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Scurry to moneylenders for roof above head

Scurry to moneylenders for roof above head

Hemanta Mondal was desperately in need of Rs 8,000 to have a roof over his head after the asbestos sheet over his mud house was blown away by Cyclone Amphan on May 20.

The 60-year-old rickshaw-van puller at Harinbari village in Sagar Island, South 24-Parganas, doesn’t have any savings. He had no option but to approach a local moneylender who gave him the cash at a monthly interest rate of 3 per cent, which works out to be a whopping 36 per cent annual interest.

“I know that I would have to pay a high interest. But do I have any other option?” asked Mondal.

The story of Mondal is not unique as the cyclone has suddenly added to the indebtedness of lakhs of people in rural areas, whose houses were severely damaged as the cyclone’s wind speed ranged between 130kmph and 165kmph.

On Wednesday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced several measures to help people whose houses were damaged by the cyclone. But several affected people said they could not wait indefinitely for government grant.

Mondal said his only son Tarun was stuck in Kerala and running short of money and hence, he had to take care of his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. “We are very poor. I don’t know whether I would get government help or not. I got a tarpaulin today (Wednesday) from the panchayat but it is not enough to cover the roof of the house. How can I allow my little grandchildren to live under the open sky?” asked Mondal.

His comments made it clear that the cyclone had not only exposed the vulnerability of poor people in the face of natural calamities, but also brought into light how the official banking channels still eluded lakhs of people in Bengal.

“The demand for money these people have can be categorised as personal loans which scheduled commercial banks lend at 12 to 14 per cent of interest depending on the creditworthiness of the client… The micro finance institutions, which borrow from banks to lend small loans to needy rural people, charge between 19 to 20 per cent. But the moneylenders fleece these people,” said a senior government officer.

Not just the moneylenders, these poor people without roof over their heads are also at the mercy of local traders, who sell asbestos, tiles, tin shades and bamboo poles, which people need to have a roof.

Mondal said he had been surveying the market in Sagar Island for the past five days and found out that prices of everything to repair houses had increased by 50 to 60 per cent. “Things like asbestos, bamboos, iron wire or ten shades are in high demand and people are queuing up in front of the shops… The asbestos sheet, which was available at Rs 350 probably a week ago, is now costing Rs 550,” he said.

According to him, bamboo poles, which used to be sold at Rs 130 a piece, are now priced at Rs 200 to Rs 250. Despite the high prices, Mondal had to spend around Rs 5,000 to buy materials and kept Rs 3,000 that he would have to pay to the labourers. “I am in a condition that I can’t pay even the interest of Rs 240 per month. If I fail, I need to pay double the amount the next month,” he explained the debt trap that he was getting into.

A queue in front of a hardware shop to buy asbestos sheets at Kakdwip
A queue in front of a hardware shop to buy asbestos sheets at Kakdwip(Picture sourced by correspondent)

Officials said thousands of people from South 24-Parganas district worked in different states, including Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and sent remittances back home. “People had no money in hand because of the lockdown and private lenders are doing a brisk business,” said a government employee in Sagar Island.

The officials said around 6.5 lakh houses, mostly with asbestos or mud-tiled roofs, had been severely damaged in the district.

Manturam Pakhira, the Kakdwip MLA and minister of state (independent charge), said he had already talked to police and local administration regarding the black marketing of roof-construction materials and high interest rate that money lenders were charging.

“I have told police to keep a vigil… Anyone can help the poor people by lending money but it should not be at such abnormally high rates. The police have been asked to do surveillance at local markets and hardware shops,” Pakhira said on Wednesday.

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Bengal jewellery robbers held in UP

Bengal jewellery robbers held in UP

Uttar Pradesh special task force on Tuesday arrested four members of a gang which had allegedly robbed a jewellery showroom in Madhyamgram posing as customers on March 20.

The alleged robbers had sneaked out of Bengal in one of the last inter-state trains before the nation went into a lockdown mode.

The four were caught from a village at Khorbar in Gorakhpur district of UP. Officers of the STF told The Telegraph that the gang was about to commit a dacoity in Khorbar before they were caught.

