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Sujit Chakraborty
Date of Publish: 2015-07-08

Riot-hit, terror-ruined Mandai tops in financial literacy among blocks in India

Mandai, an obscure and nondescript village 30km northeast of Tripura capital Agartala, was a picture of coexistence.

Then 8 June 1980 dawned to turn the village in Tripura’s Nellie. And drive a wedge between the tribal inhabitants and the non-tribal Bengalis.

That day, rioters killed some 400 – the official figure is 255 – villagers in a gruesome ritual, severing their limbs and crushing their heads. Most of the victims were Bengalis, also the prime targets of terrorism that had reached the area earlier.

Mandai became infamous for the largest human slaughter in India on a single day after Nellie in Assam (18 February 1983). Officers of the army, assigned to ensure peace after the 1980 riot, said the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam paled in comparison to that of Mandai.

US soldiers had killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians at My Lai on 16 March 1968.

Few can forget the scars of Mandai. They include five-time Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) legislator Manoranjan Debbarma. “Children were spiked to death and wombs of pregnant women were ripped open. We had lived through a horrific, difficult time,” he recalled.

Debbarma survived an ambush on his convoy by rebels in April 2004. “We had to flee our homes. Over 140 people were killed. We are refugees in our own land,” he said.

The CPI-M has retained the Mandai Bazar assembly constituency ever since Tripura became a full-fledged state on 21 January 1972. “My father, Rashiram Debbarma, won this seat three times. Now that he is old, I have contested and retained it.”

The CPI-M had chosen Rashiram for the assembly seat after terrorists killed his predecessor Kalidas Debbarma in 1979.

Most of the Bengalis left Mandai after the 1980 ethnic riots that spread to other areas of Tripura, leaving 1,200 people dead (unofficial toll 2,000). But the area continued to be plagued by insurgency until 2009.

Today, Mandai block has emerged from the shadow of a gory past to script an incredible story of transformation – by outdoing 6,835 other blocks in India in financial inclusion and financial literacy. In other words, by ensuring every tribal family in the block has a bank account.

On April 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognised Mandai block’s feat with a national award.

Mandai’s Block Development Officer (BDO) Monohar Biswas said: "Of the 12,910 families comprising 55,050 people, there are 21,984 bank accounts with more than one bank account in many tribal families."

Over 95 per cent people in Mandai block are now tribal.

“Mandai block has achieved over 100 per cent target in providing access to banking and financial services and has become a role model for the others,” former West Tripura District Magistrate Abhishek Singh said.

He added: “As a result of financial inclusion, more and more tribal people of the block are now connected to banks for access to government aid.”

It wasn’t easy motivating the villagers; almost none in Mandai block had a bank account until 2012. The local MLA and other elected representatives helped officials conduct some 200 general-cum-financial literacy camps besides campaigning door-to-door to change the locals’ mindset.

“When we started the financial literacy campaign in February 2012, we came across a tribal family whose members kept money in a bamboo tube under the roof of their small thatched home,” Biswas said.

The villagers were not even aware of the benefit of a bank account, and were thus losing out on many financial benefits provided by the government. Relentless campaigning helped open their eyes to banking and financial services. Loans from banks for small ventures – tailoring, small shops, poultry and pig farms, farming and trading – began changing lives.

“Access to financial services has empowered the tribal people and boosted their self-confidence. Many tribal families in Tripura are earning lakhs of rupees through rubber and other cash-crop cultivation,” Biswas said.

Apart from local politicians, bank and civil administration officials, former Tripura chief secretary Sanjay Kumar Panda (now union textile ministry secretary) and former West Tripura District Magistrate Gitte Kirankumar Dinkarrao played a key role in transforming Mandai.

“The rush for opening bank accounts has made State Bank of India, Tripura Gramin Bank, United Bank of India and Canara Bank set up branches across Mandai block,” Biswas said.

Social activist and researcher Sekhar Paul said: “Underdeveloped, impoverished and food-deficit Tripura reeled under militancy until 2009. But things began changing around 2006, after the State government tamed extremism that kept tribal areas like Mandai backward for a long time.”

Improved road connectivity and other development projects raised the aspirations of the people, particularly the younger generation.

“There was a time when Mandai was virtually an extremists’ command centre. Now young tribal boys and girls, after taking vocational training, are setting up production units and are studying at universities,”Paul added.

Natural rubber was vital cog in the wheel of Mandai’s economic transformation. A large number of tribal families are now engaged in the commercial farming of natural rubber, which has helped counter ‘jhum’ or slash-and-burn cultivation.

With a population of 3.7 million, one third of them tribal, Tripura today has a literacy rate of 96 per cent as against 55 per cent in 1993, when the Left Front returned to power after a five-year interregnum.

“But development was possible only after the Left Front government led by CPI-M overcame multilayered hurdles, including ethnic problems and terrorism,” Paul said.

Jatindra Debbarma, an octogenarian tribal inhabitant of Mandai’s Pulinpur hamlet, agreed. “We had nothing 10-12 years ago. Now we have everything to lead a comfortable life.”

Owner of a 10-hectare rubber garden and father of three government servants, Debbarma added, “We want only peace and ethnic harmony now.”

(Sujit Chakraborty is a Senior journalist based in Agartala, Tripura and can be reached at agt.sujit@gmail.com)

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