Bihar Elections: Can Nitish count on his core constituency of women voters?

Benefits and upliftment of women under the incumbent JD(U)-led govt have been transient. As Bihar readies for the final phase of voting on 7 November, the COVID-19 lockdown and ensuing migrant strife has brought the state’s long-suffering women electorate into focus

Devparna Acharya November 06, 2020 20:48:10 IST
Bihar Elections: Can Nitish count on his core constituency of women voters?

Sumitra Manjhi (second from left) says prohibition exists only on paper in Bihar. Her neighbour Tetri Manjhi (third from left) says her husband drinks and picks fights with her. Devparna Acharya

Editor’s Note: By June 2020, at least 32 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar, driven home by the pandemic. The state’s resources, already stressed to capacity, has barely managed to resettle these workers. Their daily economic hardship is now the primary issue in the run-up to Bihar’s Assembly election, scheduled to take place between 28 October and 7 November. Firstpost travelled through the state to understand those issues faced by migrant workers that will play a critical role in voting patterns. This is the fifth report in a multi-part series.

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Nalanda: Sudhir never consulted his wife, Shobha, when he decided to travel back to his hometown of Nalanda from Delhi. The Government of India had announced a strict nationwide lockdown on 24 March to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus , paralysing the migrant workers like Sudhir and Shobha.

“We had reached Delhi only two weeks prior. My husband had come home (Bihar) for Holi. I and my two sons left for Delhi the day after Holi. Do hafte mein lockdown ho gaya (In two weeks there was lockdown),” says Shobha, with a resignation that is common in the women of Bihar.

Shobha was not consulted when they had left for Delhi either. “Humara kya hai. Jidhar bolenge jaane jayenge. Lekin agar humse poochte toh na hum yahan se jaate, aur na udhar se aate (I don't have any stand. I go wherever I am told to. But if I was asked I would have neither gone from here nor come from there),” she says, with rising anger. Shobha represents lakhs of those migrant workers for whom migration is not a choice. She is also one of the 49,821,295 women in Bihar who form a crucial constituency for incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Shobha wishes her husband had asked her once before leaving Delhi during the lockdown. Recounting those days, Shobha says, “The landlord in Delhi started troubling us for rent after a month. We had already taken a loan, but I still did not want to leave. But we had to because my father-in-law became really ill.”

After struggling for a week on the road, Shobha and her family reached their village in Nalanda close to midnight after spending Rs 30,000. “The villagers told us to get tested and only then enter the village,” says Shobha. After walking to the nearest hospital, 32 kilometres from their village, they were told that the doctor was unavailable. “We spent the night sitting near the road. The next morning, we went to the hospital and got tested. We had to quarantine ourselves for 14 days. We hardly saw my father-in-law. He passed away two days later,” she says.

The unwitting migrant workers

“Men have to migrate because there are no employment opportunities here. But even if we had a way to figure out our employment in our hometowns, we have to give that up and follow our husbands without ever being asked what we want,” says Shobha.

When the hurriedly-imposed lockdown triggered a severe migrant crisis, images of hapless and starved migrant workers were prominent across all newspapers and websites. Interestingly, the images were only of men. The migrant crisis which broke out mid-April was a stark revelation of how the State had ignored and overlooked 80 percent of its workforce. While every media outlet— national and international— spoke about the “invisible workforce” of the country left to fend for themselves, they quite literally missed those who were walking in the shadows of the men.

“We walked too. We starved too. And we were not even consulted. Doosre ke sahare hain hum (We are dependants),” adds Shobha, as her youngest daughter, all of nine years old, hangs by her pallu. “Even when I left, I had to leave my daughters behind. Because my boys needed more care,” Shobha adds, quietly stroking her daughter’s head. Shobha’s husband incurred a debt of Rs 2 lakh before they returned home. When asked if she wanted to work along with her husband, Shobha says yes. But even before lockdown, there was an acute shortage of jobs.

Bihar Elections Can Nitish count on his core constituency of women voters

Shobha and her family, who had left Delhi during the COVID-19 lockdown. It took them nearly a week and around Rs 30,000 to reach their village in Nalanda. Devparna Acharya

According to Bihar’s gender indicators, it lags behind national averages —  its female literacy rate has gone up from 37 percent to 50 percent between 2006 and 2016, but it’s still below the national average of 68.4 percent. The state performs the worst when it comes to female labour force participation rates among all states — 4.1percent, against the national average of 23.3 percent, according to the National Sample Survey 2017.