The gang had allegedly entered Bengal with the plan of robbing multiple jewellery stores taking advantage of the situation that most of them were empty as people were scared to venture out because of the Covid 19 scare, an officer in UP police said. However their plan was disrupted as the government announced the lockdown to contain transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“On interrogation, we found that they had recently committed a robbery at a jewellery store in Bengal. We contacted with our counterparts in Bengal and confirmed the incident,” Amitabh Yash, inspector general of police, UP STF told The Telegraph over phone on Wednesday.

All the four were produced before a court in Gorakhpur that sent them to judicial custody. Bengal police would take their remand later, an officer in Barasat police district said.

On the evening on March 20, four men — one of them with his face covered with a mask — had entered the empty showroom and asked the employee to show some designs. As they found the situation apt, the employee and the owner were overpowered and the entire store was robbed of cash of a few lakh rupees and gold ornaments.

Later, CCTV camera inside the shop showed their images that Bengal police had collected from the store. “These men are habitual offenders. One of them has 15 criminal cases,” Amitabh Yash said.

“They were so confident that they would not be recognised that majority of them did not even bother to cover their faces. Only one did.”

To avoid any form of suspicion, they had entered Bengal separately, police have found. One of them came on March 17, two the next day and the fourth member on March 19. They were staying at a relative’s place in North 24 Parganas.

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On bat terrain, it’s live and let live in Durgapur

On bat terrain, it’s live and let live in Durgapur

The outbreak of Covid-19 has cast what the scientific community last month termed a “premature and unfair” pall over the bat species.

But in the midst of a tug-of-war between science and popular opinion, people on the outskirts of West Burdwan’s Durgapur town have remained unchanged in its egalitarian — and in such times, enlightened — attitude towards the flying mammals.

In late April, an official statement issued by 64 Asian-origin chiropterologists had laid out seven points arguing that bats were being singled out as being the origin of the coronavirus and stigmatised in the absence of proper evidence.

The 1,500-odd residents of Khatpukur, near ward 28 of Dugapur Municipal Corporation, maintain that local fruit bats are the rightful inhabitants of the forest-bordering area where their forefathers settled only two or three generations ago.

“My father told me that he was used to seeing bats fly overhead, in this area, while he played in the afternoon with his friends,” said Khetra Nath Mandal, 75, a retired municipality employee.

“I also saw several while I was growing up, but we did not pay them any heed. We certainly didn’t mind them. It has always been an attitude of live and let live,” he added.

The story of bats vis-a-vis the coronavirus is contentious when broached by ordinary citizens not connected with advanced science. While some scientists think coronavirus could have originated from or thrived in certain bat species in China, there is no established link on how or whether it crossed over from bats to humans.

“We have never seen these creatures harm or attack human beings. They only eat fruits,” Mandal said.

Forest officers said Durgapur town was formerly a forested area and surrounding villages still retained such characteristics.

“The bats did not flee the area even after it was heavily urbanised a little over 100 years ago,” said a forester.

“There is no interaction between them and the human population, for better or worse. There are about 1,500 bats in this area now,” the officer said.

The foresters also said residents of the area were especially sensitised to their unusual neighbours and took special care of them.

“Residents of this area take particular care to ensure that no firecrackers are burst here during Diwali,” said another forest officer.

“When they are not harming us, who are we to say that they have no right to live here with us peacefully?” asked local resident Bhimsen Mandal, who is also Trinamul block president.

Bhabani Das, another resident of the area, is a homemaker who settled in Khatpukur as a newlywed more than a decade ago. “I was scared of the bats, and their noises, initially. But later, I got used to it after hearing my in-laws repeatedly refer to them as our neighbours,” she said.

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Trinamul Congress MLA help for return of migrant labourers

Trinamul Congress MLA help for return of migrant labourers

A Trinamul Congress MLA opened a control room to help the return of migrant workers stranded outside Bengal, a day after the leadership had asked all party legislators to alleviate the labourers’ sufferings.

Goghat MLA Manas Majumder who opened the control room at Kamarpukur was just one of many Trinamul MLAs and senior leaders in various districts who fielded party workers to collect the data of migrant workers from their respective areas.

“A large number of people don’t know how to apply online for the entry passes to Bengal and most of them have no idea about it. The state government is doing a lot for all of them, but we need to focus on the families too. So, I opened the control room where anyone can come and register,” said Majumdar.

“We are sending all the names and details to the state government for the arrangement of their smooth return,” he added.

Sources have said there are lakhs of migrant workers from Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhum, Hooghly and Bankura, who look for employment in at least a dozen states regularly for work as masons, farm labourers or in factories.

