Manoj Kumar, a 50-year-old marginal farmer who owns land along the Ganga near Hajipur in Bihar, has not heard about the recent decision of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to give ₹6,000 annually to small and marginal farmers. Neither does he know about the farm loan waiver promise of the Congress. His only demand is for a job that will give him a steady source of income.
The Ganga plays a dominant role in the lives of millions of people in the state, like Kumar, who are dependent on it, directly or indirectly, for farming and livelihood. The state’s capital Patna, too, is on the banks of the river.
The river is key to the rural economy and politics of the primarily agricultural state of Bihar, where polling for the Lok Sabha elections begins next week. At least 10 Lok Sabha constituencies, one fourth of the state, are directly impacted by the river.
Agrarian distress continues to trouble farmers along the Ganga in Bihar. However, the bigger challenge for political parties is that most farmers believe that little has been done for its rejuvenation. Most farmers demand steady jobs as an alternative source of income, as they do not want to depend on farming alone.
“My land was submerged in the Ganga and now I work as a farm labourer because we do not have any land left. We used to take sand from the river and sell it for construction, but the government has made it illegal. I have no land and no source of income. We only want a steady source of income," said Sita Devi, 35, a landless labourer in Hajipur.
Work under the Namami Gange, National Mission for Clean Ganga, is visible along the river and the banks are cleaner. However, the Union government says only 30% of the river has been cleaned in the past five years. Farmers along the river feel that while the government is taking steps to clean the river, they suffer from the threat of drought and floods every year.
“I have around 100 banana trees along the Ganga. My biggest concern is that part of my crop is destroyed by flood water during rainy season every year. The government does not give us compensation. We do not expect help from any political party," said Shambhu Mahto, 40, a banana farmer who also works as a rickshaw puller in Hajipur town.
The ongoing agrarian crisis also had an impact in Bihar, with the state government announcing 288 blocks drought-hit.
“Political parties are making promises about cleaning the Ganga, PM-Kisan and loan waiver because of the elections. We grow vegetables along the Ganga, but every year we face difficulties during the rainy season when the water level rises and our lands get submerged. We lose crops and are forced to do menial jobs for at least three to four months every year," said Ranjit Mahto, 28, whose land is adjacent to the river in Patna.
The anger of farmers could play a decisive role in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections as the state has at least 1.2 crore farmers of which around 90% are small and marginal farmers. While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA had hoped that the recently announced PM-Kisan scheme will be a game changer, implementation of the scheme is difficult. The Congress-led opposition is also facing its own set of problems as voters are not fully convinced about their electoral promises.
The Bihar government claims that at least 1.5 million farmers have benefitted from the PM-Kisan scheme and the first instalment of ₹2,000 has been transferred to the bank accounts of marginal farmers. However, people complain that they have paid up to ₹100-200 to fill forms for the schemes and not got anything in return.
“I paid ₹200 to fill the form for PM Kisan scheme. I was told that the money is required to speed up the process. So far I have not received any money. I do not think money is going to come or that the Congress will waive our loans," said Anjani Kumar, 45, a farmer in Chakhra Manda village of Nalanda district.
This, along with other agrarian crises, could impact the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections in the state. With 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, the state is crucial not just for the BJP-led NDA, which had won 31 seats in the 2014 elections, but also for the opposition-led grand alliance, which aims to make an electoral dent.