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Does it matter who wins election in Araria?

22 Apr

By Ashish Ranjan and Kalyani B

This is where
the road ends
of India shining
gives way
to gravel
and red dirt
of India whining…

(The End by Soibam Haripriya)

Sitting in Sudha Devi’s courtyard, one is immediately reminded of Haripriya’s poem, The End. Sudha is a resident of Bajraha village in Raniganj Block of Araria, which is one of the most backward districts in Bihar. Located on Indo-Nepal border, parts of Araria is witness to Kosi’s wrath each year. During monsoon season, one has to wade through knee-deep water to reach villages such as Bajraha. Sudha narrates, “During bhaado (monsoon) it becomes extremely difficult to move around and perform daily household chores as there is water everywhere. Every year after the flood water subsides, we reconstruct our kuchha houses made of mud and bamboo. Bamboo has also become very expensive now.” While Sudha was ‘whining’ about the situation prevalent in her part of India, two young men sitting nearby were watching a video on their phone showing images of ‘India shining’ – a super-fast, air-conditioned train which would cover the distance between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in just 2 hours.

Sudha’s narration is not just hers but that of hundreds of Sudha belonging to rural, Dalit working-class households in Araria. Conditions in which Dalit communities live, is pitiable. A large proportion of Dalit population is landless. Those who have struggled against oppressive forces such as local zamindars, corrupt government officials to get the 3 decimel homestead land in their name as per a land redistribution scheme of the Government of Bihar, have unfortunately been allocated areas such as Bajraha where each year flood waters create havoc, making everyday life and livelihood, miserable for the poor. Along with landlessness, Dalit working-class families grapple with rampant unemployment. There are very few employment opportunities in the area which would fetch them living wages because of which a large section of working-class men migrates to places such as Delhi, Punjab, Bangalore, Chennai, to name a few. Women work in farms and barely earn 150-200 rupees per day during sowing and reaping seasons. The public education system in these villages is in shambles. Private coaching centres can be found in every nook and corner of Araria. Those who can afford private coaching, send their children to these centres. Likewise, private clinics have mushroomed everywhere given the wretched state of the public health system. Poor families spend large sums of money to seek care and treatment.

This abysmal state of affairs in the peripheral areas such as Araria is not going to change any time soon, no matter which political party wins election.  Issues such as – low wages, diminishing employment opportunities in rural areas, denial of land rights to Dalits, collapsing public systems – whether it is health system, education system or public distribution system – cannot be fundamentally addressed as long as neo-liberal forces coupled with feudal relations continue to dominate and govern people’s lives. When a vast majority of the Dalit-Bahujan working-class population in Araria is uneducated, the false promise of 2 crore jobs per year, means nothing to them.  A young Rishidev boy – musahar by caste and one of the most marginalised sections even amongst the Dalits- of Farhi village in Narpatganj Block said that only ‘educated’ people will get jobs and this promise was not applicable to him. Similarly, the 6000 rupees that the Modi government has promised farmers, holds no meaning for numerous landless workers in these areas.

Absence of counter-hegemonic narratives at grassroots might prevent people from immediately seeing the linkages between global push for privatization of education along with systemic disdain for marginalized communities, and appalling learning levels of Dalit students in government run schools but people know very well that the status quo is not going to change no matter which neta or political party wins the election. They will not get any respite from misery. Kallu Rishi of Koshkapur, another village in Raniganj Block narrates, “Just before elections, all netas will come and touch our feet, promising to give us land, a Pradhan Mantri Awas house, pensions, etc. but as soon as the casting of vote is over, they will not return. Their car wheels slip on our dirt roads.”

