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Social leveller

Print edition : Sep 21, 2012 T+T-
MEMBERS OF THE Rishidev community at Halhalia village in Araria district, who have embraced Sikhism. The gurdwara of the village is in the background.-RANJEET KUMAR

MEMBERS OF THE Rishidev community at Halhalia village in Araria district, who have embraced Sikhism. The gurdwara of the village is in the background.-RANJEET KUMAR

Migration is a powerful mechanism in Bihars agrarian society giving the poor a collective voice against exploitation.

ON a cloudy, humid August morning, the soulful chants of Gurubani heard from the loudspeaker strategically placed on the high branches of a banyan tree were the only pleasant thing that greeted a visitor to Halhalia village in Araria district of Bihar. Yet, the recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text of Sikhs, seemed out of place in a village that is solely populated by the Rishidev community, a Scheduled Caste, which is a sub-caste of the extremely backward Musahars (a caste group that draws its name from its practice of eating rats). Right in the middle of the village stood a hut with a facade different from that of the rest of the houses. A closer look indicated that it was a gurdwara, but differently constructed and decorated from those found in Punjab and the rest of India.

Outside the hut a group of men with their heads wrapped awkwardly in turbans, which gave them the Sikh identity, was holding a discussion with the village mukhiya , or the elected head of the panchayat. The mukhiya, Narendra Singh Rishidev, was holding forth on their latest religious campaign. There are around 150 Rishidev families in Halhalia. These families had converted to Sikhism in the last decade. Lack of livelihood options in the village and the desire to seek better wages had made the male members of these landless families migrate to Punjab for construction work. There they were introduced to Sikh philosophy and its apparent non-hierarchical structure. For the Rishidevs, Punjab and Sikhism seemed to be a dream come true, a land and religion that would free them from caste-based exploitation.

In a way, the story of Halhalia is the story of migration from Bihar. Religious conversion was incidental. Economic distress and caste exploitation, the two factors that drove the poor villagers to migrate, are also the reasons that have made the backward classes populations of Bihar the largest group of migrant workforce in India. This distress migration of the backward classes is happening with hardly any resources at their disposal.

The potential migrants, who arrive in droves, wait at the railway stations of northern Bihar for at least two days to get a seat in a Delhi-bound train. For example, people travel more than 200 kilometres to reach the Jogbani station, situated near Forbesganj town close to the India-Nepal border, since the Seemanchal Express is the only Delhi-bound train that starts from there.

In the case of Bihar, where social security systems such as government educational institutions, public health care facilities and the public distribution system have failed to benefit the people, migration has become a powerful mechanism for social mobility. In all these departments, Bihar is ranked the most backward State in the country.

The absence of land reforms has led to a deeply unequal society in a mostly agrarian Bihar. Whereas upper-caste people own most of the agricultural lands, members of the backward castes and Dalits have hardly any land of their own. As such most of the temporary migrants from Bihar are landless Dalits and members of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who have historically worked as farmhands for meagre wages. So, the migration season in the State is specific. Once these agricultural labourers finish sowing, they migrate for two months, come back when the crop is ready for harvesting, and once again leave. This cycle is repeated twice a year as there are two crop seasons across the country and they vary from place to place. For example, the agricultural cycle in Punjab begins one month after Bihars, and this helps the labourers from Bihar to migrate. While an agricultural labourer gets anything between Rs.60 and Rs.100 as daily wage in Bihar, he earns Rs.150 a day in Punjab and Haryana.

According to the 2001 Census, around 1.7 million people from Bihar had migrated in the decade preceding it. A survey done by the Patna-based Bihar Institute of Economic Studies found that of the total migrating population from the State, the maximum migration was to Punjab (26.36 per cent) followed by Delhi (21.34 per cent), Maharashtra (15.06 per cent), Haryana (11.72 per cent) and West Bengal (5.86 per cent).

