done good work, there are many areas that still need to be developed. “Even now, my village is backward and largely inaccessible,” he said. But it is a point to note that Sanbul is a third-year student of B.Com in a college in Agartala.

Electoral reward

The State government’s focus on grass-roots-level development and poverty alleviation has paid the Left Front rich electoral dividend. The tribal and rural poor form the backbone of its political support. In the 2013 Assembly elections, out of the 20 seats that fall under the TTAADC area (which covers around a third of the State), the Left won 19; out of the 25 seats that come under the panchayat area, it won 22, and out of the 15 urban seats, it won nine.

Such success is not possible from development and good administration alone. The very perception of the CPI(M) and its leader, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, has contributed in equal measure to the Left Front’s increasing popularity. “We have no one to complain against the CPI(M), except to the party itself,” said a tribal villager. This is significant, as it implies the individual’s complete faith in the ruling party.

“The people of Tripura do not look at us as government, but as dear ones,” Jitendra Chowdhury, the CPI(M)’s Lok Sabha member from East Tripura, told Frontline. But at the root of the party’s mass appeal is the figure of Manik Sarkar, the architect of Tripura’s growth. “He [Manik Sarkar] is the unifying factor both in the State and in the party. Even though it is his vision that is taking Tripura forward, he never presumes to be above the party,” said Anil Sarkar, veteran party leader and Vice-Chairman of the Tripura State Planning Board.

But the biggest achievement of Manik Sarkar’s government has been that those who had no dreams for their own future have found hope and the courage to dream of the future of their children.

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