‘Rich Get Richer, Poor Get Killed’: The Election Cycle Still Leaves Gaya’s Mahadalits Behind in Bihar

Lok Sabha Elections 2024: From childbirth to education to housing – government interventions are either inadequate or non-existent.
A classroom without a teacher at Gaura Dawar village in Pakri-Guriya block of Gaya’s Imamganj.
A classroom without a teacher at Gaura Dawar village in Pakri-Guriya block of Gaya’s Imamganj.

Gaya- At 6.30 am, Ranjay Kumar knocks at 12-year-old Neetu Kumari’s door in their village of Gaura Dawar. He tells her to get ready for a tuition class at the primary school nearby. By the time Neetu is ready to leave, Ranjay has already visited multiple other homes in the area, gathering his flock.

Fifteen minutes later, 12 children have assembled, books and stationery in hand. Ranjay walks them to the one-room school where they’re taken through recitation and writing over the next hour. Class done, the children go home for breakfast and then return to the school for the next class.

This is a regular task for Ranjay, a 30-year-old tola sevak, or village volunteer, in Gaura Dawar, located in Pakri Guriya panchayat at Imamganj block in Bihar’s Gaya. A member of the Bhokta community, an untouchable SC group, his primary responsibility is to go door to door, urging parents to send their children to school.

“I urge them to get their kids enrolled, make sure they attend classes without fail, assist children with their education, provide basic literacy to women, and create awareness about the social security and welfare schemes for them,” he rattles off. 

SC communities in Bihar struggle to get an education. Among Scheduled Castes in India, it is these communities that report the lowest literacy rates. About 92.5 percent of them work as farm labourers; 96.3 percent are landless. 

Among them, the condition of the Manjhis in southern Bihar and Sadas in northern Bihar are even more appalling. Offshoots of the Bhuiya tribe, they are Mahadalits, among the most downtrodden, also called Musahars or rat-eaters. They are also considered untouchables, engaged in menial labour with no chance of advancement. Severely disadvantaged and socially excluded, they make up about 22 lakh people in Bihar, according to the Mahadalit Commission’s interim report in 2007 –  though the actual figure is likely to be much higher. 

Musahars have always worked as agricultural labourers for landlords. They used to be bonded labourers, their survival dependent on undecided largesse handed out by landlords. Their poverty is entrenched, alongside untouchability, landlessness, illiteracy and malnourishment. 

Government programmes and initiatives have only gone so far. And with the general polls around the corner, there’s little hope of escape among India’s poorest people. Across Gaya, which votes in the Lok Sabha polls on April 19, families told The Mooknayak about how government assistance has left them behind.

Ranjay Kumar, a tol sevak in Gaura Dawar.
Ranjay Kumar, a tol sevak in Gaura Dawar.

‘Everyday we fight a battle for survival’ 

Ranjay is the first among his eight siblings – two brothers and six sisters – to get a bachelor’s degree. His father, like thousands and lakhs of Dalits and Mahadalits in Bihar, is a landless labourer who earns a living as a farm and construction labourer. 

Farm labourers in south Bihar are paid as per a barter system. They receive five kilograms of foodgrains (wheat or paddy, depending on the season) for a full day of work. Labourers told this reporter that if they want money instead, they’re given a paltry sum of Rs 150-200 per day, despite the minimum wage being set at Rs 395 per day for unskilled workers. On construction sites, they’re paid Rs 200-300 per day depending on demand for and availability of daily wagers.

Gripped by a financial crisis and unmindful of the benefits of an education, Ranjay’s father did not send his children to school. Except for Ranjay, the third among his siblings, who had an interest in studies and refused to give up on it. He passed with flying colours from Class 10 in the local high school, and then pursued Class 12 and a BA (honours) in geography.

In 2010, when Ranjay was preparing for government jobs. His father was old, one brother had a mental disability, another made a meagre living as a daily wager. That’s when Ranjay came across the opportunity to work as a tola sevak, appointed by the Bihar government in villages with at least 50 Mahadalit families. As contractual employees of the state government, they receive a fixed remuneration of Rs 27,000 per month. 

Without a second thought, Ranjay grabbed the opportunity with both hands. But it’s not an easy job. 

The village primary school has three teachers sanctioned for around 58 enrolled students – but it’s rare for all the students and teachers to be in attendance. When this reporter visited the school in April, only one teacher was on duty but even he was out at the time to collect textbooks for the new academic year. In his absence, it was Ranjay who had to teach the students.

Additionally, his interactions with parents, all of whom belong to socially excluded communities, are difficult.  

