Churaman Nagar does not appear on a Google Maps search. Yet, residents of the village 10 kilometres east of the Gaya city in Bihar say that journalists and “NGO people” keep visiting them. The reason: for decades, the village that is home to nearly 300 families, mostly from the Dalit Musahar community, has been plagued with high fluoride content in the groundwater. This has caused a spate of physical deformities among the residents.

A week before Gaya was to go to the polls on April 19 in the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections, Churaman Nagar resident Barrister Manjhi, in his 40s, had only a wry smile to offer when asked if he would vote for Jitan Ram Manjhi, who is also a Musahar. Jitan Ram Manjhi has been nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ally Hindustani Awam Morcha.

But Barrister Manjhi had more serious concerns than trying to decide whether a candidate from his community would be the best choice as his Parliamentary representatives. He explained: “Nobody here lives beyond the age of 45-50.”

Musahars are among the 18 Scheduled Castes in Bihar recognised as Mahadalits in 2007 – a category introduced by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to identify the most backward Scheduled Castes. He also started several schemes for the group, including housing, scholarship, educational loan and school uniform programmes. But poor implementation of the schemes has meant that being counted as Mahadalits has helped these groups only marginally.

Across six Mahadalit-dominated villages in Gaya and Jamui, two South Bihar constituencies that will go to polls on April 19, Scroll found a significant anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP and its allies. But the results could still come down to complex questions of caste.

Severe deprivation

The uneven, mud road to Churaman Nagar is strewn with household waste. Harendra Kumar, who in 2018, became the first person from the village to earn a bachelor’s degree, told Scroll that the situation was much worse a few years ago.

“I do not see my bachelor’s degree as an achievement,” said Kumar, a primary school teacher. “The bigger thing for me is that I have been able to educate people here about the importance of hygiene and clean drinking water.”

Kumar credits the non-government organisation WaterAid for running awareness campaigns about clean drinking water in his village, but in the same breath laments that impact was limited due to lack of support from the government.

“If you go around the village you will not see as much litter as earlier but there is no improvement in the groundwater quality,” he said. “In every other house, you will find that someone is disabled due to high fluoride content in the water.”

In a 2019 report, WaterAid had noted that the physical deformities among Churaman Nagar residents were due to tap water that had 16 times the acceptable level of fluoride.

Scroll met several villagers who had deformed limbs, stiffness in joints and stained teeth caused by fluorosis. Many complained that the government has failed to provide financial support to those suffering from conditions brought on by the water. Indran Manjhi, 42, who has bow legs, said that as his condition worsened, he could no longer go to the block office to collect his disability allowance. Sitting next to him, Balkishore Manjhi said he does not get his allowance due to an alleged discrepancy in his Aadhaar card.

But will the lack of basic amenities such as clean drinking water prompt Musahar voters in Gaya to move away from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and its candidate Jitan Ram Manjhi? Manjhi, the most prominent leader of the community, was chief minister for nine months between 2014 and 2015.

Krishna Manjhi, a ward member in Churaman Nagar, said that this will not happen.

Most Musahar voters will back Jitan Ram Manjhi, he claimed, even though several villagers attended a Rashtriya Janata Dal election rally held at the nearby Chakand village on April 9. At the meeting, party chief Tejashwi Yadav canvassed for Kumar Sarvjeet, the Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate from Gaya.

“What is wrong with going for the meeting?” said Krishna Manjhi. “Let’s see what Sarvjeet has to say.”

Churaman Nagar residents are forced to use fluoride-heavy water for their daily use.

But local journalist Surya Pratap said that Sarvjeet, a leader from the Dalit Paswan community, should be able to attract the votes of Musahars. This would help his campaign enormously. After all, Musahars account for more than 20% of the voters in Gaya. The constituency has been represented by a Musahar leader since 1999.

Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders in Chakand were confident that Sarvjeet would win, riding on the support of the Musahars community, along with backing from Paswans, Yadavs and Muslims, who constitute more than 30% of the electorate in Gaya.

Tejashwi Yadav (extreme left) with Kumar Sarvjeet (second from left) at an election rally.

In Sati Sthan village in Chakand block, Musahar voters Scroll spoke to said that Sarvjeet deserved a chance as he and the local Rashtriya Janata Dal MLA Surender Yadav had addressed their day-to-day problems.

Sudama Manjhi, 55, cited the example of a defunct electric transformer which, he said, Yadav got fixed within hours. Manjhi was also upset with the sitting BJP MP for failing to renovate the village primary school, which does not have a boundary wall or functioning toilets.

