As I went deeper into the village settlements, the roads became steeper and more difficult. It was raining during the nights as it often does in these parts and in places, we were worried about whether the jeep would be able to cross over the roads that had become gushing streams. I was visiting the Khokla settlement that stretches alongside the border, right next to the industrial region of Pasakha in Bhutan.
Only an incomplete crumbling wall separates the two countries here and people walk back and forth freely for the most part. Things were a little stricter when I visited because mock elections were being held in Bhutan, as ‘practice’ for their first national elections next year. On one occasion, we were having chai and biscuits at a Bhutanese villager’s house just across the border when we had to hurriedly cut it short and run back through the fields because “the officials were coming to check”.
The women of Deorali had left me feeling buoyant. Yes, their lives were hard, but there was much strength and hope to be found there as well. But things up here are bleaker. Constant landslides from the hills have rendered the soil infertile and crops don’t grow easily. There are few other employment options. The people are illiterate, poor and far away from the town. Few funds–or people, for that matter–ever reach them.
They started off optimistically enough, talking about the toilets they were building, the sanitation measures, the micro-enterprises. But their voices soon cracked or rose. The 2400 people of the Khokla settlement have no school, no health facilities, no police protection, and an incomplete border wall.
A corrupt panchayat doesn’t help matters much. It devours the government funds and bribes its way back to power during election time. It has been in power for ten years. The people here neither have the means nor the know-how to fight corruption though they are doing their best, making multiple visits to pradhan, talking themselves hoarse.
A half-finished structure of a school stands in an open area, vacant and mute. The project was abandoned midway and the children have to walk 15 kilometers on rough, stony roads to get to the nearest school in Jaigaon. This means that there are less chances that the next generation will be educated or have a better life.
And they have nobody they can tell. Nobody comes so far. Koi nahi aata, they say with a bitter laugh. Not the reporters from Kolkata, or even nearby Siliguri. Not the Indian Border Special Force (Sima Sasastra Bal or SSB). Not the education officials. Not the government. Nobody. For all purposes, these are a forgotten people.
Afterwards, they filed around me solemnly. They asked me what they should do. How they could make people hear them. I could find no answers for them. I would have told them to write to the District Collector, to write to the press. But none of these people know how to read or write.
Later, alone in my hotel room, surfing the TV channels, I wondered why we never see that part of the country in the news unless there has been an ULFA attack. And I felt their anger.