Of feudal charity

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

June 2000: At a mass cremation of victims of the Ranvir Sena, the outlawed private army of upper-caste Bhumihar landlords, at Miapur in Aurangabad district. - MUNNA SHARMA

June 2000: At a mass cremation of victims of the Ranvir Sena, the outlawed private army of upper-caste Bhumihar landlords, at Miapur in Aurangabad district. - MUNNA SHARMA

GOING just by figures relating to death due to hunger caused by famine conditions, Bihar will not figure among the list of States whose people are afflicted by the distortions caused by the liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation agenda that was set in motion on July 21, 1991. This, however, is not a reflection of any commitment on the part of the civil administration or the political dispensation to welfarism. Nor is there any suggestion here that the rhetoric of "liberalisation with a human face'' has worked in Bihar.

At least 55 per cent of the population in the State falls in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. This is the highest such proportion for any State in the country. Over eight lakh households in the State were placed in the BPL category in the context of the Targeted Public Distribution System and a little over 10 million tonnes of grain was allotted during 1999-2000 for them. But Bihar's grain offtake that year was far less than what was allotted. The records show Orissa to be among the States that took 2.24 lakh tonnes of grain over and above the 4.78 lakh tonnes allotted to the State for distribution to BPL households. And despite this, a number of poor people were forced to eat mango kernels that were infested with toxic fungi and died. In other words, poverty and hunger led to the deaths in Orissa.

Such instances were not witnessed in Bihar although the State failed to lift all the foodgrains allocated to it on the basis of the number of BPL households. An explanation for this is possible only in the context of the socio-economic mosaic of the region where feudalism, in many senses, continues to be a way of life. The Gangetic valley, from where the Vedic civilisation emerged and flourished, for instance, has not witnessed drought conditions in the recent past. The annual flooding of the Ganga renders the soil fertile. Hence, agriculture does not need huge investment as is the case in many other parts of the country. The agrarian sector, therefore, remains labour-intensive across Bihar. And where the land ownership pattern has remained unaffected by the winds of change in neighbouring West Bengal, the landless agricultural workforce, predominantly Dalits, remain tied to their villages, and as long as they resist the temptation to demand a higher wage or a share in their produce, their masters will ensure that they do not perish due to hunger.

Just as the landed gentry constituted by the upper castes (and in recent times the intermediate castes too who could establish their political clout during the past decade) deem it their right to lord over the landless poor, they also consider it their duty to ensure that there are not many deaths due to hunger. The lords, after all, need them to work in their fields and reap the harvest.

It is another matter when the landless agricultural worker seeks to assert his own rights. The private armies of the landlords step in. And when this happens, there is violence, and men, women and children are killed. While poverty as such does not lead to loss of lives in Bihar, more often than not, when people attempt to assert their right to a life with dignity, they are deprived of their right to life. About 250 people have been killed, in 20 instances of massacre indulged in by the Ranvir Sena, a private army of the upper caste landlords since it was formed in 1994.

It is true that the poor in Bihar have not been dying of poverty as it has happened in Orissa. It is also true that poverty-stricken people here have not been forced to commit suicide as it has happened in Andhra Pradesh. But then, the poor can afford to stay alive in Bihar only if they agree to desist from asserting their right to life in the manner in which Article 21 of the Constitution was defined by the Supreme Court in the pavement dwellers case (Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation) where the right to life was defined as not merely animal existence. In other words, the poor and the marginalised in Bihar, who constitute about 55 per cent of the population of the State, are blessed with the right to life. It is another matter that the social elite, who also constitute a large section in the civil administration, refuse to see this fundamental right in the same manner as the Supreme Court saw it.

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