Here donkeys ferry people in the jet age
From a newly wed couple to a load of cargo — donkeys carry everything in Mahishgote, a village just a few kilometres from Kolkata. A visit to Mahishgote, in Howrah district, is a journey back into time.
Whether it's ferrying a marriage party or building material, there's little choice but to use donkeys here. Please note: The 6,000-people village is close to the high-speed showpiece highway under the Golden Quadrilateral project.
"We have nothing but donkeys as our key means of transport. They carry everything and everyone. The roads are so narrow that only donkeys can traverse them," explained Sanat Kumar Hodai, a villager.
For Hodai, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's talk of West Bengal's resurgence means nothing. "Our repeated appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Promises are made in Parliament (to improve our lives) but in reality they hardly get implemented," said Hodal.
"It is ironical for us to watch small and heavy vehicles whiz past the highways as we wait for a donkey to reach home. Even motorcycles cannot ply on our village roads," said a disgruntled Hodai. "The ministers are only concerned about highway development. They don't bother about rural roads."
The importance of the area where the village falls has risen with the opening of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corp's food park at Sankrail.
The Indonesia-based Salim group too has sought a 500-acre plot near this area for a food-processing unit.
However, the authorities seem to show virtually no interest in improving the condition of rural roads.
West Bengal Public Works Department (PWD) Minister Khsiti Goswami said the rural roads were taken care of by the engineering cell of the rural development ministry.
"We have asked them to hand over such projects to the PWD so that we can construct roads and maintain them. (The ministry doesn't) have any infrastructure to do the mapping of these rural roads," Goswami told.
"There is no ready infrastructure for rural development in West Bengal and hence the work is not executed. Huge funds come to the state every year but they can't be used for the development of the rural area," he added.
In many other states, the maintenance of rural roads has been handed over to the PWD or the Road Development Corporation, the minister said.
"West Bengal is an exception. If the PWD takes up this project, it could be completed under the Rural Infrastructure Development Scheme (RIDS)."
But villagers such as Abdul Aziz and Laksman Pal, who rent out donkeys, are happy.
"I have been running this business for four years. It's quite lucrative. I charge Rs 300-400 for carrying 1,000 bricks and Rs 1,500 for carrying one truck of sand as there's no other means of transport in the village," said Abdul Aziz, who owns four donkeys.
In his Feb 28 budget proposals, Finance Minister P Chidambaram said work on the Golden Quadrilateral project was nearly complete. He has allocated Rs 106.67 billion for the National Highway Development Programme.
Meanwhile, Mahishgote lives in a different era.