Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Musahar community of North India: Bonded to caste slavery

The Musahar community, in Northern India, is socially and economically one of the most marginalized communities in India and they are poorest amongst poor. The Musahar community falls under the category of the Scheduled Caste.

Although the practice of untouchability is a crime in Indian law the Musahar community is not allowed to enjoy ordinary social life with the mainstream society and to share common amenities in the village.

People from the Musahar community are deprived of owning property, means of livelihood, and education. For their survival they work as laborers in the agricultural fields or do some other hard physical labour. The remuneration for such work is given in kind, mostly discarded food or grains. Due to this they do not have any savings that they could use during times of need. This forces them into starvation at times when they have no regular work.

In such a situation Musahar community largely depends upon the Public Distribution System (PDS) to get food grains at subsidised rate for their survival. But due to corruption in the bureaucracy and due to an almost defunct judiciary, often weaker sections of society are denied of the food grains in the villages because the PDS licensee can easily escape from their criminal offences and malpractices.

Musahars are estimated between 5 lakhs to 7 lakhs in Uttar Pradesh and concentrated in eastern belt of Uttar Pradesh in districts Kushinagar, Maharajganj, Deoria and are also found in Siddharthnagar, Mau, Jaunpur, Chandouli, Gazipur, Mirzapur and Varanasi districts. Exact figures are not available as they are included in SC category in the state but were not counted separately in last census. They are estimated to be closer to 3 millions in Bihar.

For the purpose of the present study villages Dhuriyaghat, Karmaini and Doghra from block Kasaya in district Kushinagar, villages Ledhi and Ramnagar Badiya from block Nichllol in dist Maharajganj and village Ranipur from block Katiya in dist Gopalganj were visited.

A landless community which was traditionally dependent on forest was slowly pushed from the forest areas as forests were nationalized, depleted and land based economy took over. A resource less community found itself on the mercy of landed class which exploited them as bonded labourer for the weeding, harvesting and cleaning the fields. This work of cleaning the field from rats and later using the grain from rats burrow may have given them the name 'Musahars' (musa-rat and ahar-diet) and hence community whose diet is rats.

The community was further pushed towards pauperization as lands were divided and the harvesters were introduced. With the forests out of bound for the community they also lost their supplementary income which they used to get from supplying leaf plates during marriages and community events.

Brahmins, Thakurs, Yadavs are the main land holders in the area. But the landholdings of Musahar community are almost nil or meager. In villages we visited (5 in U.P. and 1 in Bihar) only 25% of people from 2 villages had land and average land holding is not more than 1 to 2 bigha. They got these lands when the Land Ceiling Act was implemented. But in 75% of cases they do not have control over land as original landholders had managed to get stay orders from the court. Plus their land is not irrigated, stony and far away near forest.

Musahars work as agricultural labourers for land holding castes and mainly do weeding and harvesting work. They earn Rs 40/-(men) and Rs 25/-(women) for harvesting and Rs 25/-(men) and Rs 15/-(women) for the weeding work. These wages are far below the minimum wages of Uttar Pradesh which is Rs100/-. Both these jobs are seasonal and give them employment for not more than 3 months in a year.

In rest of the year they either work as casual labourers for both agricultural and non-agricultural works earning not more Rs 40/- to Rs 60/- a day.

Many of them also work in the brick –kilns and earn Rs 70/- a day but here also their incomes are not substantial as none of them are skilled to do work of a fireman which is highly specialized work in the brick-kiln.

In the lean agricultural season due to lack of any other livelihood options Musahars migrate to other parts of the country traveling up to Delhi and Punjab where they work as casual labourers in construction industry earning not more than Rs 70/- to Rs 80/- a day and merely surviving on these wages. Some of them also move towards Jaipur where they are employed in the small textile units to colour the cloth and earn up to Rs 100/- a day. But all these jobs are in unorganized, underpaid sectors and they are part of the vast pool of migrants merely surviving on pittance. As a result none of them are able to break the cycle of bondage and poverty.

The family back home survives on the casual labour and also on debts. Marwaris and Brahmins are the main money lenders in the area. The interest rates are not less than 10% and mounting up to 15% to 20% which binds them to permanent bondage.

The status of Musahars is so pitiable that they do not even own the land on which they have built their kachha houses. They stay on the common lands of gram panchayat on the outskirt of the main village even far off from other SC houses. Devoid of electricity, proper roads, water and sanitation Musahars bastis look like castaway.

In spite of their numerical strength in many villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh they are reduced to inconsequential status as they are neither organized as vote bank nor do they have resources either tangible in terms of land or money nor skills to bargain their position in society.

Traditionally they had voted for the landed class who were their masters in life represented by Congress party but in the last state election they shifted their allegiance to Bahujan Samaj Party. But this shift has largely gone unnoticed in a state where highest numerical caste of 'Chamar' followed by second highest 'Brahmins' have joined hands to form the winning alliance.

The community which has been left behind by the society finds itself at the tail end of all the government schemes. As one of the poorest group who do not have any sustainable livelihood options and hence who faces severe food insecurity, they should have been entitled to receive the maximum benefits of food schemes. But here also they are at the receiving end.

The PDS was initiated in India decades ago to help the marginalised and the poor sections of Indian society. It is a system through which the government distributes rationed articles for subsidised price. However, the PDS shop owners/licensees do not distribute the articles for the poor people, but sell the articles in black market to private hotels.

Illegal dealing in rationed articles is a crime under the provisions of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. However, it is for the local police to register a crime and investigate it. But since the police fail to do this duty owing to massive corruption and the rationed articles never reach the needy.

The same long standing question is that why does it happen? Why the people, who are already in a convenient position and enjoying the privileges of good social and economic living conditions, could dig into the resources earmarked for the poor amongst the poorest?

It is possible only because of the endless division of Indian society on the basis of caste and institutionalised corruption. Centralised, complex and absolutely obscure nature of bureaucracy leaves no place for transparency at any level within the system; even the judiciary is no exception to this. In such a situation, the state police have been reduced to a uniformed, but bottom to top corrupt force paid from the government exchequer.

This is probably the reason why in spite of several judgments and directions of Supreme Court of India regarding right to food the judgments failed to have any effect to change the status quo. The plight of 18 Musahar families of Sarai village of Varanasi who are still deprived of the benefit of the social security schemes and right to food is a glaring example.

I urge to Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh to express my concern for the state government''s abject failure to address the ongoing corruption and negligence of district administration at different levels which is causing starvation and malnutrition among Musahar community. I call for investigations and disciplinary action to be taken against the government officials responsible for failure to ensure the right to livelihood of the poor amongst the poorest.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Police torture of Dalit Dharkar community in India