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4,000 girls go missing in Bengal each year. Floods, evictions, Ganga have their own role

In ‘Field Notes from a Waterborne Land’, Parimal Bhattacharya writes about impact of natural calamities on school dropouts in Bengal, especially girls.

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Two months after my last visit to Nabadwip, I went there again. This time I was alone. I was working on a project on primary education, and I wanted to study the impact of a natural calamity on school dropouts. It was Kazi who put me in touch with the headmistress of Harishpur Balika Vidyalaya, a girls’ school in a village on the outskirts of Nabadwip town. I had wanted to visit a school in Natunpalli, the village on the mudflats where Bharati Das, Ma’s caregiver, had her home.

These mudflats were called ‘char’. But Kazi informed me that there were more than a dozen such char villages by that name around Nabadwip and Mayapur, and it was impossible to locate that village without more specific information on block or mouza level. There were Natunpalli, Natungram, Nabapalli, Nabagram, Nayachar … all having the same meaning – a new habitat. In fact, Nabadwip itself meant a new island. Also, the name the settlers gave to a new village sometimes differed from the one by which the old residents of surrounding areas called it. After some enquiring, Kazi referred me to this particular school because most of its pupils came from settlements on the mudflats. 

I rode a suburban train from Kolkata, the same train that had taken me to Nabadwip two months before. It was now November, the day was pleasant and sunny. Brown farmlands stretched to the horizon, splotched with blinding yellow mustard fields. The cottages set in them appeared newly thatched and spruced up. The flood seemed a distant memory. 

But not quite. I found sixteen families staying inside the premises of Harishpur Balika Vidyalaya. This was the remnant of a refugee camp. The families were from a char village where the floodwaters hadn’t receded. But the board examinations were a few weeks away, and classes had resumed for the girls who’d appear in the exams. 

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It was a disturbing sight. Patient rows of girls in blue-bordered white saris inside the classroom, struggling to figure out the workings of the human metabolic system from a diagram the teacher had drawn on the blackboard. The piercing cry of a baby and the aroma of cumin seeds sizzling in hot oil came from the other wing. There were also other smells – a cocktail of odours that included the stench of sweat, baby urine, rotting foodgrains, musty clothes, stale beedi smoke and other undefinable emanations. Two worlds, separated by a line of washing and salvaged things – cots, almirahs, terracotta tiles and bamboo screens. 

‘This isn’t the first time we are doing this,’ the headmistress said. She was a plump, pleasant-looking woman with greying hair and black-rimmed spectacles that lent her soft, round face a befitting gravitas. ‘The flood affects the low-lying areas here, and we open our school building almost every year. This usually coincides with the Durga Puja vacation. This year, though, it’s been really bad. Some areas are still waterlogged. But what to do? We must finish the syllabus before the exams, taina?’ 

Twenty-three girls were braving the noise and odour of a refugee camp to carry on with the business of learning. Not all of them were present, though. 

‘This is another problem,’ the lady confessed. ‘After every long recess or natural calamity, when the school reopens, there will be a fall in attendance. You can check for yourself.’ 

From a wooden cupboard, she pulled out an old attendance register and turned the pages. Rows of boxes marked with ‘P’ tapered off into dots and finally joined to become unbroken red lines. They resembled the terminal pulsing of a heart printed on an ECG report. 

I turned to the names on the left column: Rekha Duley, Moumita Mondal, Baisakhi Halder, Jinnat Khatun – the surnames told the girls’ backward caste and community origins. But nothing more. The headmistress, too, couldn’t give more information. 

The person who could, was present inside the building, in that other world across the line of washing. I was lucky.

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Nitu Saha was the secretary of the school management committee and a leader of the local gram panchayat. A dark, stocky man with a shining pate and a big tummy protruding from his front-open vest, he looked to be around forty-five. When we searched him out, he was busy supervising the preparation of khichuri bubbling in a huge iron kadai. Sidekicks hung around him. Seeing Kazi with me, Nitu Saha’s brows creased with suspicion. I introduced myself and explained to him the purpose of my visit. 

Saha smiled standoffishly. 

‘You could have met some of the girls missing in the classroom if you had come two weeks ago.’ He lit a cigarette and took a deep puff. ‘They had taken shelter in my school.This year we shifted forty-two families. Most have returned home. Now they are busy – repairing the cottages, cleaning up homestead lands, preparing the plots for the robi crop. It’s a lot of work. Some have lost their cattle, some have lost everything. Those who don’t own land will find no work in the village for the next few months.They’ll migrate to other states.These girls shall run the household. A few shall go to towns as housemaids. They’ll return home before the month of Choitro. The money they earn will buy them a pair of goats, as investments, or a pair of gold earrings for their wedding. A few of them will never return.’ 

Nitu Saha reeled this out with a folkloric assurance. He knew his world inside out. 

‘Our foremost priority is human lives. Then we’ll think of livestock, then the lands, and then comes lyakapora.’ 

Being primarily a panchayat leader, lyakapora reading and writing, or education – stood fourth in Nitu Saha’s list of concerns. It was men like him who had established the settlements on mudflats and other vested lands, set up village-level communities, bargained with government agencies, and mobilized local resources to build schools, dispensaries and other facilities. This had given him the power to decide the sequence of priorities. 

Some of the girls would never return, he said. 

Back to school? Back to their homes? I didn’t get the chance to ask Saha any more questions because the khichuri was ready. 

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The Ganga commands a basin spread over ten lakh kilometres and eleven states, and serves four out of ten Indians. It flows east across much of north India until, keeping the Rajmahal Hills to its left, it curves south before it forks. One stream flows into Bangladesh as the Padma; the other, known as the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, flows down south for about five hundred kilometres until it debouches into the Bay of Bengal. These rivers are part of a complex system that carries not only water but also silt – about eighty crore tonnes a year, enough to erect a Great Wall of China around India’s territory. The lower region, known as the Bengal Delta, is a young landmass built with this silt. For thousands of years, the Ganga and her tributaries have crafted the flat fertile lowlands and supported a rich variety of life. 

Left alone, the rivers would continue to meander and create new land. But the Bengal Delta is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. With 2.7 per cent of the country’s territory, West Bengal is home to 8 per cent of its population. Here people have always lived close to the river and have built their settlements right on the floodplains. Over the last one and a half centuries, railways and roads have damaged this region’s natural hydrology; dams and embankments have meddled with the natural flow of the rivers. Floods, considered nature’s boon since the beginning of civilization, which renewed the land with rich alluvium, have become a bane. They destroy life and property. 

In Kolkata alone, more than ten lakh people live in shanties on four drainage canals that run from east to west across the city. Sometimes, they are pushed into ecologically critical lowlands, drainage basins and floodplains of rivers. This leads to more flooding and more evictions. Moving from place to place, without a permanent shelter, they are a most vulnerable human group. Every year, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, an average of four thousand girls go missing in West Bengal. Many of them are schoolgoing children. 

Sometimes, it all begins with dots in the school’s attendance register, that soon join to form unbroken red lines. 

This excerpt from ‘Field Notes from a Waterborne Land: Bengal Beyond the Bhadralok’ by Parimal Bhattacharya has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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