“Because of poverty and unawareness, these parents are forced to engage their children in odd jobs so they can contribute to the family’s income. Convincing them is not so easy,” Ranjay says. “Sometimes they send their children to school when there is an off season and no work. When they get a job, they take their children along so their earnings increase.”

Twelve-year-old Neetu, for example, is from a family in acute financial distress. Yet she continues her schooling because her father wants it for her.

A student of Class 7, Neetu says her grades have improved from D to C, even to B in one paper, in her half-yearly exams for the 2023-24 academic year. She credits her tola sevak for ensuring she went to school. Showing this reporter her marksheet, she smiles and shyly says she wants to study “compooter” – computers – and excel in her field.

Neetu Kumari, 12, studies in Class 7.
Neetu Kumari, 12, studies in Class 7.
Neetu’s report card.
Neetu’s report card.
Neetu’s mother Panwa Devi.
Neetu’s mother Panwa Devi.

But Neetu’s smile fades when she talks about her family’s struggle. Her parents, Jhamman Manjhi and Panwa Devi, are daily wagers. Living in a hamlet, they don’t own any land. They don’t even have a title to the plot on which their dilapidated half-kuchcha, half-pucca house has stood for decades. Neetu’s lunch every afternoon is rice with watery boiled dal. Vegetables or meat are a luxury. 

Jhamman Manjhi says he wants his daughter to study as much as she wants.

“We are labourers but don’t get work for more than 12-13 days in a month. The wage is so low that it’s extremely difficult to make ends meet,” he says. “We are surviving somehow. Everyday we fight a battle for survival. Despite all these challenges, I will try my best to ensure my daughter studies and achieves her aim.”

In Guliyadih village in Gaya’s Banke Bazar, Jayesha Devi says she gets agricultural work only during sowing and reaping days, “which do not last for more than 10 days”.

“In the name of daily wages, we get five kg of wheat or paddy along with one meal,” she says. “If we demand money, we are not paid more than Rs 150 a day. Once the work is over, we go back to brick kilns where we are paid Rs 50-60 for carrying 1,000 bricks and arranging it into a furnace. On an average, each of us manages to shift at least 3,000 bricks to earn Rs 150 a day.”

Government support – or lack of it 

Jhamman Manjhi says the “only support” he gets from the government is “free rations”, referring to the Public Distribution System.

Despite having job cards, Neetu’s parents do not get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. They say it’s because their work has been “replaced” by JCBs. On housing, Jhamman Manjhi says most people in the village had houses built decades ago under the Congress government’s Indira Awas Yojana. 

“But these are now on the verge of collapse,” he says. “We don’t sleep inside as the roof can collapse any day.”

We asked his opinion of Jitin Ram Manjhi, Bihar’s first Mahadalit chief minister and now the NDA candidate from Gaya. 

“He claims to be a champion of Mahadalit causes but he has done nothing for the community,” Jhamman Manjhi said. “Calling him a representative of his family members is more appropriate than our leader. He promoted his family in politics – his son Santosh Suman is a minister and his father-in-law is an MLA. His son-in-law is also a legislator.”

A much-touted state scheme is the Jeevika Mitra programme for banks, where community members, or jeevika mitras, are posted at bank branches to facilitate transactions and act as interfaces between banks and borrowers. Through these volunteers, the state government lends small amounts to marginalised women to make them self-sufficient. These loans are granted at an interest rate of just one percent, to be returned in 20 instalments.

Jhamman Manjhi is a daily wager in Gaura Dawar.
Jhamman Manjhi is a daily wager in Gaura Dawar.
Pratibha Kumari, a jeevika mitra, collects EMIs from women borrowers in Guliyadh village.
Pratibha Kumari, a jeevika mitra, collects EMIs from women borrowers in Guliyadh village.

“Each one of us is assigned to a village or two where we have to form a group of 10-15 women who want to do something to earn a livelihood,” says Pratibha Kumari, one of the jeevika mitras for the scheme. “The group is initially sanctioned Rs 1.5 lakh to be borrowed. The limit is revised based on the recovery. We give different amounts of loans to individuals as per their requirements. Jeevika Mitras like us visit door to door to collect the EMIs.”

But there are issues, according to villagers and volunteers.

The women who take loans are expected to invest the sum in setting up small businesses. But most borrowers spend on basics like constructing and repairing homes, medical bills, marriages and sending their male relatives to big cities to earn. Volunteers say the loans are spent on construction because many women “don’t get funds” in toto under government housing schemes due to “corruption at every level”.

