By Anshuman Didwania
The City of Joy welcomed us into West Bengal with its blistering fury. In the evening hullaballoo of Park Street, the quaint sights of Kalighat and the unpredictable sounds of Entally, we discovered nostalgia and novelty in equal proportions. Veiled by ceaseless activity and vocal exuberance, nothing seems amiss here. In the captivating splendor of Kolkata, it was easy, almost natural, to forget about issues that lay beyond. Yet, once we reached Shyampur, a quiet little village a few miles from Kolkata and at the heart of Mr. Sultan Ahmad’s constituency of Uluberia, facades were lifted and realities lay bare.
Shyampur encapsulates the image of rural Uluberia – a community fettered by poverty and unemployment. Mired in their relationship with agriculture, the people of Shyampur have largely remained immune to the technological advancements driving urban growth – much like the other villages of West Bengal. It is no wonder then that West Bengal has fallen woefully short in contributing to the nation’s fervor for unprecedented economic growth. As Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari note in their whitepaper, “Transforming West Bengal: Changing the Agenda for an Agenda for Change”, West Bengal has done little justice to the aspirations of its hundred million residents.
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However, change seems to have been jolted out of its slumber. Today, Shyampur and much of Uluberia can boast of pukka roads and mass electrification – a stark contrast to its developmental situation prior to 2009. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) seems to have taken off and MP-LAD funds were powering infrastructure projects across the village. As we walked past the site of Shyampur’s first library, Mr. Zulfikar Ali Mullah, the Vice-President of the Gram Panchayat, reminded us: “None of this would have been possible without Sultan Sahib’s efforts”. A similar sentiment echoed across the other blocks that we visited. Uluberia Uttar, Udaynarayanpur and Bagnan, in spite of their past socio-economic misfortunes, are now brimming with hope.
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Most importantly, the women of Uluberia, previously confined to the kitchen, are now awakening to the possibilities before them. Shyampur Siddheswari College has witnessed unprecedented female enrollment and graduation rates and Bagnan-I’s Mahila Bikash Co-operative Credit Society is an organizational and financial masterpiece scripted by the collective willpower and fortitude of the women of Bagnan-I. Our client, Mr. Sultan Ahmad, believes that the resurgence of Uluberia will be heralded by the economic empowerment of its women, a labor force long under-utilized and under-appreciated. Thus, we embark on our endeavor to help smoothen the school-to-work transition of the women of Uluberia. Harnessing the potential of educated women is essential to triggering sustainable growth in the region – not just economic in nature, but also social. As demonstrated in Bagnan-I, the empowered woman’s ingenuity, determination and proclivity for entrepreneurial ventures in and around their homes is an ailing society’s panacea. The educated women of Uluberia, in the words of Shri Sultan Ahmad, “are the real catalysts of change, the true guardians of liberty”. We whole-heartedly concur as we set out to help them ink a brand new chapter for Uluberia.
The Swaniti Members (Left-to-Right): Anshuman Didwania, Nitin Saboo, Shri Sultan Ahmad, Mr. Bhattacharya