When visiting a town that has witnessed the rule of Maharajas, the British, the Congress and finally the CPI(M), it perhaps makes sense to look around through the eyes of a proletariat.
Sheikh Shamsuddin, 39, seemed to be just the right person. He belongs to a community whose plight and resurgence have shaped the future of mainstream political parties in independent India. As a CPI(M) supporter, he saw Burdwan turning into a fortress that appeared to be stronger than Kolkata’s Alimuddin Street. And, by having no option but to pull the rickshaw like his father, Shamsuddin seemed to be a living contradiction to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s bold claim that the government “cannot ask a farmer’s son to become a farmer”.
Shamsuddin was waiting for passengers near the historic Curzon Gate when the HT team found him. “I was in Class 4 when my father died. I somehow continued with my studies for two more years. But I had to quit. I grew up doing odd jobs and finally hit the streets with a rickshaw, just like my father.”
Shamsuddin admitted without any hesitation that he is an ardent supporter of the CPI(M) and takes part in all rallies and public meetings. But at the end of the day, reality strikes. The resident of Pirbaharan Sahchetan area in Burdwan town fends for two daughters, wife and mother on a daily income that rarely exceeds R150.
“For three decades, the minority community in Bengal has voted en masse for the Left Front. Its members have attended all meetings and rallies, often sacrificing a day’s income. I am no exception,” said Shamsuddin. “However, in all these years, nobody offered me the job of a sweeper or security guard or anything that suits me. Like others from the minority community, my loyalty too, was taken for granted. My daughters are growing up. They have to be married off. But I do not have any savings. My hopes and aspirations are shattered.”
Shamsuddin is not entirely ungrateful to the Marxists. “It is because of them that we have peace in the state. But I doubt if people like us can live with dignity if there is a change in the political situation. I don’t even know if we will have such good roads in future,” he said.
Residents of Burdwan seemed to be taking pride in the history of the town. Burdwan, some said, was named after the 24th Jain Tirthankar, Bardhaman Mahabir. Others insisted that the name was derived from the Bengali adjective bardhaman used for anything that is increasing or surging ahead.
As headquarters of a district that leads in industry, agriculture and mining, Burdwan town has a strategic importance in the corridors of power—political as well as administrative. The gigantic office of the CPI(M) in Burdwan town is testimony to the party’s prosperity.
Western Burdwan has rich deposits of coal, which led to a boom in steel and engineering industry in the region after Independence. While small towns in other districts struggled, Burdwan witnessed the growth of Asansol, Durgapur, Burnnpur and Raniganj.
The eastern part of the district is the rice bowl of Bengal. By virtue of its location, Burdwan town is surrounded by paddy fields. Besides being a Red bastion because of successful implementation of land reforms, it has also become a centre for education and trade thanks to a rather unplanned coexistence of a university, government medical college, private engineering colleges, shopping malls, markets and a multiplex.
Despite all the prosperity, people found it difficult to express hopes and expectations. The recent erosion in Left vote bank in south Bengal seemed to have cast a shadow on the CPI(M)’s invulnerability in Burdwan.
Debnath Mondal, 70, president of Burdwan Chamber of Commerce and a rice mill owner, said: “Nobody can deny that in 33 years of Left rule, agro- based industry has seem some growth in and around Burdwan town. But the quantum of growth is insignificant.” “Small-scale industries have grown by 8 to 10 % in some areas but many old industries have closed down. The government and ruling parties have managed to save some agro-based units but while big industries have seen some good times, medium-scale industries have run into stagnancy. On the whole, however, law and order situation, quality of labour force and the business climate still remain conducive.”
The septuagenarian did not hesitate to voice his unhappiness about the influx of people from villages into Burdwan town. “Traffic is in a mess though two satellite towns were developed to reduce the load on town population.”
The lackadaisical attitude of the administration has left its footprint all over Burdwan town. The overbridge near the railway station was declared condemned long ago but continues to take heavy traffic, including school buses and trucks, during peak hours. A disaster is waiting to happen, locals said, holding the CPI(M) responsible.
Heritage buildings face the same apathy. Most were recognised as heritage structures but little was done to turn them into places of interest for tourists. After all, to most outsiders not here on business, Burdwan’s importance is limited to two famous confectionery items, mihidana and sitabhog, which were first made by local chefs to welcome Bengal’s Viceroy Lord Curzon on August 19, 1904.
Sanjida Afrin, a college student, lives in the crowded Khosbagan area where her father owns a pathological laboratory, a business that is booming in the area because almost every building has at least one doctor’s chamber or a private nursing home. “Though civic amenities have improved in the last few years, traffic management has been ignored. The authorities have not been able to provide any solution.”
A second-year postgraduate student in English at Burdwan University, Ananya Bose, comes from a middle-class family. Her father runs a hotel. She appreciated development projects in the town, the multiplex, shopping malls and satellite towns but could not hide her scepticism about the political uncertainly that has cast its shadow on Burdwan.