Trinamul insiders said the BJP had been successful in creating a narrative that the state government did not show enough interest in bringing back stranded migrants.

On Sunday, senior Trinamul leaders, along with poll consultant Prashant Kishor, met the party MLAs for over three hours through videoconference and told them to start a mass campaign from Wednesday against the BJP’s “malicious propaganda”.

Junior public health engineering minister Shyamal Santra, the Bishnupur MLA, said a political game, allegedly initiated by the BJP, was unfolding in Bengal over the migrant workers.

“It is very important to stop it immediately as the state government has always been sympathetic towards them. Our party workers are collecting data from the ground and processing them for the administration,” said Santra. Trinamul’s Hariharpara MLA Niyamat Sheikh virtually echoed him.

Senior Trinamul leader and mentor of the Bankura zilla parishad Arup Chakraborty has sent money to at least 250 migrant workers stuck in various parts of the country.

Trinamul leaders said migrant workers and their families were a reliable vote bank of the party, which the BJP is trying to erode.

Migrant workers stuck in other states have been mentioning that local police have been saying that the Bengal government has not made arrangements for them.

A group of around 200 migrants workers stuck in Gujarat’s Surat purportedly experienced this first hand. “We repeatedly visited the local police station and government office there, they told us that our government in Bengal was not working towards taking us back,” said Mohammed Asraf, a migrant worker from East Burdwan’s Ketugram.

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SDO succour for the stranded

SDO succour for the stranded

An IAS officer posted in Nadia has spent over Rs 50,000 of his personal savings to help migrant workers stranded across various parts of the country in the midst of the novel coronavirus-induced lockdown.

Manish Verma, a 2001-batch IAS officer from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, currently serves as the subdivisional officer in Krishnagar (Sadar) and has personally reached out to workers stuck at places, including Surat and Mumbai.

Verma said he had learned of the workers from different sources and had wired money to their bank accounts in order to alleviate their stressful condition.

“We have been passing through a critical phase because of Covid-19. A huge number of people are in serious trouble and I have been able to do too little for them. Their condition is troubling to me, so the least I could do was to help out financially,” said Verma, who has earlier served as SDO Ranaghat and Estate Manager in Kalyani.

“Apart from a civil servant, as a human being, my endeavour is always to help people in trouble with whatever resources I have. I did this because I heard people were trapped by themselves miles away from home. Sometimes, many made direct contact with me through the district control room. Sometimes, I made contact with them and obtained their bank details after reading about their plight in newspapers,” he said.

Sources in the district administration said Verma had so far paid over Rs 50,000 from his personal savings through bank transfers and cash.

“It is a question of social responsibility. I will be happy to see people who are able to, making similar gestures. It is not the amount of money which one can offer as help, rather the intention is recognised,” Verma said

Local sources in Krishnagar said Verma had also given money to social organisations who had been feeding homeless people and street dogs during the lockdown. “No one returns empty-handed if they approach Verma Sir,” an official of the Nadia administration said.

Raju Bhowmik, a migrant worker trapped in Surat, said: “I, along with some of my colleagues, are trapped in Surat. It was Verma Sir who sent us Rs 10,000 after learning of our plight. We will never forget such a gesture.”

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‘It could have been us’

‘It could have been us’

Rajesh Debnath and nine other labourers from East Burdwan had been walking on railway tracks for days on their way from Bihar to Bengal.

The 10 migrants were eventually rescued by vehicles sent by the Bengal government and are in home quarantine now.

The following is an account Rajesh shared with The Telegraph on Friday soon after news of the Maharashtra tragedy came in:

I was shocked when I saw the blurred images of the bodies on the tracks in Aurangabad (Maharashtra). It could have happened to us anytime during our eight days on the tracks, walking from Raxaul to Jhajha in Bihar.

My elder brother Raju switched off the television when he saw me staring at it. The women at home, who had been happy till then, started crying, saying it could easily have happened to me and my friends. Thinking about it, my hands trembled. Just like them, we too had a 400km journey to make.

I was even more distraught when I caught sight of a few scattered rotis lying on the tracks. The rotis from Madhubani (Bihar) that we had packed for ourselves had sustained us during the first two days of our journey.

I can easily understand why they chose to rest on the railway tracks, not somewhere else. I’m sure people are wondering.

