Bihar’s poor are better off than Nepal’s poor
– Prashant Jha
DHANUSHA-For the past month the NC and its cheerleaders in the media have been telling the Maoists: “accept GPK as president or prove your majority.” But the Maoists have outsmarted them yet again by winning over the UML and showing they can play the numbers game better than the others. The Kathmandu knot is slowly untangling.
Both the importance and futility of Baluwatar and Baneswor politics can be felt most acutely here in the Dalit basti of Lohana, just 10km from Janakpur in Dhanusha district. There is hope that a new government will bring change, but there is futility because of the realisation it will not.
First, the good news: untouchability is not as blatant here anymore, especially with the Dusahad and Musahar communities. Brahmans and Yadavs still do not eat with them, and intermarriage is out of the question, but notions of purity and impurity are gradually changing, especially among younger people.
Life is tough. Most people live on a meal a day. Children do not go to school because textbooks are too expensive. A landless labourer earns 6 kg of rice a day, but in the off season he can earn Rs 100 a day as a construction workers and the women get half that. A few Dalit families have some land, but they do not always have the money for fertiliser and seeds.
They haven’t benefited from foreign employment because they just can’t afford the recruiters’ fees. It is the intermediate castes, Muslims, and increasingly upper castes who are going out to Malaysia and the Gulf. The poorest have to make do with work in Janakpur, or Punjab. Subsistence is all they can aspire to.
Talk to the Dalits of Lohana or a poor rickshaw-puller in Rupani in Saptari district, go to a meeting of the landless in Dhalke or spend time with a woman vegetable-seller in Sarlahi’s Lalbandi, and two themes immediately emerge.
The first is the multiple claims being made on a weak and dysfunctional state. Diverse voices look to Kathmandu to demand their share of the pie: we want free education; we want a functioning health post; we want land. At least give us the public land lying fallow, we want housing and food.
The Nepali poor also envy India’s poor. There is a sense that the Indian state treats its citizens a lot better. The marginal farmer in the Tarai often looks to the other side and sees ration cards, a fertiliser subsidy, government housing and school midday meals. “When will our sarkar do this for us?” asks a mill worker in Biratnagar.
This may be a romantic vision of the Indian situation, for such schemes mostly exist only on paper. But the judgement is valid to an extent. Mohammed Riaz, a Jogbani rickshaw-puller says: “Our children go to
school and get khichdi to eat, we have houses under the Indira Awas Yojana.”
In Champanagar village in India’s Purnea district, about 100km from Biratnagar, most Dalits and Santhals have ration cards meant for families living below the poverty line. These allow them to buy up to 20kg of rice at IRs2/kg from the local government shop. Even with leakage and corruption, they can get a portion at subsidised rates.
Champanagar, population 10,000, receives Rs 3-4 million per year for development work. Roads are in relatively good shape and children of poor families, across all castes, study in school together. Houses have tin roofs, and agriculture appears more profitable: maize is cultivated along with paddy and wheat during the year, and the government guarantees minimum prices.
Bihar is synonymous with inefficiency, corruption and rotten governance, but the Bihari poor are better off than the Nepali poor because India still has a semblance of a welfare state. That should tell the new government in Kathmandu where its priorities must lie.
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