Totos of West Bengal Face Govt’s Apathy, Demand Better Infrastructure, Employment Opportunities
Totopara: Totos, which are known to be one of the most endangered PVTGs (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) in the country, say that they are facing an existential crisis – owing to the small size of their population and “external threats”.
The Toto community in Alipurduar is only 1670-strong and is reeling under several issues. Ashoke Toto (53) is an elderly member of the community and the grandson of Dhanpati Toto, the erstwhile chieftain of the Totos in Totopara. Speaking with NewsClick, he alleged that the non-tribal Nepalese population has been “taking over” the land in Totopara. He added, “Outsiders come to our basti and sell illegal country-made liquor. Some of us have died due to a stroke after drinking it. We brew our own liquor made from millet. It has medicinal value. But the illegal hooch is harmful; it has killed five Totos in the past year itself.”
Sanjib Toto (46), who is a backward classes welfare inspector for the West Bengal government, is the first graduate from the Toto community. He told NewsClick, “If one really wants to improve Totopara, the infrastructure must be developed. The government could ensure that the NH 31C is available to be used by Totos. There was once a bus route between Madarihaat to Totopara, which was closed by the private bus owner even though that permit still exists. District magistrates and additional district magistrates all have come to Totopara a number of times and know about the inaccessible terrain, but nothing concrete has been done about it.”
A traditional Toto hut made from bamboo.
“We want self-rule and decentralised planning for the betterment of Totopara. If the central government releases funds under PVTG schemes, only a minuscule amount of that actually reaches the people from Totopara,” alleged the members of the community, pointing also the lack of representation. “We have no one from the community in the gram panchayat. Our gram panchayet pradhan is a Nepali. There are fewer Totos living in the region and we are overshadowed by the Nepalese community,” claimed Sanjib.
Sanjib, along with others in the community, is of the opinion that a special recruitment drive for the Totos by the state government is needed so that the graduates from the community can land government jobs. “There are 42 tribes in West Bengal. Making us compete with the already established tribes in the field of education is unfair,” he said.
The Totopara town – close to the Indo-Bhutan border – is 705.7 km away from the state capital and about 20 km far from the nearest town, Madarihaat. To reach the town, one has to cross four riverbeds that act as roads in the months before winter – as there is no water in them. Due to the lack of roads, it takes over an hour and a half to arrive in Totopara from Madarihaat. In the rainy season, this route is closed at several spots due to the water in the streams. One also has to cross Jaldapara National Park on this route and as a result, sightings of wild animals like bison and wild elephants are quite common. The alternate forest route can not be used for the journey as it falls under the core zone of the forest and is hence prohibited from being used. Totos, however, point t0o the NH34C – which also falls under the core zone. Yet, there is no road being constructed to connect Totopara with the nearest town. The administration has remained tight-lipped about the lack of infrastructure.
There are currently 416 families residing on the Indian side. Most of them consider themselves Hindus and follow a patrilineal gotra system. But about 16 families in Totopara have embraced Christianity. Even those who identify as Hindus among Totos are culturally quite different – they bury their dead instead of cremating them, worship nature gods, and have a sacred instrument that is kept in a secret chamber. The biggest festival celebrated by Totos is called Angchu Puja – which lasts between August and October 18. They give hens and pigeons as gifts to gods and goddesses. Their diet includes the meat of animals like cats, dogs, and pigs,
The Toto ethnic group uses their own distinct language. However, the medium of instruction in the local school is Bengali.
Rita Toto is the first woman graduate in Totopara which now boasts 18 graduates in total. Bhakta Toto, a soldier in the Indian army, who was home for a Diwali break, told NewsClick, “How much ever education a Toto has, they love to tend to cows and goats, taking them to the hills for grazing.” Dhananjay Toto, who has a master’s degree, is also a source of pride for the community. However, he is unemployed. Most educated youth from Totopara say that the PVTG status doesn’t help them get a job. Many of them are sitting idle and unemployed, which has led to growing disinterest in continuing education. About 50 to 75 toto youths are currently working as migrant labourers in Sikkim and Bhutan after not finding work in their district or village.
Toto community's temple, known as 'demsa'.
Bharat Toto (23) is a second-year student of MA History at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. He spoke to NewsClick about the issues that the residents of Totopara have been facing. “There is a lot of pollution here due to the limestone mines in Bhutan. The nearest hospital for Totopara is 25 km away. It is an arduous journey for a patient. A lot of times, we rely on our own medicines prepared from wild grass for cuts and wounds,” he said.
"Under Article 285, financial assistance is provided by the Centre to the state government for the betterment of PVTG, but special schemes seldom manage to make an impact,” he alleged.
“In a democracy, majority rules and we being a small community, it has led to apathy towards our development,” said Ashoke Toto.
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