It’s nothing but extreme tiredness and fatigue, two things we cannot avoid during such a journey. Of course, it’s not comfortable to put your head on a steel track, but it is what shows us the way home.

I can remember that on May 2, when we had finished around 200km, we decided to sit down and rest on the tracks for a few minutes but before we knew it most of us were asleep. We realised the danger of this and decided to be more vigilant from then on.

First, we had to figure out if it was an up line or a down line to avoid being caught unawares from behind. It’s not easy to do and it took us almost a day to learn to read the clues.

I think if we could see a signal that was green, it meant a train would be coming from behind us. But it can be confusing as there are signals on both sides, for both tracks.

Near Barauni station in Bihar, we did not know that a goods train was heading towards us from behind. Fortunately, an attendant attached to the station was on patrol nearby and alerted us.

It’s also easy to get distracted by the scenery. We saw at least a dozen high-speed goods trains rush along the tracks from the opposite direction to us. But we had one particularly close call when we failed to spot a train until it was barely 500m from us. We had to jump into the bushes.

I think things are safer at night — if you are awake — because of all the bright lights and signals.

The bigger hazard is catching your foot in the gaps or pebbles between railway sleepers. It can be fatal if you fall head first onto these tracks. My cousin Dipak tripped during the end of our journey and sprained his right angle. We had to carry him after that.

To give you an idea of the strain of such a journey: my shoes got torn before I had completed 50km — less than a tenth of the journey. It’s excruciating to walk barefoot on pebbles heated up by the sun. Besides, I had to carry Dipak on my shoulders towards the end.

Another hurdle we faced were the five of six large railway bridges we had to cross. The plates between the tracks on most of them are rusty and feeble. In addition, the gaps between the plates were considerable. Scared of falling through the gaps, we sat down on the tracks and hauled ourselves over the tracks.

I cannot express how lucky we are to have made it home, and to have received help from the government in getting us back to our families.

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Complaint against BJP MP over mill protest

Complaint against BJP MP over mill protest

A rice mill owner at Habibpur has lodged a police complaint of criminal intimidation against BJP’s Ranaghat MP Jagannath Sarkar and his aides.

The MP and his aides had allegedly maligned rice mill owner Krishna Shaw, accusing him of operating a racket to steal FCI rice for the PDS.

In his complaint, Shaw said: “The MP and his men unleashed panic among workers creating an unruly situation. They accused us of illegally buying rice meant for ration distribution. People accompanying the MP were apparently trying to loot rice, but the timely intervention of police foiled their plan.”

“I tried to reason with them showing documents but they were in a mood to listen to me,” said Shaw.

According to the complaint, on May 1, Sarkar led a group of about 100 BJP workers to Shaw’s rice mill in Ranaghat’s Habibpur. A police source said Sarkar and his aides had intercepted a truck loaded with rice entering the mill.

“During the commotion, the BJP workers videographed rice being packed in the mill in used sacks and the truck loaded with rice. The video went viral embarrassing the district administration,” said the source.

The MP sought to refute Shaw’s claim. “The mill owner had failed to provide any logic on how a lorry loaded with rice sacks having FCI tag entered the mill. Only unprocessed paddy can enter mills.”

“I have strong reasons to suspect the mill is involved in a racket that sells government rice,” he added.

An investigation by the administration revealed that the mill owner had procured 25 tonnes of rice from a private supplier to meet the higher demand for foodgrains.

Ranaghat SDO Harsimran Singh said: “We tried to make the MP and his men understand, but they didn’t listen. In an emergency, we had to bring processed rice from Burdwan. It was done according to the government guidelines and we found no disparity.”

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Protest at Malda villages over rations

Protest at Malda villages over rations

Protests rocked several places in Malda district on Wednesday as villagers alleged hoarding of food grains and scanty distribution of relief materials by rural bodies and ration dealers.

Hundreds of women confined Trinamul Congress member of Jadupur 2 panchayat Sanaka Mandal, alleging that she had a tacit understanding with the local ration dealer. They said the dealer was denying them their dues quantity of grains.

Purnima Majumdar, one of the demonstrators, said: “Because of the lockdown, we have little amount of grains at home. Even children are virtually starving. The ration dealer is not providing us with full quantity of rice, wheat and other kitchen essentials as announced by the chief minister. We have been told that the residual amount would be distributed from the panchayat. This is incorrect and we are being deprived of adequate food grains, with the panchayat member and the ration dealer passing on the buck to each other.”

