Harvest to harvest in West Champaran

As times change in rural Bihar, so does the social texture of the village.

As times change in rural Bihar, so does the social texture of the village.

At first glance, you would feel you are still north of the border, in Nepal's Madhes, with the sight of mutton, fish, chicken and pork being fried by the village roadside, with the green expanse of paddy fields in the background. But this is the village where I was born and have spent most of my life, in Bihar's West Champaran district. The flow of liquor washing down fried meat might be a common sight along the Indo-Nepal border, but in Champaran and similar villages it signifies a major socio-economic change. The clientele at such meat-and-drinks joints in villages in this part of the country is neither bourgeois nor kulak – the working-class proletariat has the expendable income to drown their earnings now.

This was unimaginable even a decade or two ago, with low wages and little work. Coming back home after finishing college in Delhi in 1985, I took up farming. A strapping young landless labourer on my farm left for Punjab after the rabi (spring) harvest to keep the hearth burning at home during the lean months of monsoon joblessness. I inquired about this chap when I returned for the kharif (autumn) harvest to my farm, 40 km from Bettiah, the headquarters of West Champaran district. He was still away in Punjab, and his wife had piled up a huge debt. As I came back from the fields one afternoon, I found a stranger wearing a shirt with trousers, goggles firmly in place above the bridge of his nose, a transistor radio slung across his shoulder, all accentuated by a grin across his face. I looked hard, but my eventual recognition was only prompted by a woman's jibe on my threshing-floor: 'Siyara oohey baa, rang badeley baa!' (It is the same fox, just changed his colours).

Beneath the newly acquired swagger of this Punjab-returned farmhand was concealed an emaciated body. Within a day his acquisitions were pawned off, since his savings could not clear his family's debts. The next day he was back on my fields, harvesting paddy with his wife. A few days later, the bread-earner was bedridden. As I came to learn from other migrant workers, the opium-laced diet typical of Punjab's farms was taking its toll. My mind went back to Britain's colonisation of China, where opium from Patna and Malwa (in modern-day Madhya Pradesh) served the imperial design. Here I was seeing a hardy farmhand withering after a work stint in the hub of India's 'green revolution'. I remember engaging the workmen returning from Punjab in a debate. By then, wages had shot up in Champaran, too – at times higher than the fixed minimum wages. But I could not reason with the psyche of the opiate.

Recalling the case of the dying migrant worker, I now realise that such workers were probably unsuspecting victims, whose employers were able to extract long hours of work with the help of opium. The higher wages were all that these migrants fell for. Back in Bihar, even though wages had risen, it fell short of Punjab both in terms of man-hours per day and the money earned at the end of such toiling days. The case of such migrant labourers from Bihar, if analogy permits, now seems uncannily similar to the naive Indian athletes failing dope tests ahead of the New Delhi Commonwealth Games.

Benevolent feudalism
The traffic out of the Bihar villages only multiplied. And it spread, too: to Gujarat, Mumbai, Delhi and even Jammu & Kashmir. The burgeoning of the kidnap-for-ransom industry in Champaran, where payment could be as little as a few lungis, some fowl or goats, acted as an impetus to this flight of labour. But things were changing: now, work was not limited to the farmlands outside Bihar. With industrialisation, the farmhands of Champaran and indeed much of the state were becoming factory workers. The newer migrants learned to work harder, earn and save more. They also added value to their basic skills: some graduated to working factory tools from farm tools, others sharpened their skills as carpenters, masons or electricians.

They even learned their working-class rights, as I discovered on a visit to a factory in the industrial hub of Delhi's Mayapuri one afternoon in 1983. I needed to get the cultivator I had just purchased, for my tractor back home, loaded and sent to a transport agency. 'Lunchtime hai, sardarji,' the migrant Bihari labourers from Chhapra declined in unison to the factory owner's request to load the implement, only to relent on my request in Bhojpuri: 'Chala, chala, jaiware ke maal baa!' (Come, come, it's a neighbour's stuff).

I remember the days when there were only two tractors in my village and over a hundred pairs of oxen to till the land. Today, there are only two pairs of oxen, while the number of tractors has gone up manifold – though not for agrarian purposes. The transportation of sand, cement and steel has opened a new income avenue in this liberalisation-fuelled construction boom in the hinterland. This is true of most villages in Champaran. At a village in Inarwa, right on the border with Nepal, I recently discovered that people with half an acre of land, or even less, owned tractors. The economic boom in these parts, however, tells another story. It is not difficult to see how crossborder transportation – smuggling – of paddy and pulses has metamorphosed the economic condition of the peasantry in bordering villages.

In my younger days, when I would invariably spend holidays from boarding school in my village, I found an abundance of labour available. The men and women were happy to be family retainers. Wages were low, but the entire families were ensured a full meal. When I got back from college, the older generation of workmen and women had grown old, yet would still drop in and help around. They cared and were cared for. To re-jig historiography, it was benevolent feudalism. And then there was a generational shift, with the children growing up and forsaking farm and domestic work, either emigrating or taking up other skilled vocations – supervising, say, at a brick kiln.

