Saturday, April 19, 2008

The plight of India's caste-bound poor

The plight of India's caste-bound poor
LENIN RAGHUVANSHIPublished: April 17, 2008VARANASI, India, The Musahar community in northern India is socially and economically one of the country's most marginalized communities, and the poorest of the poor. It falls under the category of a "scheduled," or untouchable, caste.
Although the practice of untouchability is a crime under Indian law, the Musahar community is not allowed to enjoy ordinary social life with mainstream society or to share the common amenities of the village.

People from the Musahar community are deprived of property, a means of livelihood and education. To survive, they work as laborers in the fields or do other forms of hard physical labor. The remuneration for such work is given in kind, mostly discarded food or grain. Thus they have no savings in times of need, and are forced into starvation at times when they have no regular work.

In such a situation the Musahar community largely depends upon the public distribution system to get subsidized grain. But due to corruption in the bureaucracy and an almost defunct judiciary, often weaker sections of society are denied grain in the villages because the distributor can easily get away with malpractice.

The Musahars are estimated at between 500,000 and 700,000 in Uttar Pradesh. Exact figures are not available as they are included in the scheduled caste category in the state but were not counted separately in the last census. They are estimated to be close to 3million in Bihar.

These landless communities, traditionally dependent on forests, were slowly pushed from these areas as forests were nationalized and depleted and a land-based economy took over. These communities without resources found themselves at the mercy of the landed classes, which exploited them as bonded labor for weeding, harvesting and clearing the fields. The work of clearing the fields of rats and later using the grain from the rats' burrows may have given them the name Musahar -- musa-rat and ahar-diet -- hence people whose diet is rats.

The Musahar community was further pushed toward pauperization as lands were divided and harvesters were introduced. With the forests out of bounds they also lost their supplementary income from supplying leaf plates during marriages and community events.

Brahmins, Thakurs and Yadavs are the main landholders in the area, while the Musahar community has very little land. In five villages I visited in Uttar Pradesh and one in Bihar, only 25 percent of the people in two villages had land and the average land holding was not more than one or two acres. They got this land when the Land Ceiling Act was implemented in 1976. But in 75 percent of cases the people did not have control over their land, as the original landholders had managed to get stay orders from the court. Also, their land tends to be stony, not irrigated and far from the villages.

The Musahars work as agricultural laborers for the landholding castes and mainly do weeding and harvesting work. The men earn 40 rupees (US$1) a day, and the women 25 rupees (60 cents) for harvesting and even less for weeding work. This is far below the minimum wage of Uttar Pradesh, which is 100 rupees (US$2.50). Both these jobs are seasonal and provide employment for not more than three months in a year.

The rest of the year they work as casual laborers, earning not more than 40 to 60 rupees per day. Many work in brick kilns for 70 rupees a day, but none of them are skilled enough to do the work of a fireman, which is highly specialized work.

In the lean agricultural season the Musahars migrate to other parts of the country, traveling to New Delhi or Punjab, where they work as casual laborers in the construction industry, earning not more than 70 to 80 rupees a day and barely surviving. Some of them go to Jaipur, where they are employed in small textile businesses to color the cloth and earn up to 100 rupees per day.

All these jobs are in unorganized and underpaid sectors that provide a mere pittance to a vast pool of migrants. None of them are able to break the cycle of bondage and poverty.

The family back home survives on the casual labor and also on debts. Marwaris and Brahmins are the main moneylenders in the area. Their interest rates are not less than 10 percent and mount up to 15 or 20 percent. Such debts bind the people in permanent bondage.

The status of Musahars is so pitiable, they do not even own the land on which they have built their huts. They stay on the outskirts of villages, without electricity, proper roads, water or sanitation. In spite of their numerical strength, in many villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh they are reduced to inconsequential status as they are neither organized into voting blocks nor do they have resources such as land or money or skills with which to raise their position in society.

Traditionally the Musahars voted for the landed class who were their masters, represented by the Congress Party, but in the last state election they shifted their allegiance to the Bahujan Samaj Party. Still, this shift has largely gone unnoticed in a state where the highest numerical group, the Chamar caste, has joined with the second highest, the Brahmins, to form a winning alliance.

The community which has been left behind by society thus finds itself at the tail end of all government schemes. As one of the poorest groups, with no sustainable livelihood options and constant food insecurity, they should have been entitled to receive the maximum benefit from government food schemes. But this is not the case.

The public distribution system was initiated in India decades ago to help the poor and marginalized sections of society. It is a system through which the government distributes rationed items at subsidized prices. However, the shop owners and licensees who manage the system do not distribute the items to the poor, rather they sell them on the black market to private hotels.

Dealing in rationed items is a crime under the provisions of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. However, it is for the local police to register and investigate crimes. But the police fail to do their duty owing to massive corruption and the rationed items never reach the needy.

The longstanding question is why do people who are enjoying the privileges of good social and economic conditions dig into the resources earmarked for the poorest of the poor?

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

This is why, in spite of several judgments and directions from the Supreme Court of India regarding the right to food, the judgments have failed to change the status quo.


(Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi is founder of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights. He is a human rights activist engaged primarily in defending the rights of India's marginalized untouchable caste. ©Copyright Lenin Raghuvanshi.)

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