Bihar Elections: Impoverished and abandoned, Nitish Kumar's inaction turns 'Mahadalits' into a mere specious tag
Introduced by Nitish Kumar in 2007, the Mahadalit umbrella for selected Scheduled Caste communities was seen as a largely political move, which complicated the already-complex Dalit voter base in Bihar.
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 fourth report in a multi-part series.
Muzaffarpur: “Kisi ko vote nahi denge (We will not vote for anyone),” said Parbi Devi. A migrant worker from the Musahar community in Nawada’s Dularpur village, the 46-year-old says political rallies — where “these netas” are lauding the development work — are ridiculous.
Living off a narrow tar road which goes to Nalanda, a group of 70 Mahadalit families from one of the poorest panchayats in Bihar -- Qadri Ganj, subsist under inhumane conditions. “My family and I have to leave our homes for nine months because this sarkar cannot provide us with food or jobs. Jayenge nahi toh kya karenge?” asks Parbi, a Scheduled Caste woman who migrates to West Bengal with her family of five for nine months, every year. “I am waiting for Durga Puja to get over. We will have to look for work again,” she said.
Eighty percent of the population in this village comprises unskilled migrant workers who toil at brick kilns and other odd jobs for a paltry Rs 250-300 a day.
Who benefits from the Mahadalit tag?
According to the 2011 Social Economic and Caste Census, a total of 17,829,066 (88.82 percent) Scheduled Caste households are currently living in rural Bihar, while only 2,245,176 (11.18 percent) are in urban Bihar. In 2007, Nitish Kumar introduced the Mahadalit umbrella after the Bihar State Mahadalit Commission recommended the inclusion of 18 Scheduled Castes in the category. The move was seen largely as a political one, which complicated the already-complex Dalit voter base in Bihar.
“Unlike Uttar Pradesh, which witnessed a social revolution engineered by Kanshi Ram in the 1980s and ’90s which gave a voice to the state’s marginalised Jatav community, Bihar did not see a similar Dalit consolidation,” says DM Diwakar, social scientist and a political thinker. According to Diwakar, Dalit voters in Bihar traditionally leaned towards the Left. “Because we did not have a “Dalit” party or a leader in Bihar. It changed as Mayawati got stronger in UP and the Left became weaker in Bihar,” Diwakar explains.
This also meant that the Dalit vote, which comprises 16-17 percent of Bihar’s population, is always divided, depending on which Dalit leader of which sub-caste is allied with which party. Jitan Ram Manjhi came up as a strong Dalit leader around 2013. And subsequent election results proved that the caste calculations had worked. Manjhi was Bihar’s first Mahadalit chief minister.
The Mahadalit voters in Bihar are thus a crucial voting bloc for the JD(U)-BJP combine. However, on the ground, their anger is palpable because, despite the sub-categorisation, they have not received the promised benefits from the government. Nitish Kumar, under the new umbrella, introduced multiple schemes for the benefit of the Mahadalits – from educational loans to scholarships to housing. The lack of implementation of these policies on the ground is stark.
Requesting anonymity, a senior ActionAid India executive said that even though the creation of the Mahadalit category did empower the non-Paswan Dalit castes politically and socially, it has failed to benefit the communities.
“It has served the politicians well because now they can target the castes for votes. Initially, 18 communities, including the Musahars, were brought under the Mahadalit category. Eventually, a few more castes were added with only the Paswans excluded. Effectively, there is now no distinction between Dalits and Mahadalits except perhaps in the minds of some of these castes and in the manner political parties continue to seek votes from SCs. The idea was to have a specialised group that would achieve equitable representation of all SCs in government service, and would bring about ‘real equality’. This has not happened,” the executive said.
The basis of special protections for SCs comes, in the first place, from the fact that all these castes suffered social inequity. Untouchability was practised against all these castes irrespective of economic status, education and other such factors.
Social inequality forces migration
The effects of caste inequality and untouchability in Bihar, however, are shocking.
In Muzaffarpur’s Musahari block, Shiv Kumari, a 30-something farm worker, points to a pink building far off from where we are standing in her village.
“That is the middle school for all children in this block,” she says stressing on the word “all”. According to her, when she reached the school with 10-15 kids from her village Narauli in tow, the teacher enrolling the children told them not to aspire too high.
“Kahan kahan se chala aya hai itna musahar sab” were the exact words of the teacher, according to the villagers. “Humka kachra jaise bolein (they treated us like garbage),” chimed in a minor quietly sitting behind her mother. Her and many like her in the village still cannot study because of the extreme caste inequality that still exists in villages with a high Musahar population.