For example, if Rs 1.5 lakh is sanctioned under the housing scheme, beneficiaries allegedly get about Rs 1.2 lakh in hand, even though the amount is directly transferred into their bank accounts. So, while Pratibha thinks the Jeevika Mitra scheme is a “great step”, she worries that it doesn’t fulfil its real objective, since loans are used to address immediate requirements.

As for government schools, a 2023 survey in north Bihar by Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, guided by Jean Drèze, revealed a “serious failure to ensure even minimum norms of schooling”. 

Attendance in primary and upper primary schools was barely 20 percent, none of the schools fulfilled conditions under the Right to Education Act, and there were “acute teacher shortages”. Children didn’t have textbooks or uniforms despite the government’s direct benefit transfer scheme, since the scheme was “conditional on 75 percent school attendance and also requires an Aadhaar”.

“Inadequate resources, ineffective policies and indifferent action are the issues these schools face and which can be seen as a reflection of their interdependent failures,” the report said. 

This reporter reached out to KK Pathak, additional chief secretary of the state education department, for comment. He refused to speak, citing the Model Code of Conduct.

Gaya and the rise of Jitan Ram Manjhi

Located on the banks of the Phalgu river, Gaya is believed to be where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It’s home to the ancient Mahabodhi temple, a Unesco heritage site, and therefore sees thousands of pilgrims every year.

Saffron flags are a common sight across Gaya city.
Saffron flags are a common sight across Gaya city.

Gaya city, which finds mention in the Ramayana as well, also hosts the Pitru Paksha Mela every year at the Vishnupad temple.

As per the Election Commission, Gaya’s Lok Sabha constituency has over 18.13 lakh voters of which 9.4 lakh are men and the rest women.

For the last 56 years, the seat has been a reserved constituency for Scheduled Castes. Since 1999, the seat has been dominated by candidates from the Manjhi community – BJP’s Ramji Manjhi won in 1999, RJD’s Rajesh Kumar Manjhi in 2004, BJP’s Hari Manjhi in 2009 and 2014, and JDU’s Vijay Manjhi in 2019.

Of the six assembly constituencies that form the Gaya Lok Sabha seat, three each are held by the NDA and by the Mahagathbandhan. Which is why all eyes are on Gaya this election.

This year, the NDA has fielded Jitan Ram Manjhi of the Hindustani Awam Morcha against the INDIA alliance’s Kumar Sarvajeet, an RJD leader and MLA from Bodh Gaya. Jitan Ram has contested unsuccessfully from Gaya in the general elections in 1991, 2014 and 2019, while the BJP has bagged the seat five times. Intriguingly, Jitan Ram was defeated by Sarvajeet’s father in his first electoral battle.

Despite his losses, Jitan Ram, 80, has considerable political experience. An engineering graduate, he left his job as a clerk to join politics in 1980. In 2009, he became the MLA from Bodh Gaya on a Lok Janshakti Party ticket – winning again in 2015 and 2020. He served as minister of tourism and then agriculture in the JDU-Mahagathbandhan government. Nitish Kumar then made him chief minister in 2014 – a decision Kumar later described as a “mistake”. 

But Jitan Ram himself has big plans for Gaya if he wins.

“The city lags on developmental indices,” he told this reporter. “I am contesting to raise the issue in Parliament. If given a responsibility, I will develop it the way it should have been developed.”

He sketches his roadmap to development – interlinking the Falgu river with the Ganga and others, setting up a network of canals to irrigate water-starved south Bihar, and more.

We ask him about the literacy rate of the SC community, which stands at barely 30 percent as against 80 percent in the state. For Mahadalits, it’s even lower, around 15 percent while for Musahars, it’s seven percent.

In response, Jitan Ram invokes Dr BR Ambedkar who had advocated a common schooling system for children across caste, community and religion.

“Over 70 years have passed but no one could even think about the system,” he says. “As a result, the ‘haves’ have excelled and become more prosperous. The have-nots – those who are economically, socially and politically deprived – face the worst marginalisation…Today, parents belonging to socially excluded Dalit families send their children to big cities to either work as domestic workers or on construction sites.”

The government claims it has successfully built pucca houses for many villagers but a well-equipped house is a distant dream for many.
The government claims it has successfully built pucca houses for many villagers but a well-equipped house is a distant dream for many.
Gaya is called the city of enlightenment and salvation
Gaya is called the city of enlightenment and salvation
Jitan Ram Manjhi, the NDA candidate from Gaya.
Jitan Ram Manjhi, the NDA candidate from Gaya.

He adds that these decisions are not taken due to “greed” or “temptation”. “They are not doing it by choice. It’s their compulsion. Impoverished people want their children to help them economically…It’s in fact an economic tragedy. They send their children to work as servants with the hope that they will get food at least twice a day and it will lessen their burden.”