Sazzad Ali, the head of the rural body, faced the ire of 300-odd women when he arrived.

Englishbazar block officials also arrived and assured the agitators that their grievances would be looked into. Then, the protest was withdrawn.

A ration dealer, Emadur Rahaman, virtually fled at Mahishbathan in Old Malda when a group of people agitated in front of his shop. The residents like Aleknur Bibi and Badeur Rahaman alleged that Rahaman was not dispensing the due quantity of rice and wheat.

“I have less stock and hence, I could not deliver the full quantity of goods to each of them. I am trying to procure the remaining stock,” the dealer said.

Police had to rush to the spot to control the situation.

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Crop-killer jumbos send curfew for toss

Crop-killer jumbos send curfew for toss

Hundreds of villagers in East Burdwan’s Khandoghosh had to go against lockdown rules early on Saturday to save their paddy crop from two marauding elephants that had come from Bankura’s Sonamukhi forest.

Sources said the villagers had been following the lockdown rules enforced to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Early on Saturday, two farmers informed villagers about two elephants entering the village. As the news spread, hundreds of villagers of Khandoghosh and those from nearby villages gathered at various points with torches and dhols to drive away the jumbos.

“What could we do? The crop is our only option to survive in the near future. Those who worked in shops or in farms elsewhere have returned home because of the lockdown. We gathered in groups of at least 300 people to drive away the elephants as they were ruining our boro crop. However, we couldn’t save our crops,” said Sheikh Naser Ali, a farmer from Alipur village.

By the time a team from the forest department arrived at 11.30am, the elephants had damaged acres of crop. “We tried our best but could not save our crops. Around 10 bighas of my boro paddy were damaged by the elephants,” Ali said.

A crowd in the area
A crowd in the area

Villagers said the forest team reached very late and the delay ruined much of the crop. It took five hours for the team to send the animals towards Sonamukhi forest.

Binod Ghosh, a district committee member of the CPM’s Krishak Sabha, said: “Hundreds of villagers from various villages had to come out and break the norms as saving the crop was more important for them. We had requested people to avoid mass gatherings but it couldn’t be prevented as the crop is crucial for their survival.”

Forest officials said elephants from Sonamukhi forest usually strayed into the locality when crops flower and paddy ripens.

“We have no control on the movement of animals other than driving them into their own periphery. We did it but it resulted in loss of crops as usual,” said a forest official in East Burdwan.

Forest officials said they had tried to disperse the people. “People had come out in groups but we tried our best to stop them from gathering,” said Debashish Sharma, the divisional forest officer of East Burdwan.

Sharma said the farmers would be compensated after an assessment of crop loss.

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Cricketer Richa Ghosh in Covid fight

Cricketer Richa Ghosh in Covid fight

Indian cricketer Richa Ghosh, 16, who represented the national women’s team in the recently conclud¬ed ICC T20 Women’s World Cup in Australia, has donated Rs 1 lakh to the chief minister’s relief fund to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Richa had sought an appointment with S. Sahay, the subdivisional officer of Siliguri, and expressed her wish to contribute to the relief fund. On Satur¬day, Richa’a father Manabendra Gosh went to Sahay’s residence and handed him the cheque.

“When everybody is fighting Covid19 and the chief minister has appealed for a united battle against it, I thought of contributing a bit as a re¬sponsible citizen of the country,” Richa said

Richa was the youngest member of the national team, along with opening batsman Shafali Verma, the reached the final of the World Cup.

Richa had played two matches, including the fin¬al at the MCG. As a concussion substitute for Tani¬ya Bhatia, Richa had scored 14 in as many balls.

“These days, she is practising in the driveway of our house. I am helping her with the practice and in her physical training,” added Manabendra, who himself is a known face in the Siliguri cricket arena.

In her spare time, Richa has been watching tele¬vision and enjoying homemade delicacies with her family members.

“After several years she has been staying at home for so long. Usually, she stays in Calcutta for coaching,” Manabendra said.

Former Team India captain Sourav Ganguly, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, has announced a contribution of Rs 50,000 to the Siliguri Municipal Corporation. “He wants the money to be spent to buy masks and gloves. We ap¬preciate his gesture,” said Asok Bhattacharya, the mayor.

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