For me, becoming a journalist after almost a decade of farming opened a new window to understand the changes that were taking place in our villages. Since childhood, I was conditioned to understand that only the patriarch of a village's landed elite would don the headman's mantle. Slowly, though, I came to realise that political power in the villages was not restricted to the upper-caste elite. The moneyed businesspeople – grain merchants and moneylenders – in the villages too commanded clout. Power equations were defined by the strength of one's economic standing.

At the end of the 1980s, the upheavals surrounding the recommendations for reservations for the OBCs by the Mandal Commission also brought to fore the caste divides in rural societies. But whereas the social fabric was put under strain, there was no real transformation or development on the political and economic front. True, the 'backward' classes emerged as formidable political forces that changed the power matrix in Patna, and job reservations brought benefits to some. But the majority of hitherto-deprived people were destined to be vote-banks in the churning of politics.

A miniscule minority of the sections empowered by the implementation of the Mandal Committee recommendations – by virtue of the better socio-economic status that gave them better education – were able to gain from job reservations. But a vast majority still stood deprived due to an economic condition that denied them access to better education, if at all, and its concomitant benefits of jobs reserved. This 'creamy' and 'non-creamy' dichotomy within the Mandal-enabled castes was, thus, unable to benefit the entire targeted sections of society; and the identification of castes termed as 'extremely backward' from the panorama of castes earlier clubbed together as 'other backward castes' (OBCs) can only be seen as an acknowledgement of inequitable distribution of caste-based benefits.

But the issue of caste-based reservations did act as a political adhesive, where even those who could not benefit from job reservations became easy vote-bank recruits. Over time, with the shifting of state power to OBC leadership, young 'caste' men showing leadership qualities during polls and endearing themselves to caste leaders in power benefited in another way: various income-generating government avenues such as, say, a ration-shop dealership in the village coming their way. Political patron-client relationships thus only became increasingly cemented by caste alliances.

Hubby politics
To my mind, the real shift happened in the early 1990s, when a constitutional amendment strengthened the Panchayati Raj institutions. This decentralisation of power brought about real changes at the base of the political pyramid, a process pushed further by the current chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, who brought in political reservations for the so-called extremely backward castes (EBCs) and women across the caste divide through grassroots democracy. This, together with the flow of development funds to the village panchayats, promised to transform village India completely.

Transformation did happen. Women and EBCs have come to wield power at the grassroots. Yet true to Indian democracy's inherent failings, a whole new breed of power brokers emerged to hijack development. Grassroots democracy, as seen and felt by villagers today, has become a tool by which to grab spoils of office through spouses. Thus, the Panchayati Raj lexicon has become richer with words such as mukhiyapati (aka MP) and sarpanchpati (aka SP), referring to the husband of the mukhiya. In fact, the hubbies have formed their own cabals. 'Cabinet ka meeting kab rakha jaye?' (When should we hold a cabinet meeting?), I recently overheard my village head's husband ask the spouse of a woman ward member.

Rajiv Gandhi famously quipped at the Congress party's centenary convention at Bombay, in 1985, that 85 paise of every rupee sent from the Centre do not reach the villages. Ask the villagers today and they will tell you that the money does reach the panchayats, but it still eludes the beneficiaries until they please the elected Panchayati Raj functionaries – and their spouses. Talk to the elected representatives who have a mandate to bring in change and development, and they will talk about a rankly corrupt bureaucracy holding them to ransom. Either way, real politics is at play in the villages.

In this way, the decentralisation of power has arrived at the grassroots along with its handmaiden of corruption, both spurning the clamour for politics in the villages. The silver lining is the empowerment of women that is happening steadily, despite the male 'remote control'. With women stepping out of purdah, the exposure to various opportunities – as, for instance, nurses and teachers – has given rise to a new awareness, resulting in a conscious effort to educate young girls. Girls in Bihar villages are now enrolled in schools in increasing numbers, their dreams widening with prospective role models from across the vocational vista, from the crisp sari-clad, handbag-carrying teacher-ji in the village school to the lady doctor treating them at the village's primary health centre. In turn, the employment of women in government institutions and elsewhere has changed the village male's mindset too. Thus, women taking up jobs are finding ready support from family patriarchs – unimaginable just a generation ago.

Yet, there are ironies. Each time that I step towards town from my village, I am unable to cease marvelling at a ladies' beauty parlour that operates from a wooden kiosk at the edge of my village. Is it television that brings such things about? Or Bollywood? Both and also, perhaps, the exposure to metros? The trickle of clients beyond the curtained door only brings to mind the cliché of beauty being skin deep when you realise that, just adjacent to where these women drop in for grooming, scores of village women disappear along the railway tracks, pre-dawn or post-dusk, to defecate. The mismatch between the lack of toilets and the clamour for toiletries is painfully striking.