Toilets at the primary school in Sati Sthan village which are not functional.

Silchand Manjhi, in his 70s, complained that the police targeted Musahars by lodging false cases under Nitish Kumar’s liquor prohibition law in Bihar – an allegation that has been reported widely from across the state. The misuse of the liquor ban law has left its mark even on the implementation of government schemes, according to Manjhi.

“The only people in our village who have Ujjwala gas [free cooking gas cylinder connection] are those who make mahua [country liquor],” he said. “Only they can afford buying cylinders and they also need the fuel to make liquor.”

Silchand Manjhi (extreme right) and Sudama Manjhi say they will vote for RJD candidate Kumar Sarvjeet in Gaya.

Crumbling category

About 130 kilometres east of Gaya is Jamui city, part of another high-profile constituency. In the last two Lok Sabha polls, Jamui has been represented by Chirag Paswan, the son of Ram Vilas Paswan, founder of the Lok Janshakti Party and a member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

The importance of the seat can be gauged by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaigning in Bihar from Jamui on April 4. In this election, the Lok Janshakti Party has nominated Chirag’s brother-in-law, Arun Bharti, as its candidate for the seat.

Like the Musahars, Mahadalit castes in this constituency are also not happy with the government’s performance – yet their vote will be decided largely on identity and not on quality of life.

In Amba village of Jamui’s Sikandra block, farm labourer Lakhan Bhuiyan said that the paddy crop was poor last year due to lack of irrigation facilities in the area. This resulted in his earnings dwindling in the last kharif season.

To make up for the loss of income, Bhuiyan said he worked for two months under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. However, he has only got paid for 15 days. The scheme guarantees 100 days of employment in a year for any rural household that wants it.

The Bhuiyan caste was designated as Mahadalit in 2007, when the term was first used.

Lakhan Bhuiyan said his income from farm labour have dwindled due to poor produce of paddy last year.

In Tola Khanjar village of Sono block in Jamui, Marshal Kumar, who belongs to the Chamar community complained about the failure of Nitish Kumar’s “Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal” initiative, under which piped water was promised to every household across the state. Marshal said 35-40 families in the village now use water from a common tap.

Chamars were added to the Mahadalit list in 2009.

However, in spite of this discontentment, many Chamars said they will still support the BJP-led alliance.

Among them is Hriday Kumar, a Chamar farm labourer from Tola Khanjar, who has seen little improvement in his earnings. But Kumar said he would still “vote for Modi” because of the scheme under which the Centre gives five kilograms of free rations to more than 80 crore poor Indians.

In Tola Khanjar village of Jamui, nearly 40 families use water from a common tap.

Lack of irrigation

In Amba village of Jamui, voters also expressed disappointment that Modi’s April 4 election rally speech did not address the lack of irrigation projects. Amba is home to more than 150 families – mostly Paswans and Yadav farmers who grow wheat and paddy.

“There is not a single government project in our area for irrigating our fields,” said Munirak Kumar, who belongs to the Paswan community. “We are entirely dependent on rainfall and there has been very little rain in the last three years. Last year, we could not grow any paddy.”

But the distress of farmers is unlikely to translate into votes against the Lok Janshakti Party. Several farmers Scroll spoke to in Amba and neighbouring villages said that they held respect for Ram Vilas Paswan and would not desert his son.

Paswans are seen as Bihar’s least disadvantaged Dalit group. They were the last to be included in the Mahadalit category in 2018. With their inclusion, the Mahadalit sub-categorisation lost its meaning since all Scheduled Castes are now Mahadalits, making the two terms synonymous. This ended up fulfilling the wish of the Lok Janshakti Party, which had always opposed the sub-categorisation of the Dalit category.

Dalit researcher and journalist Mahendra Suman told Scroll that Nitish Kumar's decision to end attempts at sub-categorisation of Dalits was a result of his political calculations.

“Nitish Kumar was under a lot of pressure to include Paswans because it is unusual to exclude just one caste group when everyone else is being given the Mahadalit status,” said Suman. “But he [Kumar] had to include the Paswans because he was an alliance partner with the Lok Janshakti Party and he wanted to avoid a rift in the alliance.”

Suman continued: “Now there is no difference between a Dalit and a Mahadlit in Bihar. You will not even hear Nitish Kumar speak about the Bihar Mahadalit Commission that had been set up to make the categorisation and suggest measures for the upliftment of the category.”

(All photos taken by Abhik Deb)