Santhalis, a tribe from who is derived the name of this region, Santhal Pargana, are simple people who live in dire poverty and hard conditions. Despite political parties gaining mileage of claims to improve their lifestyle and Naxalites waging a war against the civilian government for their cause, not much development seems to have trickled to an individual Santhali.
Santhalis live in mud houses with thatched roofs. The leaves of Palm, a tree from which toddy is derived and is a popular drink here, is used to thatch the roof. This keeps the house cool in summers, but doesn’t give much safety from rainfall. The area receives generous amount of rainfall each year. Therefore, the roof has to be repaired more than twice in a year to cope with tough weather conditions.
A majority of the tribals haven’t been to a school in their lifetime. Although with the noble work that Christian Missionaries are doing in this region, more people from this community are getting education now. A large number of houses sport the Christian cross, establishing that they have adopted their new religion. But as in every religion, the house of the Lord is grander than of the worshipper.
Lack of infrastructure is a major hiccup here. Road network is poor. A large number of villages are unreachable by road. The kuccha road becomes immobile during the monsoons. Corrupt contractors collude with politicians to divert funds meant for creating infrastructural facilities. The roads get washed after every monsoon, giving the contractors a fresh opportunity to earn every year. During my trip, a road bridge at Kathikund had given way about a month ago and buses and private vehicles had to take a long detour to reach to the other side of the bridge.
Statues of Siddhu Kanhu embrace every chowk. Santhal Pargana is all praise for these two freedom fighters who gave up their lives fighting the British. I suddenly realise that I haven’t found Hanuman statues ever since I left Dumka.
While other parts of India shine under a Telecom revolution, this area seems untouched. Phone booths are few and far between. Since Santhalis like to work on their fields or in factories close by and very less people migrate to cities, telephones have little use here. Cellphones, a must have accessory in cities and towns, have not yet become affordable for a Santhali, who earns a meagre Rs 1200 every month.
At Amrapara, halfway to Singarsi, is a private coal mine belonging to the son of Ex-Chief Minster of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. A large number of local tribals are employed here. The advantages of employing these people are many. First, the employers are cushioned from any local uprising. Second, they can be employed at very less wages.
Red flags announce that we have reached the Naxal belt. The Naxalites mix up with common men in the daytime to camouflage their existence. The real activity starts once dusk falls. Police personnel are the principal target. They are always alert to all activity and new people who could be a nuisance.
I see a half burnt truck lying by the road. A Singur like incident happened in this area a few months ago. Tribals rose against a well known metal company and injured many police officers in the process. Finally the metal company had to disband its plan to set up a factory here.
Oblivious to all this, quite a large number of Santhali men, women and children, dressed in their best, and laughing their heart out, are moving towards Kathikund. Today is Shivratri and a fair is held here on this day every year. It is around an hour’s journey and they will make it by foot, most of them without slippers. Although they don’t wear shoes or slippers, their legs show that they are strong enough to make the journey, just like the journey of their life.