The migration pattern found in Odisha is becoming popular in Bihar. No fewer than 20 people are hired by a civil contractor or a brick kiln owner through middlemen, usually persons known to the villagers, for two months. The villagers are paid half of the wages in advance, which makes the offer sound lucrative. The advance sum is crucial as we are always in need for money and that saves us from borrowing from the moneylender who charges 20 per cent interest, said Gunjri Devi of Chotti Batanaha village in Katihar district, whose husband has migrated. However, this situation unfortunately makes the labourers remain bonded to their employer. Although the middleman promised good facilities, my husband does not get proper food and the living conditions are bad. If he falls ill, the treatment cost is cut from his wages, Gunjri Devi said.

Migration has become a social leveller in Bihar. The added income earned through temporary migration has given Dalits and OBCs a collective voice to speak up against the landlords, who have historically exploited them economically and socially. The decreased dependence on landlords and exposure to big cities, where caste-based exploitation is not overt, have enabled the migrants to develop different vocational skills.

In traditional Bihari society, women were never allowed to come out to work in agricultural fields. The men now insist that the women oversee the fields when they are away. The women are also employed as agricultural labourers when the male folks migrate.

Migration has significantly improved the economic situation of the Muslim community in north Bihar. Muslims, who form 16-18 per cent of the States population, were relegated to jobs that were considered menial in traditional Hindu society. Services such as vehicle repairing, whitewashing, wall plastering, tailoring and plumbing came to be identified as occupations of Muslims. In metropolitan cities, these are relatively well-paid jobs. Taking advantage of this, lower middle-class Muslims have started to migrate in large numbers from Katihar, Kishanganj and Araria districts, where they form more than half the total population. Migration has significantly improved the position of Muslims in north Bihar, so much so that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is adopting a hard Hindutva position wherever it finds a chance.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has been mobilising its cadre in north Bihar. After Purnea district was divided into four, the Muslim population shifted out of Katihar, now a separate district. Katihar has seven Assembly constituencies. The BJP has won six of them while one seat has gone to its ally, the Janata Dal (United). That Muslims are earning illegitimate money and that they are all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are the two most important canvassing points of the BJP, a civil rights activist of Katihar, who did not want to be named, told Frontline.

IMPACT OF MGNREGS

Reports in the media say that the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has resulted in a significant drop in the rate of migration. A survey done by the Bihar Institute of Economic Studies found a 26 per cent drop. Some reports have also suggested that farmers of Punjab, who used to hire migrants from Bihar, have complained that in the past two years they had not been getting enough labourers from Bihar. Implementation of the MGNREGS started on a regular basis in 2010-11.

A villager from Rampur in Araria district told Frontline: We generally go to Punjab for four or five months. But since we found work here last year, we went there for only two months. In the four districts that Frontline visited, some people said they had been employed under the MGNREGS for more than 50 days. But since there was not enough work this year, they would migrate to Punjab for more than four months, they added.

The statements by the villagers are corroborated by figures published in the Economic Survey of Bihar (ESB). While more than Rs.26 crore was disbursed as wages in 2010-11, only Rs.10 crore was spent in 2011-12 until January. The implementation of the MGNREGS has been overrated in Bihar. The ESB suggests that whereas the scheme promises 100 days of work, the average was 9.2 days in 2009-10, 12.2 days in 2010-11 and only 4.5 days in 2011-12.

A. Santhosh Mathew, former Principal Secretary in the Department of Rural Development in Bihar, who is known to have kick-started the scheme in the State, told Frontline: We have started the process. There are many infrastructural roadblocks. We do not have post offices everywhere, so the smooth disbursement of wages is difficult. Power situation, Internet connectivity, and even telecom facilities are underdeveloped. The Centre should invest in the infrastructural development of Bihar. Schemes such as the MGNREGS need to be implemented well. I see it not as employment but as a poor persons exercise of citizenship. We have tried to create a transparent system, which is why we have started the Janata Information System, a unique effort, where we have drawn tables on village walls so that people can see the number of working days.

However, delays in the payment of wages make the workers less enthusiastic about the MGNREGS. They feel they do the farmers work for cash and the governments work on credit. Pay on time. Right now, there are delays up to six months. Schemes such as the MGNREGS have the potential to stop migration or at least bring it down. We are already seeing the difference, said Ranjeet Paswan of the Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan, a civil society organisation which also assists the government in social audits of the MGNREGS.