Bihar Elections: State’s landless endure modern-day 'slavery', await promised lands

A series of laws, acts and yojanas have done nothing to lift Bihar’s landless out of pitiful indenture

Devparna Acharya November 10, 2020 03:31:49 IST
Bihar Elections: State’s landless endure modern-day 'slavery', await promised lands

Villagers of Bahuarwa Musahar Toli say the mill owners treat them almost like bonded labour. Firstpost/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 sixth report in a multi-part series.


Bettiah: Acchelal Musahar* is among the hundreds from Bahuarwa village who have decided not to send their children to school anymore, and it has nothing to do with COVID-19. A few years ago, his neighbour’s minor son was crushed under a truck while crossing the road to go to school. “Zinda kehlana behtar hai padhalikha se,” he says. 

Living just off the National Highway 727 in Bihar’s West Champaran, at least 150 Scheduled Caste and Dalit families, including Acchelal, are crammed into less than four acres of land. In fact, the highway for the most part is dotted with makeshift hutments. Residents of these hutments a majority of them from the SC and Dalit communities survive on the charity of their employers, because they historically are a “landless” community. 

On the other side of the highway is the middle school where children from several nearby villages come to study. Acchelal says speeding trucks and cars do not differentiate between cattle and humans. “We regularly lose livestock, we can’t lose our children,” he says.

Bahuarwa Musahar Toli is a sliver of the massive 6,000 acres of land owned by Harinagar Sugar Mill. The owners of the mill treat the residents of this hamlet, along with a few others spread in the area, almost like bonded labour. “Two generations of my family have worked for this mill. I saw my grandfather and father work. Then I started as a child, and I am 60 today and I am still working for them,” says Acchelal. 

Bihar Elections States landless endure modernday slavery await promised lands

Acchelal Musahar* received the “parcha” from the government which said that he will be given land to cultivate and live a year ago. He's had no luck despite making multiple rounds of local officials, including the district magistrate. Firstpost/Devparna Acharya

Holding out an old piece of paper, carefully kept in the folds of a tattered file, Acchelal says that he was given a strip of land by the government. It has been a year since Acchelal received the “parcha” from the government which said that he will be given land to cultivate and live. He made several rounds of the offices of the district magistrate and block-level officials, but in vain.

In 2014, the Bihar government launched Operation Dakhal Dehani: a programme which sought to help Dalits and SC communities reclaim occupied land that they can use for residential and farming purposes.

Modern day zamindari

Pankaj, a 60-plus social activist has been fighting for land rights for the SC and Dalit families over the past few decades. He explains that while Bihar was the first state to do away with the zamindari system, the upper caste families were not stripped of their surplus landholdings, given their clout and reach. “They are the modern-day zamindars,” he says. 

Small-time farmers and local activists helping them fight for their rights say that despite getting the “parcha which essentially means that they can legally own a piece of land to live on and for agriculture the landless SC and Dalit communities are still struggling to gain possession of these lands. 

Historically used to cultivate Indigo during the British Raj, the sprawling lands of Bihar were indiscriminately given away without proper papers, to descendants of zamindar families, says Pankaj. Even before Independence, land in these areas of Bihar has been illegally captured and owned by the powerful. 

According to Pankaj once Indigo cultivation was taken over by sugarcane farming, sugar mill owners, in the 1930s, started buying 4,000-5,000 acres of land at dirt-cheap rates. “When the news of this “sale” reached the neighbouring areas of Muzaffarpur, Chapra, Siwan, Gorakhpur (UP), Deoria (UP), the small zamindars or upper caste farmers of these regions scampered to buy cheap land. You will still find names of people from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh who have been dead for a while, mentioned as owners,” says Pankaj. 

Thus, the extremely fertile and sprawling lands, which had no proper papers, were distributed among a handful of powerful communities back then, he further adds. 

“Then came the Land Ceiling Act 1961 in Bihar which fixed how much land can be held by one individual and restricted sub-letting,” says Pankaj. 

The existing landlords, says Pankaj, chose a self-serving path of agrarian reforms in the wake of this Act. And despite several laws that were passed to safeguard the interests of the tenants and the labourers, corruption still ensures that the poor and the backward do not benefit from them. “For example, the Bihar Tenancy Act of 1885 was amended in 1970. Additionally, laws such as the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act and the Bihar Money Lender Act were enacted to safeguard the interests of labourers,” he says.

‘Work is seasonal, but our hunger is not’

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.

Despite the sub-categorisation, unskilled, uneducated communities such as the Musahar, continue to survive under a cloud of casteism and oppression. Government promises of benefit schemes have come and gone, but the lack of on-ground execution is stark. The SC community in East and West Champaran, however, sport different battle scars. 

