Imagine a town where tall trees stand in endless rows to greet you. Imagine being startled by the honk of an automobile. Imagine feeling uncomfortable while passing by the desolate police morgue in the evening. Imagine having a peaceful life.
That was Suri, district headquarters of Birbhum, till the 70s. In sharp contrast to Santiniketan, the nearest big town where the Prime Minister flew down every year to attend convocations at Visva-Bharati, Suri seemed to be perpetually lost in a mystic slumber even at the peak of an unbearable summer and freezing winter. Population was so low that it was almost impossible to bump into complete strangers at Jubilee Market. Bicycles and rickshaws sufficed as modes of transport.
Over the past three decades, life in the sleepy town has changed drastically. But has it witnessed progress? On the eve of Bengal’s most crucial Assembly election since 1977, HT went looking for answers and new perspectives in a town that is famous for its morobba, a traditional confectionery made from fruits and vegetables.
Before the establishment of British Raj, Suri was a village. In 1786, the British administration wanted the village to be the headquarters of Birbhum because of its location. EG Drake Brockman, who served as district magistrate in 1895-96, wrote in his book, Early Administration of the District of Birbhum, “the only road passable through the year for carts was the road from Suri to Burdwan through Surul”. That road is still in use.
In 1851, Suri got its first boys’ school, which was later rechristened Birbhum Zilla School. RT Girls’ School was set up by Christian missionaries in 1884. A church, too, was set up for British officers and their families. The town got its municipal body in 1876.
Today, 64 years after the British left India, the people of Suri feel that neither the Congress nor the Left Front made any attempt to develop the town or improve the quality of civic amenities. The Assembly constituency has been in control of the Left since 2001 while the municipality has gone to the Congress. Actress-turned-politician Satabdi Roy snatched the Lok Sabha seat from the CPI(M) in 2009 and added it to Mamata Banerjee’s kitty.
A town that once took pride in its culture and heritage today stands as a centre for business and administration. Everyday people pour in from hundreds of villages and smaller towns such as Sainthia, Rampurhat, Muraroi or Kirnahar and leave by evening. With very poor railway connectivity, Suri has become a Mecca for private bus owners.
Hundreds of buses arrive and leave for faraway towns and cities, including Kolkata and Siliguri, and add to the unbearable sound and air pollution. It is only after the last bus leaves the central bus stand at Dangalpara and town’s increasing fleet of motorcycles and cars parked for the day that Suri appears to slip back to the 70s. But the tall buildings, super markets and late-night negotiations on land and real estate deals at the town’s prospering “bar-cum- restaurants” belie the illusion. Brands, however, have yet to reach the town.
“The character of the town folk has changed. We have become selfish, just like people in the metros. The deteriorating law and order situation is forcing people in rural areas to migrate to Suri. They don’t know anybody here and they don’t even want to know. They just want to stay away from trouble. Socio-economic factors and politics play equal role in this phenomenon,” said 75-year-old Sisir Kumar Paitandi, a renowned lawyer in Suri.
“There is no agency to monitor politicians. Earlier, politics was a means to serve people. Today politicians serve themselves,” Paitandi said.
“There is no water supply in my house for five years. The drainage system in Suri is pathetic. The town has been allowed to grow without any planning,” rued Bidyut Choudhuri (81), educationist and former headmaster of Ramkrishna Vidyapith.
“In three decades, the town’s population has more than doubled, but no major development project has been taken up by the state government or the local authorities,” the retired teacher said. “A number of private schools have come up. I have doubts about their quality. But I can’t blame any school because those in the corridors of power have followed wrong policies. Out of 18 councillors in the present municipal body, 13 were my students, I knocked on their doors on several issues but always returned with false assurances.”
Choudhuri, a resident of Dangalpara, also complained about rowdies and criminals who enjoy political support. “This is change for the worse.”
In 1916, the Lees Club was founded at the initiative of the British. The club was not only a symbol of status for bureaucrats and eminent citizens but for years after Independence shined as a centre for sports like tennis and billiards. But citizens today lament the club’s gradual fall from grace.
“Suri was a centre of activity for the youth. From football tournaments to theatre — youths took part in everything. But now they are either busy pursuing career or working for political parties. There has been a sharp degeneration among our youths in three decades. They have even lost the courage to speak up again corruption,” said Saran Bardhan (63), a cultural activist and a retired health staff. “No big or medium industry has come up in the area to address the raging issue of unemployment. Neither the Congress nor the Left showed any concern.”
Homemakers such as Bithika Pal (66) have their own woes. “In three decades, the scarcity of drinking water has escalated by leaps and bounds. It is the biggest problem in Suri. We are told that a water project has been taken up at a cost of R9 crore. But nobody knows when it will materialise,” said Pal.
Thirty-one-year-old Nandini Dutta, however, does not share the pessimism of the older generation. “Despite several problems, there have been some positive changes in terms of basic amenities and entertainment. Maybe there are ups and downs in politics but it doesn’t affect our daily lives.”