Despite being aware of the hollowness of the grand speeches delivered by political leaders, people will cast their vote. They will cast their vote on the basis of several push and pull factors such as “what the tola (part of a village with usually a homogeneous caste composition) decides”, “which candidate has a better chance of winning”, “what one hears at chowk-chaurahas”, “what the elders or the important people will say”, “who had won elections last time”, etc. Interestingly, spaces such as satsang and jeevika meetings, which are frequented by the working-class women, are also being used for election campaigning. These spaces have emerged as sites which is used by the ruling class to perpetuate its ideas or in Gramscian term, ‘manufacture consent’.

Caste affinity interspersed with local power dynamics based on feudal relations continue to play an important role in the selection process of a candidate or a party to be voted for. A landless Rishidev who faces exploitation at the hands of a local zamindar belonging to Yadav caste, is not inclined to vote for Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) which is seen as a party of Yadavs. Weakening of Yadavs’ political power would mean less trouble for Rishidevs in their struggle for homestead land or in a land dispute leading to police intervention.  In everyday life, a landless peasant are exploitated by local zamindars whether regarding ownership of land, passage to their tola, forced labour, or other such forms of exploitation. The face of the immediate oppressor is etched in their memory. But with Jiten Ram Manjhi (ex-chief minister of Bihar who also comes from the musahar community) joining the MahaGathbandhan, Rishidevs who had earlier voted for Nitish Kumar because of the ‘Mahadalit’ card and also to oppose Yadavs, are also seen inclining towards Mahagathbandhan. This might lead to a split in Rishidev’s votes between Mahagathbandhan and NDA.  However, in a Paswan tola, one can see a clear inclination towards Ram Vilas Paswan and NDA.

The larger communal discourse and ‘othering’ of Muslims that has happened in the country since the demolition of Babri Mosque, will also guide the election result in Araria. Araria falls in the Seemanchal region of Bihar which has a substantial Muslim population. Four parliamentary constituencies in Seemanchal, namely Purnea, Katihar, Kishanganj and Araria, have around 40 % or more Muslim population. The communal narrative has also made in-roads into Seemanchal. Sanskritisation amongst Dalit communities in the area has led to beliefs such as consumption of animal meat is sinful, which has further distanced these communities from Muslims. Politics of RSS-BJP has painted Muslims as Pakistanis and have put a question mark in the minds of Hindus about their loyalty to the country. Given such a context, with a strong Muslim candidate in fray in the district, polarisation is easy to do and has been one of the dominant features of the election in Araria. Polarisation of votes based on religion coupled with split in Muslim votes because of the caste rivalry between ‘Kulhaiyas’ (Kulhaiyas belong to OBC category and are high in numbers only in this region) and other castes, has resulted into the victory of BJP candidates like Pradeep Singh, in the past. However, Modi’s overtly anti-Muslim politics have helped consolidate Muslim votes in favour of candidates that can defeat BJP and its allies. Sarfaraj Alam, the sitting MP and son of late strongmen of the area Md. Taslimuddin, knows that his best chance is in consolidation of Muslim and Yadav votes in his favour. However, with Lalu Prasad Yadav missing in action, this election year, along with heightened communal sentiments playing their role and BJP hoping to cash in Pulwama, Yadav vote is something that cannot be taken for granted. In 2018 by-elections, Sarfaraz Alam had won by 61,988 votes but this one is too close to call.

Millions will be spent on election campaign before the casting of vote in Araria on the 23rd April. By the end of May there will be a victor and a vanquished but democracy would have failed Sudha Devi who will again wade through knee-deep water during the early showers of Monsoon in June.

(Ashish Ranjan and Kalyani B work with Jan Jagran Shakti Snagathan, a local trade union of unorganised sector workers)



Health Update

23 Jan
whatsapp image 2019-01-19 at 13.40.23

Nani third from the left; PC: Sunil ji

Since the last Health Workshop small things have been happening, things which have a lot of meaning and yet seem to go undocumented. Doli one yuva karyakarta, who has been part of the health trainings, along with most of us vouched that we will try to use Govt Health facilities. She made five rounds to the Dist Hospital to get a cataract operation for her nani. Finally exhausted she told Kalyani, I am going to private I tried my best and then a rigorous follow up and finally nani ma was operated about a week back. It was also good to see an active health administration.