The Musahars are socially and economically one of the most backward communities in Bihar. Despite heavy out-migration among the community, which is meant to empower and bolster their living conditions, Musahars are still viewed as a rat-eating community. The Musahari block falls under the Bochahan Vidhan Sabha constituency, which is reserved for the Scheduled Caste community.
Internal migration, both within a state and across in India, improves households’ socio-economic status and benefits both the source and the destination states. Remittances can help reduce poverty in the migrants’ places of origin. It does not work that way in Bihar.
While extreme poverty and lack of job opportunities drive them away from their homeland, migrant workers — especially from the backward castes — do not complain about leaving their homes. “Izzat hai baahar. Lekin yahan wapas aate hain toh vahi chhuaachhoot ki pareshani (We have respectability outside. But when we return here then the untouchability issue shows up again,” says a 27-year-old SC youth, who did not want to be named.
An analysis of Census data and research studies by India Migration Now, a Mumbai-based non-profit, found that despite active migration, backward communities continued to face social segregation, labour market discrimination and barriers to accessing the most basic services. The research also found that “scheduled castes (SC) — considered ‘lower’ in the social hierarchy — and scheduled tribes (ST) — indigenous tribal populations — benefited less from migration as social discrimination continued to impact them.”
This reporter met a group of migrant workers who belonged to the SC communities and hailed from Rajwara Bhagwan panchayat in Musahari block. “Bhookhe marne se toh behtar hai ki kaam karke COVID se hi marein,” says Deep Lal Ram, a 60-year-old migrant worker who operates auto-rickshaws in Haryana’s Faridabad. He decided to leave Faridabad when it became unfeasible to pay the Rs 2,200 room rent, soon after the Centre announced the 24 March lockdown without notice.
“I started my rickshaw from Faridabad with Rs 200 in my pocket. By the time I reached Lucknow, I was penniless. So, I sold my rickshaw for Rs 700. It took me 20 days to reach Muzaffarpur. Now, for the past six months, there is no income in my family. I have incurred a loan of over Rs 3.5 lakh and my children are still going to bed empty-stomach,” he said.
Deep Lal is not alone. Many migrant workers from the SC communities came home during the lockdown and were forced to return because there were no jobs in Bihar. “I returned from Rajkot in April after the government announced the lockdown. After staying here for a month and a half, I got no job. Even under MGNREGA, there was no clarity among officials and I got no respite. I was forced to go back. But my mother’s failing health forced me to return. Now, I am back to square one and waiting to return once they start running the trains,” says Mohan, a 23-year-old youth, who listlessly listened as others around him slammed the incumbent government.
Many returned home after exhausting their savings. Some after borrowing money from their families back home, just to make the journey. A majority of the migrant workers -- especially the unskilled labourers from the unorganised sector -- earn Rs 400 a day on average. Those who returned in the middle of the lockdown had to spend at least Rs 3,500 per head for a ride back to Bihar. “Where will we get the money? Look at our village. Ek bhi pakka rasta dikha aapko? Idhar aspataal (hospital) aur rasta toh hai nahi, naukri kahan se milega?” snapped a 37-year old migrant worker who paid Rs 3,000 to return from Hyderabad in April this year. He has not found any job in his village, or under MGNREGS.
Noticeably, in May, the Centre had allotted Rs 1 lakh crore to MGNREGS to boost employment in villages. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched the Rs 50,000 crore Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA) to provide work over three months to returnee migrant workers in six states, including Bihar. MGNREGS is a component of the scheme.
There is a huge gap between the way government policies are aired in public and the political will to execute them in Bihar. “Sarkaari nitiyon ke baare mein local BDO (block development officer) ko bhi khabar nahi hai. Toh ye anpadh gaon wale kaise janenge (When the block level officer is unaware of the government policies, how will the uneducated villagers know?),” asks Arvind Kumar, a social activist who works with the SC communities in Muzaffarpur and Sitamarhi.
As Kumar enumerates the various schemes announced for the Mahadalits which were never realised on the ground, our vehicle pauses at a small overbridge connecting two Musahar villages. A minor girl quietly cleans a load of dirty dishes. Her family — father, mother and two minor brothers — has gone out to look for work. When asked if she goes to school, she silently gestures in the negative. When asked where the family lives, she points to a vacant area under the bridge which has a cot, just about enough space for two people, and some clothes bundled up in a corner.
They are the Mahadalits of Bihar.
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