Tag Archives: JJSS

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)


Untangling the web of Government’s failures in Lachha Bita by Vibhore Vardhan

6 Jul

Lachha, which means tangled in Hindi, is an apt description for the current state of affairs in Lachha Bita, a group of remote habitations in Parihari gram panchayat of Raniganj block in Araria district. Even in the era of improved connectivity, Lachha Bita remains inaccessible from the outside world for 3-4 months during the monsoon season. There are no roads, mud or otherwise, and the only access for two of the hamlets is through the fields. Maybe this remoteness is Government’s excuse for repeatedly failing to stand-up and provide support to a community of hard working but shockingly marginalized community of mahadalits and adivasis.

Where does one start to untangle the web of failures around Lachha Bita? How about the fact that even six years after getting job cards under MGNREGA, most wage seekers in Rami Rishidev ka tola and mandal tola in ward number 14 have not been able to get work and paid as provisioned under the law. The constant shift of policies around MGNREGA has made it a very unstable system. First, it was cash payments at the Gram Panchayats, followed by the drive to open and pay through post office accounts. This was quickly updated to provide work and payment only to the account holder, in conjunction with the push for online demand entry and e-muster roll. And finally the recent push for payment through bank accounts. In their efforts to stem corruption through increased digitization, both the central and state governments have forgotten about the countless workers in Lachha Bita’s of India that still don’t have post office accounts, thereby taking away their right to work.

Lachha Bita’s problems can be traced to its feudal history. Here the tiny but powerful landlord class also took control over the elected panchayats and effectively controlled all Government schemes. Until last year, all work under MGNREGA in Parihari was overseen by the ward members and the middlemen belonging to the ruling classes. Most workers were never made aware of their rights or informed that job cards and post office accounts had been opened in their names. They were forced to work for cash payments as contractual labor on MGNREGA projects. These and many more practices started changing only after the intervention of Jan Jagaran Shakti Jangathan (JJSS), a trade union of unorganized-sector workers based in Araria.

When JJSS was made aware of the non-availability of post office accounts for a majority of Lachha Bita workers in October 2012, it promptly brought the same to Raniganj Program Officer’s attention. But before any remedial action could be taken (partly delayed due to the month long PRS strike), the state Government carried-out the advertisement in local newspaper informing all about the switch-to bank accounts on Feb 1st 2013. This advertisement became an excuse for the local post master to start deferring opening of new accounts. When the Feb 1st deadline was not met, the state government carried out another such advertisement announcing June 1st 2013 deadline for entirely switching to bank accounts, and now August 1st, 2013. One has to ask whether the state government is living in denial of the rate of opening of bank accounts, which is averaging under 3% as reported on Bihar’s NREGA portal? Maybe they should wake up to the fact that in three years after introducing post office payments, only 37% of the registered households and 24% of the individual wage seekers have been able to open post office accounts.

There are fewer than 50 banks in Araria district; nearest one for Parihari being one-hour and sixty rupees roundtrip-fare away. So the responsibility of making payments to workers of Lachha Bitha has been off-loaded to micro or ultra-small branches (USBs). These are often run by local middlemen who were in the money lending business. For Parihari, there are two USBs operated by Allahabad Bank on paper, but they have not done a single transaction in over nine months of their existence. The local staff (CSVs) said that they have submitted over 1000 account opening applications, but have received only 25 banking cards till date. Upon following-up with the bank officials in Raniganj, it was found that a private company based in Bangalore is responsible for providing the equipment, cards, and training to the CSVs. When the PO Raniganj and PRS could not get any definite answers about account opening, illiterate workers have reasons to be less optimistic about the situation.

But it is not only the payments that are hard for the Lachha Bita workers. To get their demand for work registered into the system, Arun Rishidev had to give written work demand on four different occasions. Even his name kept being dropped for over one month, as his job card and most others that have been opened after 2011 have not been entered into the MIS system. Finally, when his demand was entered with PO Ranigunj’s help, Arun did not get assigned to the project that he was running as a mate. This situation is not limited to Parihari GP or Raniganj block. Online job card register for most GPs of Araria and other districts show very few entries after 2011. And the complaints of names being dropped or being switched between projects are very commonly heard by JJSS.

These problems can be attributed to the elaborate online process of giving work through NREGASoft. First, demand has to be entered, but full 100 days demand cannot be entered at once as it ties the worker to a specific project. Then, work has to be allocated to the group of workers whose demand has been entered. Finally, an eMuster-Roll has to be generated and printed for the allocated project. These four steps have to happen in tandem or it leads to incorrect work assignment. And given the state of network connectivity and electricity in Araria, expecting continuous online sessions is quite unrealistic. It is not an uncommon sight at Raniganj program office to see the printer being physically carried to a nearby office with better voltage phase for printing eMusters!

But the need for employment in Lachha Bita is so high that all workers are willing to put-up with these systemic issues. For the first time, they are working on a project (bhutakan kamat se mitti bharai karya) led by one of their own. But the state Government seems to have other plans. In has recently passed an order that spells out 10 point selection process for mates and an elaborate list of 25 different responsibilities for them, while removing the higher wage rate that used to be offered in the past! Only the landless laborers are expected to do more for less…

Recently, Arun has been asked to furnish passbook account numbers of all wage seekers as a large percentage of online entries have been found to be incorrect requiring extremely time consuming and often impossible changes to the pay advice. But with the recent push for eWagelist, which added two more steps to the online process, the window of making these corrections closes after e-Wagelist generation. There is no clarity or training provided on how these changes, which are bound to crop-up, can be made in the system. It is not the computerization that is the primary issue here, it is the absolute lack of infrastructure and training that is grounding NREGA’s e-flight before it can even take-off.

As for the workers in Lachha Bita, they have already worked for over one and half months without getting a single rupee as payment. Maybe the new Panchayat Technical Assistant (PTA) can untangle one knot by recording the Measurement Book with measurements that he carried-out nearly three weeks ago. And then, hopefully the muster rolls would get entered into the system with correct post office account numbers without any further delays. Meanwhile, maybe the policy makers in Patna can stop issuing these unrealistic deadlines and decide on a reasonable timeline for opening worker’s bank accounts, while providing adequate training to the NREGA data-entry operators. One can only hope that someone will take the responsibility and untangle the web of Government’s failure around Lachha Bita…

Vibhore Vardhan is a volunteer with the JJSS. This article is based on his experience in a remote village (parihari) of Raniganj block in Araria.