Home / Opinion / Harsh Mander | Unchanging destinies of the poor

India has been conspicuously less successful than many other emerging economies in the scale, speed and depth of its reversal of poverty. But many scholars say that whatever one’s measures of poverty, young people on an average have better educational and economic prospects today than those of their parents and grandparents. They say these changes are not fast enough but they are occurring.

This is perhaps true for many indigent Indian people. However, there are entire communities which have been unable to escape the trap of desperate poverty from generation to generation. One of the starkest examples of this is of the Musahar communities of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In a paper for the forthcoming India Exclusion Report of the Centre for Equity Studies, Sajjad Hassan tries to unravel the mystery of why the destinies of these utterly dispossessed people have remain unaltered, even as people of other impoverished Dalit castes have accomplished small but still greater improvements in their educational and economic conditions.

His answer is the enduring power of exploitative institutions. Hassan describes a community in which women’s literacy is an incredible 2% (9% for the community as a whole). A third of Scheduled Caste children in the ages 5 to 14 years are in school, but less than 10% of Musahar children study, and dropout rates are nearly 100%. In Dumri village in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, Hassan finds in all Musahar homes in small thatch houses, with no land, little livestock and savings, and “not enough to eat, or to invest in education and health, and none of course for the small joys of life".

The heart of their predicament, Hassan finds, is in their landlessness. Most Musahar families do not even own the land on which their tiny huts stand. Each Musahar family is linked to a dabang (literally strong) upper-caste household in a highly unequal symbiotic relationship. The Musahar household is constantly in need of loans, which are provided by the landlord, but at incredibly high rates of interest. “Typically, the Musahar family (kamia or mazdoor) would be living on land belonging to the landlord. In return the malik has first right over the kamia’s labour, for work on fields or minding cattle or household chores—at a significantly reduced daily wage rate of 25 to 40 a day, paid mostly in kind. The kamia would be able to earn higher wages, if he works elsewhere—but that choice is not his."

Some escape to Punjab to work in farmers’ fields, Hassan reports, or entire families toil for a pittance in brick kilns or construction work. These are situations of semi-bondage, extracting very hard labour, leaving little savings and bodies debilitated by poor nutrition. This renders the households to depend again on the landlords who couple as moneylenders, and the mostly upper-caste government employees.

In Dumri, the village of field work, Hassan finds a contrasting situation for people of other castes. “The upper-caste households were large farmers, not working the land themselves, but employing lower caste Dalits to till them. Most households also had members with salaried jobs—teachers, lawyers, clerks in government offices, and now increasingly in private sector jobs…Middle castes were mostly share-croppers, having contracted in land from richer farmers, or farmer–owners themselves working their small patches, although many continued to be kept out of the land market, having to work as rickshaw pullers or as helps in shops, some even head-loaders in Muzaffarpur town. Musahars were again remarkable in that they all worked as seasonal labourers—on farms in Dumri and construction projects in Muzaffarpur, or migrate to do similar work away elsewhere." They have no chances even to climb to the next step of sharecroppers, because “to become a sharecropper, landlords need an asset for collateral, before they can part with their land…The near complete lack of assets, coupled with the general perception of Musahars as lazy and only good for work as farm labourers, makes it very difficult for them to obtaining land even on lease".

Hassan writes movingly of one Dinesh Manjhi. His “life has run in fast motion—at 19, he is brother to two sisters and a younger brother, son to his 55-year-old mother, and the breadwinner to all. Father died a year ago, to sudden disease, that the family is still unclear about. But Dinesh’s early tryst with adulthood began much before his father’s demise. It was at least seven years ago that—forced by dirt poverty at home—his father first took Dinesh along to Gurdaspur, in the western state of Punjab, to help with errands on the farm that he himself worked on as seasonal worker. Work was hard, but it added the valuable extra to what the father saved to bring back home every season. When Dinesh is not labouring on farms in Punjab, he is at home, in Dumri village, eking out a living as a construction labourer, in neighbouring Muzaffarpur town, earning between 100-150 a day, on days he is able to find work. His younger brother, Mukesh, 15, is following in Dinesh’s footsteps—picking up the skills of construction labour, even though the work is hard and hazardous. But that is still better than opportunities in Dumri itself, as farm hand, available at most for 15-20 days a year, during (paddy or wheat) harvest time, at about 100 a day. There is no other source of income…" He concludes, “There is no escaping hard labour."

Is this the life—of wretched poverty and hard low-paid labour, often in unfamiliar lands—that a young adult of 15 or 19 years should look forward to? Decades of freedom and high growth have done nothing to change the destiny of Dinesh Manjhi. His life is hardly different from that of his father and grandfather. There is little we are doing to ensure that his daughter looks forward to life with even a little more hope.

Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.

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