Come 2 October, Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary, and you will see Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar in a new avatar. He has announced to wage a war against dowry, child marriage and other social evils with a view that social backwardness is one of the biggest hurdles in the development of the state.
Nitish Kumar has already directed his party men not to attend any marriage in which they suspect dowry might have changed hands. He will also announce a crusade against child marriage, a menace Bihar has not been able to tackle as a recent report says this constitutes about 39 percent of all marriages in the state, much higher than the national average.
During his tenure as chief minister, Nitish Kumar has successfully consolidated women population, regardless of caste and community, as his constituency. In his first term (2005-2010), he started the scheme of providing bicycles and uniforms to girl students which proved to be a game changer and resulted in phenomenal increase in school enrolments.
Nitish struck a kind of chord with women which no chief minister was able to establish before. During his yatras in his second term as the chief minister (2010-15), many women complained to him for allowing liquor shops in almost every village which compelled Nitish and his party Janata Dal (United) to take an U-turn. He made total prohibition a poll promise during 2015 Assembly election, which he was fighting in alliance with RJD. After getting elected, he fulfilled that promise on 5 April, 2016. This decision has further increased his popularity among women of the state.
Now on warpath against social evils, Nitish is all set to take legislative routes and change the constitution of the party, if required, to meet his new goals. He has decided to extend his zero tolerance against crime and corruption to a new level. Nitish's close aid and party's general secretary Sanjay Jha says, "Like total prohibition law, he may tighten dowry and anti-child marriage laws which will work as deterrent. The government is mulling on many options including dismissal of a government official found involved in taking or giving dowry, enhanced jail term for abetting child marriages and so on. "
Party leaders attending lavish marriage parties or found having any participation in child marriages might be punished and ousted from the party, Sanjay Jha hinted.
While lauding initiatives taken by the chief minister, Sanjay Jha said, "Many reformers tirelessly worked to eradicate social evils. Some of them joined politics also but apart from Annadurrai, first chief minister of Tamil Nadu, rarely any chief minister thought of waging a war against social traditions detrimental for half of the population. Nitishji has decided to adopt two pronged strategy of giving impetus to welfare schemes and lead the social awareness movement from the front."
Bihar at the bottom of social indicators
Gender Alliance, funded by United Nations population Fund (UNPF) and supported by Woman Development Council (WDC), government of Bihar, came out with a surprising figure on child marriage which puts the state at the bottom of nationwide list.
Prashanti Tiwari, state manager of Gender Alliance, told News18, "Child marriages constitute almost 39 percent of total marriages in the state. We have studied the social pattern of all 354 blocks and derived a social indicator. Remarkably blocks with higher economic indicators and low social indicators have higher numbers of child marriages. The qualitative reasoning behind the phenomenon is that the block where social index is low, the families tend to discriminate at birth. This discrimination continues even in adolescent stage, where the girls are inducted into marginal work-force. This inclusion of girls in marginal work-force, drives up the economic index but in totality it is a discrimination against female."
Block Hilsa in Nalanda district, Nitish Kumar's hometown, has a much lower social index score of 0.909. The overall block average (calculated for 534 blocks) for social index is 0.9406. The predicted female child marriage is high at 59.78 percent. This is higher than the overall average of 39.85 percent. Also, the Economic Index score for Hilsa Block is high at 0.591.
Bandhan Tod movement
The Bandhan Tod campaign is a comprehensive strategy to address the issue of child marriage and dowry in a holistic manner. A mobile application called 'Bandhan Tod' has also been launched by the Gender Alliance. The unique feature of this app is that it connects young girls to a peer network in the village to offer support against the potential child marriage.
The state's social welfare and woman development minister Manju Verma said her department was ready to implement the vision of Nitish Kumar. “Bihar is privileged to have such a chief minister who has been relentlessly working for women empowerment. Being a nodal department, our ministry is helping to meet his targets. Come October 2 and a new dawn will usher in,” The minister told News18.
Total prohibition, which cost Rs 5,000 crore loss to the state exchequer, was one of the biggest promises Nitish had made to the women of the state. It was a challenge but the state government overcame the financial owes by enhanced commercial tax collections.
Prohibition ensured increased household saving which not only enhanced buying capacity but also working hours resulting in reduction in the cases of domestic violence and rise in economic output. “Women always bore the brunt of domestic violence often at the hands of their inebriated husbands or someone else. Prohibition has stopped that. Now, women live their lives with dignity,” Verma says.
Challenge: Funds meant for women-centric schemes lying unused
Verma points out at four marquee programmes Nitish Kumar started for half of the population. He envisaged Mukhyamantri Kanya Vivah Yojna to discourage child marriages. The state government provides monetary help of Rs 5,000 for the marriage of daughters to those having annual income less than Rs 60,000. Other schemes are Mukhyamantri Kanya Suraksha Yojna and Mukhyamantri Naari Shakti Yojna. Under the Kanya Surkasha Yojna, the state government provides Rs 2,000 as a bank deposit to up to two girl children. Naari Shakti is a community-driven scheme and women development corporation provides financial assistance to self-help groups.
But, these schemes have not really taken off. For 2017-18, the government marked Rs 6,152 lakh for Naari Shakti scheme but the department has only disbursed Rs 175 lakh till September. Under Kanya Suraksha Yojna, the government has only disbursed Rs 100 lakh against Rs 7,627 lakh of budget outlay and half of the financial year has already passed. Inter-caste marriage promotion scheme has also met the same fate as the government has spent a meagre Rs 3.5 lakh against the allotted amount of Rs 700 lakh.
Concerned over the slow pace, the state government is mulling to integrate seven programs related to women empowerment into an umbrella scheme. Confirming this development, Manju Verma says, “Slow pace this year is also due to political uncertainty which resulted in the formation of a new government. Devastating floods also slowed down the process. But we will step up our efforts in the remaining six months.”
However, Prashanti says that government-funded schemes are just turning out like financial dole outs. "Our effort should be to achieve a a position where there is no need for help. To make that happen, it is imperative to ensure women participation in economic output. Sadly in Bihar, half of the population (women) only contributes to 9 percent in economic activities," she points out.
Nitish is trying to change this scenario which requires socially awakening of the part of the population for whom marrying a girl child is the utmost priority rather than thinking about their economic independence.
Updated Date: Sep 30, 2017 09:37 AM