The former chief minister says his schooldays were punctuated by struggle. “I worked as a house help but had determination to study. We did not have food at home for three meals. Because of financial constraints, I was not regular in attending classes. But my father managed to ensure I didn’t leave studies. I somehow managed to successfully complete schooling and entered into college, where I studied well and reached this position.”

Jitan Ram accuses people in power of not caring enough to better government-run schools in Bihar.

“Even government teachers send their wards to private schools. If the government is serious in improving its school education system, it must enact legislation at once as ordered by the Allahabad High Court, which asked the Uttar Pradesh government of making a law mandating government employees – whether bureaucrats, high-ranking officers or peons – to send their children to government schools,” he says. “Then only will a change be noted and it will help the marginalised.”

But isn’t it the NDA that’s in power at both the centre and state? Why hasn’t it taken any steps in this direction? Surprisingly, Jitan Ram minces no words.

“You can say it is the government that is responsible for this sorry state of affairs,” he says. “In a democracy, everyone should have an equal opportunity. If it is not happening, who will ensure it? It’s the government. Since people are illiterate, their votes are secured using other means. Therefore, by and large, competent and good public representatives are not elected. It causes a hurdle in uplifting the people.”

Importantly, the NDA candidate says he opposes India’s current reservation policy. “But when I talk about equal opportunity, at the same time there should be uniformity in privileges and resources,” he adds. “Therefore the situation demands reservation.”

He mentions the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and MK Gandhi for political representation to the “depressed classes”. He says Ambedkar’s biography indicates that he had been in tears since he had been compelled to sign the pact.

“How genuine his tears and concerns were can be gauged from the fact that today, we have 84 MPs in Parliament but nobody talks about a common education system or dual franchise,” says Jitan Ram, pointing out that Ambedkar had demanded the latter but it had been vehemently opposed by Gandhi. 

He also says if a vocal SC leader is elected to the state assembly or Parliament, they’re often denied tickets after one or two terms. “It’s by chance I got elected as MLA for eight terms. And to ensure it, I had to play a hide-and-seek game. Had I been as vocal as I am today, I would have been physically or politically eliminated.”

No hospital visits, poor nutrition 

In January, 37-year-old Urmila Manjhi became a grandmother. That evening, she achieved yet another milestone – after giving birth to seven children over 20 years in her home, without the assistance of a nurse or doctor, she visited a hospital for the first time.

A resident of Bhogtauri village near Imamganj, Urmila’s older daughter went into labour at home. Urmila hired a three-wheeled vehicle to go to the Gaya district hospital. It took mother and daughter two hours to get there, after which Urmila’s daughter gave birth to a baby boy.

Why didn’t she call an ambulance instead of hiring a tempo traveller? Urmila’s reply is simple: “Since no one in our village visits a hospital, we are unaware of the existence of an ambulance.”

Children collect muddy water from a newly-installed tap in an SC-concentrated village on the foothills of Bodh Gaya.
Access to nutritious food remains elusive for the Musahars.
Access to nutritious food remains elusive for the Musahars.

Bhogtauri is home to about 300-400 Musahars, living across 40-odd mud and bamboo huts. Urmila is unconcerned about the fact that she herself delivered seven children alone at home “with no problem”. 

Her deyadin – her husband’s brother’s wife – had cut the umbilical cord. When asked what was used to cut it, she isn’t sure though she remembers 10 or 12 women from the hamlet discussing how they should wash a kitchen knife. “It’s not something we even think about,” Urmila adds. 

Most women in Bhogtauri give birth at home, going to the hospital only if there are dire complications. There are no skilled midwives in these parts; the women, many of whom have four or five children, aren’t sure whether there’s a primary health centre nearby or if deliveries even happen there.

Among the villages this reporter visited in Gaya, not one had a government-run dispensary or sub-centre. And while the District Health Action Plan mandates 10 sub-centres for every block, some blocks have two or three at the most. Several have none.

Similarly, the government’s Integrated Child Development Services scheme says pregnant and lactating mothers are entitled to get nutritional supplements in the form of hot/cooked meals from anganwadis or groceries. They are also to be supplied with iron, folic acid and calcium supplements for 180 days during their pregnancy.

Urmila says would get calcium and iron supplements from the anganwadi, but never had a medical checkup. She would also get “eggs and some fruits” once a month from the government. She’s never heard of the ICDS programme. Urmila also says she worked every day throughout all her pregnancies until the day of delivery. She would return to work 10 days after each birth.