Bihar Elections States landless endure modernday slavery await promised lands

A hamlet in Bihar's Bahuarwa Toli. The sanitation and living facilities here are beyond shocking. Firstpost/Devparna Acharya

Residents of these hamlets, near and far, survive on the charity of the mill owners. Unskilled and uneducated, these families don’t have much choice as far their livelihood is concerned. In the absence of steady jobs, the villagers are either forced to migrate to other states or to depend on the good graces  of the mill owners. 

Social activists working in the area summarise the situation in one line: The workers depend on the mill owners who oppress them, but on the other hand also impress upon them that it’s their charity that is keeping them alive. “This is not legally the land of the mill owners, but they can forcefully remove these villagers any day they want to. Villagers are scared to revolt against them. And they are also made to believe that it’s because of the “goodwill” of the mill owners that they have even this land to live. The mill owners, for all practical purposes, own the labourers,” says a local activist, requesting anonymity. 

All residents are employed by the mill owners at paltry wages. “The men get Rs 200 for odd field jobs and women get Rs 150-100 depending on the hours. Even that amount comes after 15-20 days,” says 45-year-old Shobha, a resident of the same hamlet. With erratic payments, Shobha says they consider themselves lucky on days when they get two meals. “If we somehow get some vegetables in one meal, the second meal is just rice and some dal water,” she says.

According to Shobha, work in the sugarcane fields is not available throughout the year. “Work is seasonal, but our hunger and poverty is not. We have been living in this condition forever. The government promises many things, but somehow our situation does not change,” she says. 

Residents from hamlets close to the Bahuarwa Musahar Toli said they have lost children to the biting winter because they did not have enough warm clothes. The mill owners renounce any responsibility towards their families, and seemingly ignore the fact that the meagre wages they pay aren’t enough for their labourers to make ends meet. 

“We have been given anaaj ya chawal (pulses or rice) instead of wages. But they deduct that price the next time they pay us,” says Shobha, who has a 8-member family and who recently lost a 3-month-old baby to starvation.

When asked about the child, Shobha says, “We can’t afford to think about “nutrition”. We are grateful If we get food.” According to Shobha, the devastating floods left nothing behind. “We survived in knee-deep water. These huts were filled with water. For some of us, the roof had fallen through. There was nothing to eat. What would I feed them?” asks Shobha. The child was 3-and-a-half-months old, Shobha said. 

Healthcare and education are first-world topics; the sanitation and living facilities at these hamlets are beyond shocking. The dilapidated homes are no more than 8x10 square feet, and house at least 10-11 inhabitants on an average. “There isn’t enough space for us and our children, then we have food, our belongings, our livestock,” says Acchelal.

Living right next to the highway, the women and children of these hamlets are forced to go to fields or corners to relieve themselves. “Hamari izzat nahi hoti hai. Hamare auraton aur betiyon ki izzat nahi hoti hai,” says Shobha’s neighbour Chattu Musahar, a migrant worker who travels to Punjab every year for work. 

Bihar Elections States landless endure modernday slavery await promised lands

Villagers of Bahuarwa Musahar Toli say the mill owners treat them almost like bonded labour. Firstpost/Devparna Acharya

Operation Dakhal Dehani

The complex issue of land rights in Bihar has been made murkier by the greedy and corrupt political and bureaucratic system, says Amar, a local social activist who has been working for the upliftment of backward communities for decades. “The zamindari system has thrived under the politicians in Bihar and is almost a dynastic occupation. Initially, the government had decided to distribute 20 decimals (a decimal is one-hundredth of an acre) to every Mahadalit family in the state for housing. That area has been amended to three decimals now,” he says. 

Bihar’s first Dalit chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, launched Operation Bhumi Dakhal Dehani in November 2014. Under the programme Dakhal Dehani, the Mahadalit families were not given new land; it only helped them get hold of the land already promised by the State to build homes, as well as farmlands. 

How many households benefited from this programme is difficult to calculate. While government sites have dates for when families could visit and claim “their land”, there are no details about beneficiaries. According to Amar, less than 1 percent of Mahadalit families still have occupation on the land that they were allotted. A poor Mahadalit family cannot brave “attacks from feudal elements, land mafias and the administration at different stages”, says Amar. There were also fake claimants, and the government was not ready to handle this level of lawlessness. “The genuine claims were forever lost in this flood. They are still struggling,” says Amar. 

Satyagraha, again

Sohan Ram, a small-time farmer and a seasonal migrant worker from the SC community in West Champaran, got permission to cultivate his own land in 1991-92 under the Bihar Land Ceiling Act. But it was not meant to be. 

“The previous zamindars cited a wrong high court order and evicted us from our own land. We were wrongfully told that this land is still not ours. When we demanded to see an official, the men from upper caste communities got their strongmen to beat us up and forcefully evict us from the land that is ours. Administration officials told us that the document which gave us ownership to this land had a stay order on it. It was a lie, but we did not have anyone who understood legal matters. We were thrown out,” says Sohan, who now lives in Salaha. 

