Once upon a time
The place oozes heritage. Tradition and a rich past haunt the residents of the 300-year-old town. Even the police station was set up 125 years ago and railway connectivity reached the place 115 years ago. The high school is 101 years old.
The rich past of Raiganj town is undisputed. Yet, the town has not been able to take a single step forward towards being converted into a city. On the contrary, it has gone down into a deep pond of stagnation and uncertainty, where its chances of development and progress are gradually being smothered.
"Raiganj, in the true sense, is no more than a village. There is no medical college, engineering college and speciality hospital here. It is very backward in terms of modern communication system both in terms of roadways and railways. Why should we term Raiganj a town?" said Surojit Goswami, a second-year Bengali honours student in Raiganj University College.
"When the elderly plan a tour of Raiganj, we ask them to go through a thorough medical check-up prior to the visit. Do not take it as a joke. There is no intensive care unit (ICU) in the town. Also, there is no burn unit," said Mohit Sengupta, North Dinajpur district Congress president and chairman of Raiganj Municipality, which was born on August 15, 1951.
"Though the municipality is about to complete 60 years, there is only one main road, which runs from east to west in the town. This is one of the factors that confine Raiganj," said Aniruddha Bhowmik, CPI(M)'s district committee member who hails from one of the oldest families in town. "Raiganj has only grown in age but it has not progressed." At present, Raiganj has a population of about 1.84 lakh and there is no empty space in the town for the municipal authority could erect a wholesale market.
Joynarayan Somani, president of West Dinajpur chamber of commerce, feels the nail on the coffin had been hammered in the mid 60s, when the broad gauge railway line, instead of being placed at Dalkhola-Malda via Raiganj, was moved to to Dalkhola-Barsoi-Malda. The rail communication, which went into a coma, got some oxygen in 2006 with the introduction of Radhikapur-Kolkata daily express train. "The dim future of our town was determined by this horrible decision of the Union government. During that period, our MP was Chapalakanta Bhattacharya and he did not even try to thwart this," said Somani.
But Raiganj got a railway communication way back in 1896. The train used to go to Parbatipur junction in Bangladesh from Raiganj. The rail link helped the town become an important trading centre, aided by the additional benefit of waterways.
The first habitation in Raiganj had been set up on the banks of Kulik river as a centre of trading of mainly agricultural commodities such as rice, jute, jaggery and mustard through steamer on the river. The name Raiganj did not exist then. It was called bandar (port) area. Till the middle of the 19th century, other parts of Raiganj except this port area were mainly forest. The name Raiganj was given later. There is a debate about the origin of the name. Some say the name was given after rai sorshe (a special type of mustard), others link it the royal family of Dinajpur whose surname was Rai.
After Independence, it became a subdivisional town of former West Dinajpur, of which the headquarters was Balurghat. On April 1, 1992, West Dinajpur was divided into North and South Dinajpur and Raiganj became the district headquarters of the former.
"Raiganj is not really the district headquarters though we term the town as the headquarters of North Dinajpur. The administrative buildings are located at Karnajora - a gram panchayat area five kilometres from Raiganj town. All along, Raiganj was developed in a scattered manner. When West Dinajpur existed, this side was deprived since the district headquarters was in Balurghat. Therefore Raiganj lacks infrastructure. Agriculture-based industries could have bee set up but nothing happened," said Deepa Das Munshi, Raiganj MP.
Raiganj emerged as a refugee-based town, which comprises about 80% refugees who had come from Rangpur, Rajsahi, Mymensingh, Dhaka, Chittagong and Dinapur of Bangladesh in two phases - at the time of Partition and during Bangladesh war.
In course of time, navigability of Kulik river decreased and business through the waterway was stopped in the first half of 1970s, especially after the dam was erected to prevent floods. The port area slowly lost its significance and, at present, it is the most backward locality of Raiganj.
Raiganj remains an important trading centre, running daily business transaction of at least R6 crore on average, next only to Siliguri. Around two lakh people visit Raiganj everyday for business. "But thay cannot create job opportunities. Employment generation would be possible only if industry is set up. But there is no industry as such in Raiganj. In the suburbs, there is a government-undertaken spinning mill with about 800 employees but even that it is gasping. It could shut down any day," said Somani.
Brindaban Ghosh, a teacher of Karnajora High School, said, "The tragedy is that the standard of education till secondary and higher secondary in Raiganj is remarkably high. Students secure ranks even in joint entrance examinations. Raiganj Coronation School has been maintaining high standards for a century. Still, there is no scope for higher education here."
Anupam Saha, a pathologist who returned to Raiganj from England and set up his own centre, says, "Brain drain cannot stopped unless industries are set up. Raiganj badly needs a medical and engineering college. If Priya Ranjan Das Munshi would not have fallen ill, we could have achieved more."
Das Munshi, then Union minister in UPA-1, took whole-hearted initiative to restart the railway communication in Raiganj
by introducing Radhikapur-Kolkata Express. To the people of Raiganj, Das Munshi's illness has shattered the hopes and ambitions.
"Raiganj needs an AIIMS-like medical facility. If this project of Rs 923 crore really comes to Raiganj, it would see development by all means. Not only in the health sector, but also communication, employment generation and infrastructure. The effect would be multi-dimensional," said Sriparna Basak, a second-year student of Raiganj University College.
Two months ago, a central team visited the proposed site at Sitgram - 7 km from Raiganj. But since then nothing has been heard about the project. That 125-acre land seems to be the last hope for breathing new life into Raiganj and its people.