During this rigorous follow up a case of petty corruption in the hospital was also raised and we were assured there would be zero tolerance. Yesterday, Gita Devi, Doli’s mother, a middle aged health volunteer who is usually non confrontational and has been going through the health trainings refused to pay Rs. 300 to the Nurse, saying child delivery is a free service. Finally the nurse relented and gave them the child immunisation card for free, with Kalyani, Doli and myself providing telephonic support and encouragement. The case has also been documented and an application has been given to the CS and the Hospital Superintendent, about the demand.

And finally the icing on the cake is the painstaking follow up of Belsara saathis and Kalyani on the APHC in Belsara Panchayat, Raniganj Block, Araria, Bihar. This APHC has a doctor but no nurse since June 2018. After the health initiative saathis in Belsara filed a public petition with the Raniganj MOIC, Araria Civil Surgeon and the District Magistrate, pointing out this problem. As of today we are told that a new nurse has been posted to the APHC. This APHC caters to a population of about 70,000 people in 7 panchayats.

Update on the lynching in Araria

23 Jan

After we shared our report we have found out that there were 5 arrests of the people named by Md. Kabul’s family. We have confirmed this with the family members. Two arrests have been reported in the local media also today, 23rd January, 2019.

An investigation into the mob lynching of Mo. Kabul, in Araria

22 Jan

Dear Friends

There is a lot of violence in our society and its become so prevalent and acceptable.

On 31st December, newspapers covered the news of the lynching of Mo. Kabul a resident of Araria district, Bihar. A team of four JJSS representatives went to the site of the lynching, the local police station and the family of Mo. Kabul on 12th January to understand what transpired.

Our detailed report can be found here report_lynching of mo. kabul.

Though we do not think the lynching was communal what is disturbing other than the violence itself is the way its being condoned by portraying the victim as a person of criminal character.

We welcome your inputs

Thank you

Ashish, Deepnayary Paswan, kamayani, Vijay Kumar.

Fighting the Cold- Blanket distribution

18 Jan

कई बार एक छोटी सी मदद बड़ा लंबा रास्ता जाती है, हाल में हमारे बुआ फुपजी और एक शुभचिंतक साथी ने मिल कर लगभग 300 कम्बल जाड़े में वितरण हेतु भेजे. हर बार की तरह मन में आया की इतने कम कम्बल और इतने लोग जाड़े से ठिठुरते, फिर याद आये वह सुखद पल जब हर साल कुछ चेहरों पर आराम और मुस्कान दिखी है इन चंद कम्बलों के वितरण से. साथियों आपकी मदद के लिए धन्यवाद.

Transitioning to 2019

5 Jan

yatra 1For many days now I have been thinking of putting this on paper… Despite the cold a pad yatra was organized in three new panchayats of Purnea district (28th to 30th Dec,18), in which youth team members took the lead. NREGA worksites have opened in some places in Vaishali, Saharsa and Araria where active union members have been asking for work under the NREGA. On 3rd January birth anniversary of Savitri Bai Phule JJSS members in Vaishali and neighbouring Samstipur district got together in a meeting where they took a vow to fight patriarchy and casteism.

And on a very energizing ongoing struggle in Saharsa, 29 cylinders which were ceased by the Police four months ago after local JJSS members had raised the issue of corruption in issuing of Ujjawala scheme gas cylinders, were distributed on 2nd January, after the intervention of the SDO. Things had got to a head where about 100 locals had come together in the local Police station on the evening of 29th December and deciding to sit on Satyagrah if they were not given back their cylinders at zero charge.

We salute the spirits of all members across districts working, raising and locally addressing socio-political and economic issues, in a connected manner and all of you for making this happen.