Salaha is a small village in Bagahan block of West Champaran. It has approximately 135-140 Dalit families, all struggling for decades to gain possession of the land that they legally own. The sole breadwinner for a family of ten, Sohan lives in a tiny one room home. Pointing towards the only bed in the room, Sohan says all ten of them have to live in that space. 

Bihar Elections States landless endure modernday slavery await promised lands

Sohan Ram, small-time farmer and seasonal migrant worker, with his wife and two of eight daughters at their tiny one room home in West Champaran's Bagahan block. Firstpost/Devparna Acharya

The year that Sohan got ‘possession’ of the land, 166 others got the “parcha” too. According to him and five other farmers (from the 167 who got possession), the nexus between the powerful upper caste and the sarkar is too strong to fight. Despite the fact that the district official was supposed to expedite the case in three months on the orders of the high court, there was no movement in the case. “Between district officials and the zamindars, we have very little clout. No one listens to the poor. To ensure they see and hear us after 22-23 years, in 2014, at least 200 small-time farmers and landless labourers sat on hunger strike for 24 hours at the gates of the Collector. They did not budge. Three months later, we sat on hunger strike again. This time for 48 hours,” says Sohan. 

He recounts that even then, the local administration did not budge. “We then submitted in writing that if we don’t get the possession of our lands by 15 June, 2015, then we will sit on Bhumi Satyagraha: a non-violent civil resistance movement to claim the land which is legally ours. We gave the district magistrate three months to expedite the process, but we did not get possession of our lands,” he says. 

Several civil society organisations supported by local NGOs mobilised the people and wrote to all the families: over two lakh of them who were given the “parcha”. “We reclaimed our lands on 15 June, 2015. All 167 of us, with the support of everyone, took possession of our land and we cultivated it and we sowed paddy and sugarcane,” says Sohan. 

However, the resistance from those holding power was so much that just before the harvest was ready, the farmers were charged under Section 145 of the IPC, which pertains to cases where “disputes concerning land or water are likely to cause breach of peace”. 

“Backward and minority communities harvesting their crop on lands that were occupied (so far) only by the upper caste was a huge blow to those who did not want us to grow,” says Sohan. The farmers wrote to all district, block and state officials that the farmers will harvest their crops on 3 November, 2015. According to Sohan, the poor farmers made sure every application was filled out with due diligence. “We were already disadvantaged, we are backward and poor. We could not afford mistakes,” he says. They were charged under IPC on 2 November, 2015 and not even informed.  

Sohan and the group of farmers, however, went ahead with their plan of harvesting their first crop grown on the land that they owned, and distributed it among all the families. It was a historic day. “An FIR was registered against the 19 of us and they called us ‘anti-social elements’ for trying to live our lives with dignity. We were in jail for four months in 2016.”

Their ordeal did not end even after they were released, even though the land is still legally theirs. The upper caste zamindars continue to harass the hapless farmers by entangling them in complicated judicial procedures. In Bihar, there are six-seven different courts for land-related cases. A poor farmer who does not have the resources to hire lawyers will be drained of resources in a month of legal hassles. “By the time, you go through these cases, the land is gone,” says Pankaj.

Bihar Elections States landless endure modernday slavery await promised lands

Another hamlet near Bagahan comprising mostly of the displaced Scheduled Caste community. Firstpost/Devparna Acharya

Sohan and the other affected farmers who still are awaiting possession of their land, ask a simple question: “The government gave us the land. We peacefully occupied it and were cultivating land. A handful of powerful zamindars, with the help of administration officials, are trying to forcefully take what is genuinely and legally ours. When we protested against the injustice, we were intimidated by more laws and more arrests. This has been going on for over 15 years,” says Sohan. Finally, in 2020 when the case was in its last leg, Coronavirus took over the world. “Now, we have to wait. But this is, hopefully, the last remaining fight. It has been 29 years that we have been fighting for this land,” he adds. 

Firstpost made several attempts to contact the block-level officials and the Department of Revenue and Land Reforms, but due to elections, no one was available for a quote. 

As we walk back to the vehicle, Sohan points at endless agricultural land that surrounds us. “See the land as far as your eye goes. It is legally ours. But we cannot use it.”

Summarising the whole issue, Pankaj says that land is an asset which is not man-made. “Just like every human has the right to the air they breathe and the sun they absorb, the land that they walk on and live on should be easily, if not freely, available.”

If only it were that simple.

The Caravan profiled Acchelal Musahar in their piece titled: Landless Mahadalits in Bihar’s Bahuarwa have no hope from Modi’s election promises

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