Is “brick house” the only sign of development? – West Bengal

Bishnubati village
Mural project >>

Dr. Boro Baski; translated from Bengali to English by Asha Baski
Originally published in Anandabazar Patrika (India’s most widely read Bengali daily)

I was born in a Santal village in Birbhun District. In my childhood I saw how my mother cleaned the courtyard every morning with cow-dung mixed with black charcoal and water, and how she polished with great care the outer walls of our house with red soil. Before the Durga Puja festival there was a rush to paint the walls of the mud-houses with the white clay of the paddy field. During our biggest festival ‘Sorhai’ there were decoration on the walls with flower designs, bird and animal figures. I saw my mother and sister drawing red and blue lines on the walls by climbing on the bamboo ladder. We the children used to help them in the work by climbing the ladder. It was such a great fun! 

Villages are changing. Mud houses are being demolished to be replaced with brick houses with the support of the Central Government’s Housing scheme ‘Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana’. In our village out of hundred families thirty families are putting tin or asbestos on their twenty by fifteen feet houses with the financial support of the scheme of rupees one lakh twenty thousand.  Many families are trying to collect extra money to put concrete roof on their houses. Those who have not received the government support yet are always gathering around the village elected representatives whenever they see the piece of paper in their hands in the village roads and enquiring, is my name in the list? Many have already made prior understanding with their uncles and cousins regarding which house to be demolished to build the brick house or on which agricultural land they will build it if they find their name in the list.

From kachha to brick house, mud to concrete road, these changes are definitely a sign of development for a family and the village.  The families who have to live under rotten thatched roofs during rainy season to them the joy of getting a brick house is enormous. Within 2022 all poor families of the country will be given decent houses. But the issue which does not come in discussion is, besides the advantages of living in brick houses the compromise that Santals have to make with their traditional culture and gradual increase of mental stress.

The disappearance of mud-house from Santal life not only ends the mud-house alone but also their religious and cultural life that are connected to it. And also the centuries-old traditional knowledge and art of building low-cost-no-cost mud-houses and the related skills and crafts, like wall paintings die out. The sources of small income of rearing domestic animals in open courtyard of the mud-house like hen, duck, goat and the pigeons in the earthen pots under the thatch roof also gets destroyed, because it is difficult to rear such animals in single-room house of tin roof.

The families who are trying to collect money to concrete their roof also have to go through huge mental pressure. Since they have no idea about the actual cost of the concrete roof they hand over all the government subsidy money and the responsibilities to the mason. And when the money gets exhausted the mason abandons the work and moves elsewhere.  Many such incomplete concrete houses are seen in the villages. Mongal Mardi from Bishnubati village died before completing his house. His son Nirmal could not complete even after mortgaging their agricultural land. Because the foundation he laid with the advice of the mason included the kitchen and toilet along with the two bed rooms of whose cost he could not imagine even in his dream. 

My neighbour Rashmoni Baski, mother of two children is a daily labour. She started saving money since four years from daily wage to concrete the roof of her house. She completed it two months back but to achieve that she had to sacrifice a lot. Her high school goer son had to discontinue his studies for extra income. Her husband suffered with malnutrition and died of tuberculosis. Now she lives with her children in an incomplete brick house covering the empty door and window holes with old sarees and cement bags. Earlier the roof used to be covered with straw or tiles, now asbestos is used which scientist and environmentalists also have agreed that it causes disease, then why such arrangement to spread the disease?

The question is not only of comfort but the way of life. Santals have their own community life that has kept them intact since centuries. Mud-house and the natural environment of the village are all part of that community life. If any one aspect of that component changes their rhythm of life gets affected. 

With the demand of time the change is inevitable. Santals have already accepted that change. But when the government wants to change the basic component of Santal life why they are not given the opportunity to express their opinion? If development is the goal then government can financially support them in such a way that besides preserving their culture they can build their house and roads according to their aesthetic taste and design. Whether village roads could be build more community friendly with moram instead of making them with stone and cement in these matters villagers can give their opinion. In the matter of their development participation of the Santals is needed. In this way the transition from traditional way of life to modernity could be gradual and less stressful.

Source: courtesy Dr. Boro Baski (by email 21 July 2019)

More posts contributed by Dr. Boro Baski >>

For inquiries on Santal cultural and educational programs, please contact
Dr. Boro Baski
M: 094323 57160

Ghosaldanga Bishnubati Adibasi Trust
Registration under Trust Registration Act 1982
P.O. Sattore, Dist. Birbhum
West Bengal-731 236

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