The unmarried girl and other stories from a village in election-bound West Bengal

A school in rural West Bengal awaits students, a woman awaits a proposal, villagers have to swim in snake-infested waters if they have to get anywhere. As the state votes from March 27 to April 29 in an eight-phase election, all that the inhabitants of Uddharanpur Bidhanpally want from the politicians is a road and a bridge.

Gurvinder Singh
| Updated: March 23rd, 2021

Uddharanpur Bidhanpally, West Bengal

Soma Sarkar wants to get married and all she wants from politicians after West Bengal’s upcoming state elections is a road and a bridge.

Several promising marriage proposals for the 30-year-old have fallen through. It is because of where she lives, Sarkar said bitterly. 

Her village Uddharanpur Bidhanpally, in Bardhaman district of West Bengal, about 150-kilometre north of Kolkata, has only one rickety bridge that links it to the outside world. “It will be washed away in the monsoon and I will remain a spinster,” Sarkar lamented.  

Soma Sarkar. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

As West Bengal readies for elections that will decide the fate of the ruling Trinamool Congress party, all that the 2,000-odd residents of the Uddharanpur Bidhanpally want is a road and bridge to their village, that would change their lives.

Uddharanpur Bidhanpally is a snapshot of rural governance in West Bengal, a state of nearly 100 million people where a little over 72 per cent of them live in villages according to the 2011 census. Of these 20 per cent live below the poverty line.

A tributary of the river Ajay, flows around the village and in the monsoons the village is marooned. There are no roads, no means of transportation and a single shaky bridge that threatens to collapse anytime. 

Villagers have to swim in snake-infested waters if they have to get anywhere. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Feeble attempts were made to connect the village to the outside world by building a bridge. But, one bridge collapsed in the monsoon of 2017, while another one, that was constructed in 2019, is barely standing. “The bridge will not last long because it is weak. We will start swimming once again,” said Biplab Biswas, a village resident. 

Before the second bridge came up, villagers had to strip down, put their clothes in inverted umbrellas to keep them dry, and then swim across the tributary. Boats are few and those that are there are in very poor state. Forty-one-year-old Biplab assured Gaon Connection that it was no fun swimming alongside venomous snakes. 

A ballot for a bridge

West Bengal elections are nigh and political rhetoric is at an all time high. The elections will be held in eight phases starting on March 27 and culminating on April 29. Results will be declared on May 2. Uddharanpur Bidhanpally that falls under Ketugram assembly constituency will go to vote in a month’s time on April 22. 

Candidates from the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) headed by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of Bengal, are butting heads with candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), trading insults, accusations and making effusive and lofty promises to its electorate.

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But the inhabitants of Uddharanpur Bidhanpally are unimpressed by the rhetoric. “During the polls, they come to us with folded hands and then disappear after victory. We have decided to vote for the candidate who will build us a concrete bridge and a proper road,” Anna Mondal, a 40-year-old inhabitant of the village declared. 

This is the dilapidated bridge that connects the village from rest of the state. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

The TMC has promised to deliver, among many other things, all-weather roads in rural areas. Scoffing at what they say are empty promises, the women of Uddharanpur Bidhanpally pointed out how the villagers have been suffering due to the lack of roads for years. 

“Women in labour have to walk to reach the nearest health facility eight kilometres away,” said Mondal. The bridge they have is neither wide nor strong enough to accommodate any vehicle. “Several women have lost their lives because they could not reach a doctor in time,” Mondal complained. “Is this development? We have raised the matter several times before the political leaders but nothing has happened,” she said. 

Marooned in a village

The approach to the village is covered in slush. But even before that, a visitor has to cross the tributary in rickety boats. Even motorcycles have to be heaved onto the boat for the crossing. “It is quite scary to load two-wheelers on the boat as the water is deep. But we have no alternative. The government should build a bridge as our lives are in danger every day,” Santanu Chatterjee, who uses the boat to get to his shop in Katwa town 35 kms away every day, told Gaon Connection

Boats in this village are few and those that are there are in very poor state. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

“During the monsoon, the muddy stretch is also infested with snakes. It becomes impossible to walk in wet mud with slippers, or even drive a bike,” said 27-year-old Deepankar Sarkar. It takes about half an hour of perilous walk and crossing a shaky bridge, before one can reach the village from the nearest road head, he said.

For Poddorani Biswas, a farmer, as well as a worried mother, it is never ending anxiety as her son, who studies in the fifth standard, has to travel to another village to get to school. “I live in fear of the monsoon when he has to cross the overflowing tributary in order to get there and back,” Biswas told Gaon Connection. While there is a government school at Uddharanpur Bidhanpally, it is only up to the fourth standard after which the student has to go elsewhere to continue.  

Poddarani Biswas. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Even the classrooms in the government school in Uddharanpur Bidhanpally are not safe. There are only 24 students at this school because many parents prefer to send their children away to a place with better connectivity. “During the monsoon, poisonous snakes often enter the classrooms. Two students even got bitten by a snake last year but fortunately their lives were saved,” Sandip Kumar Barai, the teacher-in-charge of the government school told Gaon Connection.

Farmers in Uddharanpur Bidhanpally bear the brunt of the lack of roads and transportation. They complain how they get less return for their harvest, because buyers who come in small vehicles to the village (as big trucks cannot reach the village), charge extra for transportation. “It is the same if we have to take our produce across to sell. So, we are forced to sell at whatever price the buyers give us,” said Poddorani. 

People crossing the Ajay river to reach Sankhai ghat. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

More promises…

“We are aware of the transportation problems being faced by the villagers. We have a plan and will certainly solve the problems once voted to power,” Sekh Sahonawez, local Trinamool Congress MLA and candidate from Ketugram, assured Gaon Connection. He acknowledged that the villagers were facing severe issues, but had nothing to say when asked why TMC that had been in power for over a decade, had done nothing to redress the problem of road and transportation of the village so far.

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When Gaon Connection approached the local block development officer Amit Kumar Shaw, he too had little to say. “We are yet to receive any proposal from the villagers regarding the concrete bridge. I do not have much knowledge about their problems as I have joined recently. I will certainly look into their issues,” he promised.

Meanwhile, Sarkar fervently hopes the elections will build her village a new bridge. And the bor jaatri (the bridegroom’s side) can cross over safely as it comes to fetch her.