Because of socio-economic and gender inequities, women are already disadvantaged, and effectively dependants. The running of the household within extremely limited means falls on the shoulders of the woman of the household.

Four-month pregnant Ganiya Devi has taken a break for lunch. “What will I do if I don’t work? My husband returns with an empty pocket every day from Bettiah. There are no jobs,” she says.

Usha Kumari, a Change Agent with Nav Bihar Samaj Kalyan Pratisthan Kendra since 2002, has been working with women in villages to sensitise them towards gender issues. “We had to then tell them what was the value of their day’s work. That if they were not there, ghar ka chulha nahi jalega (there will be nothing to eat). That cooking, cleaning and household chores count as work,” she says.

When the lockdown was imposed and crores of migrant workers started walking home, the already limited/constrained public health and infrastructure was proven entirely inadequate. Amid this were lakhs of women walking along with their families. An acute shortage of public bathrooms and primary healthcare facilities left the women workers without recourse.

Ganiya works at a brick kiln factory nearby. She gets Rs 175 (Rs 200 for men) for carrying a load of 500 bricks in a day. With her pregnancy, Ganiya hardly makes Rs 100 a day. The nearest hospital is 42 kilometres away in Bettiah, and the rural healthcare system offers them little succour.

Gender stereotypes, psychological and traditional barriers, and inequalities in education and healthcare add to the woes of this massive workforce. This workforce is not only unregulated but in the real sense, invisible. Worse off are unskilled manual women labourers who follow their husbands and earn even less, while doing the same, or sometimes more work.

Bihar Elections Can Nitish count on his core constituency of women voters

A daily wage labourer from Suryapur Bakiya village near Bettiah weaves a basket during her lunch break from carrying bricks at the nearby brick kiln. Devparna Acharya

Alcohol and domestic abuse add to adversity

Unemployment propels frustration among the jobless men of Bihar. Constantly being at home with children, especially during the lockdown, the despondent men vent out their frustration on their wives.

Tetri Devi, 36 and a mother of seven from Manika Murra village in Muzaffarpur, says her husband returned from Bengal during the lockdown in May. He has been home since, without a job.

“These days, the children quietly leave when we start fighting,” she says. The strife has been building up in poor and backward households after unemployment and starvation has pushed them to a corner. “What will a man do if he sits at home all day? All our children are at home and we are starving. He drinks, and picks fights with me. It gets ugly sometimes,” she adds.

On 1 April, 2016, Bihar was declared a dry state. The Nitish Kumar-led government enforced a five-year jail term for first-time offenders. In 2018, the law was amended to introduce a fine for first-time offenders. In fact, conventional wisdom attributed the sweeping victory in 2015 to the support of women who felt addressed by Nitish’s push for prohibition in Bihar.

A neighbour of Tetri, Sumitra Manjhi is close to 33 and is a mother of five boys. Skinny for her age, Sumitra says prohibition exists only on paper.

Karua tel ke naam se daru bikta hai ghar ghar. Jaake boliye kitna karua tel chahiye, phat se de denge ek botal (People sell alcohol in the name of Karua tel. Just go and say how much you need and a bottle will come out instantly),” she laughs as she says.

Karua tel is actually mustard oil used in the villages of rural Bihar. According to local activists, before the elections, illegal alcohol is freely distributed as a common practice. Hooch, the activists narrate, is cheaply made but sold at much higher prices. With little or no income, the men spend whatever money they have on this hooch, which is openly manufactured in these areas of the state.

Ye sarkar na zameen de payi, na naukri, na khana, na kapda. Daru bandhi se shuru mein thoda raahat toh mila tha. Paisa bachta tha thoda bahut. Lekin kahan kuch hua. Peete hain sab (This government has not given us land, jobs, food, or clothes. Prohibition was good for a few months. But it didn’t sustain. Everyone drinks),” says Sumitra. Her husband does not beat her, but he is unemployed and she is worried she will not have money for treatment if he gets sick off the illegal hooch he keeps drinking.