Leaving and returning
Similarly, exposure to the outside world has sparked off dreams among young villagers. The penetration of the media to the back of the beyond has certainly been a catalyst. Corporate bigwig Indira Nooyi might still not catch a young village girl's imagination, but Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and the women journalists that she sees at home sparks ambition. The sight of girls playing football in Bettiah, or even more remote Narkatiaganj, is no longer surprising.

Taking a few classes at a media course in a Bettiah college some years ago, and more recently conducting a workshop at a media college in Patna, I was struck by the number of girls from semi-urban or rural backgrounds aspiring to be journalists. Another thought struck me even more forcefully: While some of the top women anchors and reporters in national television have 'mofussil' Patna backgrounds, an even larger number of girls from rural up-country Bihar are joining the media today. A random background check of women print and TV journalists in regional publications and channels will only confirm this.

Child marriages are not as common as they were earlier. Increasing exposure has also changed the contours of sexuality in villages, with courtship, romance and elopement becoming recurrent 'aberrations'. Covering the Panchayati Raj polls in 2006, I was stopped in my tracks, transfixed, at a sight straight out of New Delhi's Lodhi Garden: Here, in Champaran's rural wilderness, young couples were on dates, cosying up under the sheesham trees next to a wheat field. 'Punjab-return baran san' (They're Punjab-returned), a local scribe winked.

From where there was once negligible generation of wealth, villages in my part of the country are now flush with income, both hard-earned and otherwise. And, the affluence has seen a shift from the consumption of toddy to alcohol, as the meat-and-liquor stalls lining the rural landscape in Champaran testify. The packaging of 'country liquor' in easy-to-carry, disposable plastic sachets affords the brew easy shelf space in village kiosks, where the distinction between the legal and illicit evaporates. Consumption, too, is taking its toll.

A perusal of local Hindi dailies, having multiple editions that cover a part of (or all of) a district, would from time to time show small, single-column reports about deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor. The ready availability of liquor sachets, many villagers suspect, is not only though government-controlled depots. The news reports of liquor deaths point a finger to the illicit hooch feared to have penetrated the vast rural market. Even otherwise, with drinking becoming a lifestyle among rural youths, it is assuming life-threatening proportions, with many a village youth becoming addicted to the stuff.

But in the rancid stench of cheap liquor and resultant death, a new awakening is taking birth. As one young villager was sinking after wasting himself with liquor recently, women in my village took to the streets, brooms in hand. They raided the hooch-sellers in the village. The patron husbands took to their heels.

In the churning of democracy, I sense an energy in the sight of these demonstrating women. Equations are changing in the villages of Bihar not only due to the arrival of government funds and decentralisation of power. Better earnings and prudent savings by the new generation of both the skilled and unskilled who dare to venture out have also given them the wherewithal to invest in land, just as the traditional elite see their children settling in the cities, where the funds for their entrepreneurial enterprises or the buying of apartments come from the alienation of ancestral estates.

Land for education
The 1980s and 1990s saw the shifting of many rural families in West Champaran to either Bettiah, the district headquarters, or to the towns of Tamkuhi or Padrauna in Uttar Pradesh, in the wake of the terror unleashed by the 'kidnap mafiosis'. A whole new generation's umbilical cord with the village was thus severed, with the children who grew up in towns refusing to take up agriculture or other traditional vocations of the village economy. Tales abound of families selling portions of their village land to secure a job for their progeny, preferably in the government. Many of the younger generation have also chosen to become, for instance, small traders in mofussil towns. The shifting of base has inevitably entailed the setting up of urban homes, the venture finding investment – more often than not – from the sale of ancestral village land.

More recently, there has been an awakening among rural families to the need to provide better higher education, preferably technical education, to their children. Go to any village and ask: Dozens of boys and girls, you will learn, are enrolled in engineering colleges in places as far away as Chennai, Bangalore or Jaipur. Many are enrolled in courses of computer applications. While the availability of educational loans has facilitated such education to some, many have paid capitation fees by selling agricultural land.

Factors such as these are resulting in a stark change in patterns of land ownership in the villages. In this silent transformation, enterprise rules the market, not caste. The opening-up of the market since India took to liberalisation in the early 1990s has fuelled young dreams, and better education has helped to realise ambitions. Last year during Chhath, a deeply traditional and religious festival, I was amused at the unusually loud, continuous bursting of crackers. 'Ladka-sab England-Italy se aaya hai' (The boys have returned from England, Italy), a nephew quipped, even as I spotted another expatriate youth filming the puja with his new handy-cam. The boy was home from the UK; another, back from Germany, was handing out crackers to children.

There could not be a louder statement of change.

~ Abhay Mohan Jha is a Champaran-based freelance journalist. He is also a farmer and lawyer.

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