Bengali fish-sellers, domestics head home for panchayat polls

May 7th, 2008 - 12:41 pm ICT by admin  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi/Gurgaon, May 7 (IANS) The bustling fish markets of Chittaranjan Park, operated largely by migrants from West Bengal, is likely to wear a depleted look next week. And many homes in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida will be without their domestic helps from the state. Nearly 30 percent of the Bengali migrants, who own shops in the markets of Chittaranjan Park, a Bengali-dominated area in the capital, are preparing to leave this weekend.

“At least 10 percent of the 1,700 people living in our village are working in Delhi. We go home every election to cast our votes,” Bappa Parihari, a native of Gopiballavpur in Midnapore, told IANS.

Parihari and his brother Swapan, who own a shop in the Chittaranjan Park market known for its fresh fish, have booked their tickets for May 10. It is a big group headed for villages in Midnapore and North 24 Parganas districts.

Jahanara, a 30-year-old domestic help in nearby Gurgaon, has also taken leave from her employers to return to her native village in Midnapore district this weekend. She is among at least 50 Bengali domestic workers who are going in a group to exercise their franchise in the May 14 panchayat polls in West Bengal.

“There is a whip that if we do not vote, we will be in trouble here as well as in the village,” said the frail woman who has not been home for the last three years.

Jahanara and her friends have their voter identity cards and they want to “remain bona fide residents of Bengal”. The only way to remain so is to vote, she says. The bulk is leaving May 10 and some May 12.

“Most of the maids have cleaned out. Somebody has put this strange idea in their heads that if they don’t cast their votes in the panchayat polls in Bengal, something will happen to them,” said Seema Guha, a resident of Gurgaon, who will be “maid-less” in the next few weeks.

And this is happening not just in Gurgaon but also in Delhi neighbourhoods like Chittaranjan Park and Vasant Kunj, where Bengali domestics are present in large numbers. Many of them hail from the impoverished districts of Midnapore, and South and North 24 Parganas.

Several households in Gurgaon and Delhi are jittery over the prospect of juggling household chores with jobs for at least a week beginning May 10.

“My maid baby-sits my two-year-old and is the backbone of my household. With her going away for a month to her home in the Sundarbans, I am on tenterhooks as I am a working woman. And what if she decides not to come back,” said Pritha Guha, a resident of Vasant Kunj.

On the eve of every election in West Bengal and the states of Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh, thousands of domestic helps, small-time businessmen, porters and menial workers from Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon troop home to vote.

“It serves as a holiday and ensures that our names are not struck off the voters’ list,” said Ujjal Hazra of Chittaranjan Park. Families back home in the villages of West Bengal usually inform them about the election schedule and the “party that is favouring them”.

Nearly 37.5 million rural voters in West Bengal will cast their votes in 37,000 polling stations in the panchayat or local government elections to be held in three phases May 11, 14 and 18. Elections will be held in 3,358 gram panchayats, 340 panchayat samitis (block-level bodies) and 17 zilla parishads.

For several migrants from West Bengal, who are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the voters’ identity card is the passport to a permanent home in India. It is their only document to prove that they are bona fide citizens of India.

“We can avail ourselves of ration cards, buy land and build homes for families on the basis of the voter identity card. So, it’s important that we vote,” said Hazra.

This year the number of first time voters is said to be very high. “Several of my friends who did not have cards because they could not go back home when the electoral rolls were being revised, managed to get in touch with the election officials in their respective districts through the mobile phone and completed the formalities by post,” Hazra said.

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