According to the Economic Survey of 2016, Bihar in 2014-15 earned over Rs 3,100 crore from the sale of liquor through excise duty. The budgeted estimate for 2015-16 was Rs 4,000 crore, as per the survey. IndiaSpend reported that since then, the state “has been losing out on all potential revenue from alcohol sales.” Since the ban on alcohol, deaths due to spurious liquor and drug abuse are on the rise.

Bihar Elections Can Nitish count on his core constituency of women voters

A migrant women worker in shobhanagar, Nalanda. Devparna Acharya

According to IndiaSpend, since the ban on alcohol, the number of addicts who came in to be treated for drug abuse doubled in just a year. In three years, the report said, those addicted to weed, charas and bhang, increased threefold since 2015-16, a year before prohibition was enforced.

Nitish’s core constituency has mixed feelings for their CM

Nitish Kumar did not sweep women voters off their feet just on the promise of prohibition. Several schemes to empower the girls and women of Bihar were initiated, and they paid both, social and political dividends. The incumbent chief minister has been securing the loyalties of women voters since 2005. Since being sworn into power that year, Kumar has launched several schemes aimed at the welfare of girls and women. He started the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna under which four million girls were given bicycles to ease their commutes to school. The scheme to distribute sanitary napkins to school girls was also launched under him in April 2014 .

The implementation of many of these schemes remains questionable, but Nitish was successful in what he set out to do. In 2010, for the first time, the turnout of women voters — 54.85 percent — was higher than that of male voters at 50.70 percent. In 2015, the trend continued with 59.92 percent of women voters exercising their franchise as opposed to 54.07 percent male voters.

Fifteen years later, Nitish’s core constituency exudes a mixed response.

An ASHA worker from the Bardahan village in East Champaran, who requested anonymity, tells this reporter that she is able to travel in Bihar alone today amid a pandemic because of Nitish Kumar. “Bihar auraton ka tha hi nahi Lalu ke samay pe. Izzat dilayen Nitish ji. Haan, rajneeti daav pench mein thoda ulajh gayein hain, lekin ayenge toh Nitish ji hi. (Bihar was not for women under Lalu. We got respect because of Nitish. He is a victim of political conspiracy, but he will return as the chief minister),” she says.

Bihar Elections Can Nitish count on his core constituency of women voters

Jeevika workers and women migrant workers from East Champaran. Devparna Acharya

Before she was an ASHA worker, she was “just a housewife” like the other women in the village. But as Nitish started opening doors for women in Bihar, the 42-year-old started taking interest in grassroots social work. “I came across this group and joined them. Today I am a senior ASHA worker and handle a team of 15 young women. My husband asks me about money matters. I walk with a head held high,” she says.

When women voted Nitish to power in 2015, that vote share had transcended caste. If that vote share collapses in 2020, this too will transcend caste. Nitish's main challenger, Tejashwi Yadav, will be eyeing the votes from the CM's core constituency. In addition to his own core voters of Muslims and Yadavs, the plus votes that Tejashwi needs to be able to get over the line could well come from women

Mintu Devi, 28, who is among the many educated women from Pokharpur in Gaya’s Dumaria block, agrees that Nitish is “the lesser evil” that Bihar has to offer today. “Daru toh ghair kanooni bikta hai har jagah, pooch lijiye kisise bhi. Aur sarkar kuch debe hi nahi karte hain. Bhookhe mar rahein. Khane ka paisa nahi hai, rozgar nahi hai. Idhar koi neta ata bhi nahi hai (Alcohol is illegally available everywhere. But the government has not helped us in any other way. We are dying of starvation without money and employment. No politician even visits our village),” says Mintu.

She, like the other villagers, has been doing “batai kheti”, or tenancy farming for the past few years. After years of incurring expenses,Mintu has incurred lakhs of debt. The unprecedented lockdown did not help matters. In the absence of a marketplace, the vegetables and grains they harvested were ruined. The police would chase them with lathis if they stepped out, she says. “Not only did I not earn anything, I exhausted my years' savings.

It is four in the unseasonably warm afternoon, and there is no work for either Mintu or her husband. The collective earning for the household, which comprises her three children and mother-in-law, was zero. “Raat ko bas maadh bhaat hoga aur kya (We will eat starched rice at night),” Mintu laughs and leaves.

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