Life on a River Island

“We are going to the chaur villages”, said my colleague, Baitali.

“Where ?” I asked.

“On the river Padma”.

We were in West Bengal, in district Murshidabad, on our way to the homes of young trafficked women that Baitali and her organisation Jabala had rescued, and were presently working with. Today we would visit a girl they had succeeded in sending back to her family.

Chaurs are sandy river islands that are formed when rivers change course. I had grown up hearing about them, especially those in the Brahmaputra, and how people lived on them till they got flooded out when the mighty, untameable river changed its mind and course yet again. But like most of us in the rest of India, I had known nothing about the chaurs in the Padma.

On the boat with us were women and children—each woman had an election identity card tucked at the waist, in the folds of her sari, or hanging by a thread round her neck. This was to prove to the Border Security Force (BSF) jawans that she and her children were ‘authentic’ Indians, even though they lived on no-man’s land, in the middle of the river that dividedIndia andBangladesh.

They carried huge sacks of rice and sugar or kerosene cans on their heads. Little children accompanied their mothers with big sacks…some even bigger than themselves, their spindly legs bent under the weight.

On the boat with us was also a jawan with his walkie-talkie, saying “Hello, hello xxxxx (blah blah blah). Over” every few minutes. He looked at the two of us… the unlikely passengers on the boat, and asked if we were going to immunise the children. He spoke with a strong accent and was completely taken aback when we asked him if he was from Tamil Nadu. “How can you make out?” “By your accent, thambi (brother in Tamil)…” And now we were friends. The locals could barely distinguish district borders; another state was much too far away for them even to fathom. Anyway even for the few who are more aware, all people south of the Vindhyas are Maadrasis!

The boatman pushed the boat and began rowing.

“Didi, this is where our village was…where we had a house,” said a woman on the boat, pointing to somewhere in the middle of the river.

“Here?”

“Yes. This was land before the Padma changed its course and took away the village… and now we live on the chaur.”

There is constant bhangon (breaking of the banks) because of the Padma. Entire villages get washed away, leaving people homeless, and every year or so hundreds of families get displaced.

This is when the young children become vulnerable to trafficking, Baitali explained. That is why it is so important to work with such families – to empower them financially and ensure that their children are safe and not trafficked. Children have had to be rescued from as far as Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Young boys are almost always sold into labour, while the girls are sold into labour and prostitution. Desperate families are duped into believing that a better life awaits them away from the chaur.

 “What next? What will you do? Where will you go?”

“We’ll see when the river changes course again…Until then we have to walk every week, all the way back to where we boarded the boat to get our rations and kerosene.”

“Schools?”

“Oh, no schools. Most of the children don’t go to school. They used to, before the bhangon….now it is too far and the few who still go, have to walk and take the boat, and then walk more to the school in the block. Takes hours…”

“Health centre?”

She laughed. “Didi, which doctor will come so far? I doubt if the government even remembers we exist”

“But the jawan asked us if we were going for immunisation?”

“Oh,  yes…there are health camps or polio camps sometimes… very rarely… but for any medical help we have to walk back and take the boat to the mainland.”

Soon we reached the sandy banks of the chaur. The boat was swinging to the swift current of an overflowing Padma river. The first to get off was the jawan, shouting into his walkie-talkie. He was a man on a mission.

We stepped on to burning sand… the July mid-afternoon sun was beating down upon us and the heat from the hot sand was rising through our footwear, burning our feet. We began our endless walk on the sand. Oblivious of the heat, the women and the children carrying the big sacks started walking fast, on their bare feet. They were carrying their weekly rations for which they had to go to the block headquarters. They had to carry their identification, and record what they were carrying at the BSF post on the river front. Otherwise they would be arrested for smuggling rice, sugar or kerosene into Bangladesh.

After what seemed hours, but must have been barely forty-five minutes, we reached a habitation. Small shacks had been built on the chaur, and the land was being cultivated.  Here they lived, devoid of the most basic facilities — no electricity, and of course no schools or healthcare either.

There was a health camp on at the chaur settlement that day and, under an inadequate tent, a couple of doctors were conducting check-ups. The village was almost empty, as everyone was vying for the doctors’ attention. It was seldom that a doctor visited these parts.

We met the young girl who had been trafficked and who was among the lucky few to have been rescued. She now lived with her family, and was planning to get back to some kind of skill training and education. A happy ending in life on this whimsical,  unpredictable chaur.

We walked across to the other end of the chaur. Just across the water was Bangladesh. In fact the market on the Bangladesh side was closer than the one on the Indian bank. People from the other side “illegally” swam across the river, to the chaur and back. That is why there was constant presence of the BSF.

 Indeed, apart from the election identity cards and ration cards, there was little to distinguish one people from the other. They spoke the same dialect, ate the same food and looked the same. Only an indistinguishable international border, somewhere in the middle of the river, divided them. But to be legal they had to walk all the way across the hot sands of the chaur to access even the most basic needs. Going across the river to the nearest town in Bangladesh meant inviting arrest.

 We dragged ourselves back across the sand bank, heads covered from the late afternoon sun now somewhat less angry, feet burning on the sand still singed from the sun having beaten down all day.

There was our friend, thambi. Sounding agitated, he was speaking loudly and quickly into his walkie-talkie. A consignment of moongphali (peanuts) was landing. He needed forces.

Somehow it did not make sense. Smuggling to us has always been about gold, silver, narcotics… and human beings. That’s what we have read and know. That’s where the big bucks are. Smugglers are rich and powerful people – members of powerful syndicates. But how many actually get caught?

On the other hand here were these people, living on no-man’s land in the middle of a river, unknown to most of India, with nothing but a piece of sandy land to live off, fearing losing their children to traffickers, yet under threat of being arrested for smuggling the most basic necessities – sugar, rice kerosene… And PEANUTS!!!

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