Griveance Redressal Campaign Update

14 Dec

JJSS as part of larger campaign for transparency and accountability has been demanding enactment of a Grievance Redressal Law. NCPRI had come out with a draft Bill some eight years back. Hence, we welcomed Bihar Lok Shikayat Nivaran Act, 2015.  We wanted to see how the act is being implemented and also help people resolve their individual complaints. So we launched a campaign in four districts of Bihar (Araria, Katihar, Vaishali and Champaran) to see its effectiveness and limitations.

Over the past few months, we have used it to moderate success and are continuing to track the complaints that we have filed.

We started by doing a workshop with our Karyakartas on the potential benefits of the hearings and grievance redress provisions. This was followed by the karyakartas holding meetings in their areas, and identifying people with longstanding grievances to file them under this law. We then set up desks at the division offices of Katihar and Araria to help people file these complaints.

The law has put into place Information and Facilitation Centres (IFC), which are supposed to provide people information on their entitlements and assist them in filling out the complaint form. One progressive provision is that the citizen does not need to specify the department or the official they are complaining about, but simply state the issue. We faced some opposition from the officials in Katihar who had our desks forcibly shut down. This was sorted out finally by the personal intervention of the District Magistrate.

We have registered about 500 complaints of the two districts combined and most of these were related to people not receiving their pensions for over eighteen months. Once a complaint is filed, people get a tracking ID and are then called for hearings convened by the Public Grievance Redress Officer (PGRO) at the division level. It is not necessary for the complainant to be present at the hearing, and the PGROs have been instructed to take the side of the citizen while hearing the complaint.

Most people have gone for a couple of hearings, and genuine redress is still far. However, in the interim there have been a few cases of heartening successes.

Deep Narayan Paswan from Amgachi Gram Panchayat, Sitki Block filed a complaint related to the Kabir Anthushti Anudan Scheme. It provides a one time grant to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families to undertake funeral rituals in the case of a death of a family member. In this Gram Panchayat the Mukhiya and Panchayat Secretary had provided people only Rs. 1,500 although the entitlement is for Rs. 3,000. After filing the complaint under Lok Shikayat, in the first hearing nothing happened. However, before the second hearing, the Panchayat Secretary gave further cheques of Rs. 1,500 to two people and so the matter was successfully resolved. (link to video)

Before MGNREGA was denotified from the purview of this law, Reena Devi of Sikkat Panchayat, Katihar filed a complaint on MGNREGA, for no work being open and for the bank official mistreating people when they come for wage payments. Again in the first hearing nothing happened. They were unable to go for the second hearing but got a call from the IFC on the orders passed by the PGRO. The PRS then opened works in the Gram Panchayat. Before the second hearing itself the bank official came to the house of the complainant and apologized for his behavior and said it would never happen again. (link to video)

Usha Devi of Soriya Panchayat, Katihar facilitated the filing of a complaint for Parvati Devi who lost her son, Suraj Kumar in the floods of last year. Despite filing all the required documents with the Mukhiya they not yet received any relief. After filing a complaint under Lok Shikayat, they went for the first hearing where the Mukhiya was not present. Before the second hearing, the Mukhiya gave her the cheque with the comment “cheque lena hain ya case ladna hain”. At the next hearing the Mukhiya and Circle Officer were present as well as Parvati Devi and the matter was closed with final orders by the PGRO. (link to video)

Nityanand Singh of Laxmipur panchayat of Kursakata Block filed a complaint as he was not receiving old age pension for last one and half years. Nityanand ji is one amongst lakhs of others who have not received social security pension for last one and half years. The grievance redressal campaign was able to highlight the issue the state level. Nityanand ji is started getting his pension (though partially) after he filed a complaint during the campaign. (link to video)

We are continuing to track the rest of the complaints and will do so till their redressal, and go to appeal if necessary. We are also sharing our experiences with the State Government on policy related matters, such as brining MGNREGA back into this law. Further, we are repeated the same process in Vaishali district in March 2018.