Anganwadi and ASHA workers blame the women themselves for not identifying and registering at their respective centres. An ASHA worker tells this reporter that Musahar women do not prioritise personal hygiene.

“It’s really difficult to take people to the hospital,” she says, while also acknowledging that there’s been little effort by the government to raise awareness.

Urmila agrees that there’s a perception that her people are obstinately stuck in their way. She’s therefore extra cautious while discussing Musahar rituals and practices. She also dislikes discussing nutrition. When specifically asked about the persistent stereotype about her community, she only says, “We don’t eat rodents.”

The ASHA worker agrees with this, explaining that a Musahar meal typically comprises rice and potatoes. Green vegetables aren’t eaten which is why many women and children here are anaemic. “At night, there will be rotis with potatoes. We are unable to afford eggs, milk and green veggies, and fruits are much more scarce.”

Women at Bhogtauri village buying items from a street vendor.
Women at Bhogtauri village buying items from a street vendor.
Crumbling houses built decades ago under the Indira Awas Yojana.
Crumbling houses built decades ago under the Indira Awas Yojana.

No land, no homes 

In early April, around 20 huts in Bakrour village in Bodh Gaya were set on fire. The huts had been built less than a year ago on government land near a riverine to house landless SC families. While the district administration paid Rs 12,000 per family, there was no word on allotting them land to live on.

It’s unclear how the fire began, but the families lost all their possessions. They now blame the government itself for trying to “chase” them away from government land.

Phulwa Devi, 62, is one of the families who lost everything. She has six sons, all of whom earn paltry sums as daily wagers – when they can find work.

“Where will we go if we don’t settle on gair-mazarua land?” she asks, referring to government-owned land. “When elections approach, political leaders make tall claims to win our votes. But nothing happens later.”

After losing her home, Phulwa Devi says she met with Kumar Sarvjit, the RJD MLA from Bodh Gaya, several times but he “never listened to us”. 

“Similarly, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who belongs to our community, also did nothing for our welfare,” she says. 

She also points out that in 2015, the Bihar government promised to provide three decimals of land – one decimal is one-hundredth of an acre – to landless people if no gair-mazarua land was available in a particular area. Importantly, in 2013, the state government said it would give three decimals of land, later increased to five decimals, to Mahadalit families to build homes. The government told the state assembly that 96 percent of eligible families had already received their land.

“The words are yet to turn into reality. When we claim government land, we are either chased away or our houses are set ablaze. What should we do? Where will we go?” Phulwa Devi asks. 

Also losing her home to the fire is Prerna Kumari, who had moved there because she had been unable to accommodate eight family members in her in-laws’ two-room ancestral home.

Ashes on the land in Bakrour village where Dalit families once lived.
Ashes on the land in Bakrour village where Dalit families once lived.
Prerna Kumari says it is the constitutional duty of the government to provide a house.
Prerna Kumari says it is the constitutional duty of the government to provide a house.
Kamla Devi says no matter who wins or loses, nothing changes in their lives.
Kamla Devi says no matter who wins or loses, nothing changes in their lives.

“Getting a house to live in is constitutionally guaranteed. The government is duty-bound to provide us with dwelling land,” she fumes. “Since the government has failed us, we are left with no choice but to claim its land. But the authorities, when they fail to chase us away, engage sponsored agents to burn our settlements. But they must remember they will be taught a lesson in the upcoming elections.”

The anger and rage bleeds across Gaya. On the outskirts of Gaya city, we meet Kamla Devi, a resident of Bengali Bigha, an urban village. Sitting on the ground near a sewage tank, she says no political leader is “really concerned” about their welfare.

“Whatever they say turns out to be mere lip service. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting killed,” she says. “We don’t have work. Whatever we earn is insufficient in this era of price rise. Except for the small piece of land where we’ve lived for generations, we don’t have even an inch of land for farming. Even the dwelling land in our possession is not legally ours, as we don’t have purcha.”

Purcha refers to title deeds to the land. “We can be evicted any day if the government wants,” says Kamla Devi.

Her own one-room house was built decades ago under the Indira Awas Yojana. “But it is collapsing now. It needs renovation which we are unable to afford.” She adds that they can’t expand their houses to, since the land is small – the only option is to make it multi-storeyed which is too expensive, considering they can barely afford two square meals a day.

“I have five children. The first two have passed Class 10. But they are working on agricultural land. How can we afford to let them study on such little earnings?” she says. “Even after pursuing further education, there is no guarantee that they will get a government job. Therefore, they have begun working in agricultural fields and elsewhere to support their father.”

This is the first story in a special series in collaboration with News Laundry on the election machine in reserved constituencies.

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