"TWENTY years ago, I began fishing in this stream with a small hand-held fishing net. I used to earn about Rs.10. I continue to do the same job and earn more or less the same amount. Now my children, aged 18 and 15, also do the same job. Our lot has not changed. If anything, it has worsened. There are more mouths to feed and less and less to eat," Ramji Malha recounted his story, standing near one of the streams in Bansperi village of Sitamarhi district.
The slogans of social justice and empowerment of the weaker sections have dominated Bihar politics for the past 15 years, but there has not been much change in the life of Ramji Malha's family. Or that of his neighbours in Bansperi, populated mainly by the extremely backward community (EBC) of Malhas.
But this is not the plight of one village or of one EBC group. As noted by Professor Kishori Das, chairperson of the Coordination Committee of Neglected and Extremely Backward Communities (CCNEBC), one comes across such socio-economic distress in thousands of Bihar villages populated by people belonging to over 100 EBC groups. Informal estimates by governmental and non-governmental groups suggest that the 104 listed EBCs of Bihar - communities such as Malha, Nayi, Kawar, Kewat, Bind, Tanti and Mujwar and Muslim groups such as Ansari and Raain - constitute approximately 30 per cent of the State's population.
The plight of the EBCs is one of the stark ironies of Bihar which has had a powerful social justice and empowerment movement. Although the votaries of the movement have dictated the political discourse of the State for over 15 years and have controlled political power during this period, the majority of EBC groups live in the same appalling conditions they were in decades ago. Meanwhile, members of some other historically oppressed communities such as Yadavs, Kurmis, Koeris and Dussadhs have registered an upward growth in terms of socio-economic mobility and empowerment.
The reasons for this disproportionate apportioning of the benefits of the social justice and empowerment movement are not hard to find. According to several observers, including the leaders of the CCNEBC, this phenomenon is essentially related to the political leadership of the movement. The movement was led in the 1960s and 1970s by Karpoori Thakur, who belonged to the EBC Nayi (barber) caste. But by the time it acquired a concrete shape and great political appeal, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, its leadership had gone to Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan. Nitish Kumar belongs to the Kurmi community and Paswan to the Dalit Dussadh community. Lalu Prasad is a Yadav.
Political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh points out that the emergence of these leaders injected confidence and vibrancy into their respective communities and, consequently, they were able to have a greater say in social and administrative affairs.
"As their respective communities excitedly attained the powers and privileges that were denied to them for eons, these leaders virtually forgot about the EBCs and their plight. And somewhat paradoxically, these newly empowered communities also became the new oppressors of EBCs in different parts of the State."
Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Paswan later left the undivided Janata Dal to form their own parties and in the process became increasingly dependent on their own communities for political support and survival. In such a situation, the thrust of their political initiatives was to ensure the continued support of their communities even at the cost of ignoring their responsibilities towards other oppressed sections such as the EBCs. The 104 EBC groups, on their part, were unable to unite into a single political entity and make an impact on the system.
A cursory glance at the caste composition of successive Assemblies in the State highlights the political marginalisation of EBCs through the past 15 years. According to informal estimates, the Yadav community constitutes 12 per cent of the State's population, but has held more than 20 per cent of the total seats in the Assembly since 1990. The Kurmi community's estimated share in the population is around 3 per cent but its representation in the past 15 years has been consistently more than 5 per cent. But the EBCs, with an estimated population of 30 per cent, have had only approximately 5 per cent representation.
According to Kishori Das, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad had from time to time created the impression that he was seriously addressing the issues of the EBCs, only to forget his promises after the political purpose was met. The most prominent instance was when Lalu Prasad faced the 1995 elections, Das said. "He campaigned consistently among the EBC groups and promised redress of their problems and the communities reacted by supporting his party overwhelmingly. When Lalu Prasad talked repeatedly about a `jinn' that would help him disprove doomsday predictions in that election, his reference was to the support of the EBCs. The `jinn' did help him then but he forgot all about us later," he said. Das added that the RJD leader adopted the same strategy in 2001, but after that the EBCs steadily moved away from his support base.
In the current elections, the CCNEBC has demanded greater representation from all parties. But it got a "positive reaction" only from Paswan's Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP). The LJP has fielded 22 EBC candidates. The Janata Dal (United), the RJD and the Bharaitya Janata Party have fielded nine, seven and six candidates respectively. The CCNEBC leadership believes that it has made a small but significant move towards social and political empowerment of the EBCs by getting the LJP to accept its demand.
But will this by itself ensure the upliftment of a large, diverse segment of the population? The answer may not be positive in the immediate future, but perhaps this is the only course open to the marginalised EBCs, given Bihar's recent history and its socio-political atmosphere, which is divided on caste lines.