Mosaddi Manjhi is a landless agricultural labourer fighting for survival. His father, too, was a landless farm worker till his death a decade ago, and so was his grandfather. Nothing has changed for him in the past 50 years.
Manjhi, a Musahar living in Lalpur’s Musahari, a small hamlet under Siriawan panchayat in Mohanpur administrative block of Bihar’s Gaya district, is not alone. His story reflects the lives of over 2.5 million Musahars in hamlets spread across drought-prone Central and South Bihar and flood-prone North Bihar.
Amid repeated claims by the administration of development and change, Manjhi lives with his wife and six children in a thatched hut built on gair-majarua (government-unclaimed) land because none of his forefathers owned land. The same applies to all Musahars, barring a few exceptions.
The landless Dalits, derogatorily known as rat eaters, are one of India’s most marginalised communities. Upper-caste Hindus still consider them untouchables. The Musahars consider being landless agricultural labourers their fate and identity; they do not see their socio-economic status changing anytime soon.
In Bihar, 96.3% of Musahars are landless and 92.5% work as farm labourers. The figures have not changed much since the 1980s. Literacy is 9.8%, the lowest among Dalits in the country. Hardly 1% of Musahar women are literate.
There are 25 Musahar families in Lalpur and hundreds in other hamlets in this remote and underdeveloped pocket of Gaya, dominated by Maoist insurgents till recent times. Though Mohanpur block is about 20 km from Bodh Gaya, the well-known Buddhist shrine, and connected by rough concrete roads, it is a different world. Most residents belong to backward castes, particularly Yadav and Mahadalit communities like Musahars.
For Musahars like Manjhi, life revolves around food, and hence the search for work to earn a livelihood. He feels this trend will continue for generations. “Only difference is that I earn double what my father earned as a daily-wage farm labourer,” Manjhi told VillageSquare.in.
Sudha Verghese, a Padma award recipient who has been working among Musahars, said there has been no change in their living conditions in the last 40 years. “Even their livelihood income as agriculture labourer has been facing uncertainty due to use of farm machines,” she told VillageSquare.in.
Manjhi revealed that his grandfather was a bonded labourer. Two decades ago, Musahars used to work as bonded labourers for rich landlords and moneylenders. The landlords had allowed some of them to settle in their barren lands outside the village so as to engage them as farm workers.
“No doubt they have become free of bonded labour, but there may be a few still,” said Manoj Manjhi, an educated Musahar who works closely with his community in Bihar.
“My grandfather was a bonded labourer like most Musahars of his time,” said Ramjit Manjhi of Rajaundhi village. He fears his five children will also be landless labourers.
Mosaddi Manjhi, clad in a lungi and shirt, is happy that unlike his forebears, his generation has clothes and does not go without food. But he has been without work for many days because of a cold wave sweeping the state.
Migrating for a livelihood
Mukesh Manjhi, in his early 30s, moved from Noorichak village in Patna district to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where he works in a brick kiln. Speaking to VillageSquare.in, he said the majority of the 3,000-odd Musahars in his village were forced to migrate for nearly eight months a year as there was no demand for agricultural labourers.
According to him, 80% of Musahars migrate to other states. “Most migrate with their families to work in brick kilns, construction sites and factories,” he said. The remaining, mostly women, children and the elderly, work as farm labourers and rear pigs and goats.
Mosaddi Manjhi and Ramjit Manjhi, both in their 50s, said they no longer migrate for work. Suresh Manjhi, too, told VillageSquare.in, “Only old people like me stay back in the village.”
Asharfi Sada, president of the Musahar Vikas Manch, which works in the northern districts of Bihar, pointed out that Musahars no longer starve like they used to, since they earn a reasonable income after migrating.
However, Manoj Manjhi said migration for survival deprives them of the benefits of several welfare schemes of the Central and state governments. “We try to give work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to those who do not migrate,” Shoaib Akhtar, panchayat rozgar sewak of Siriawan, told VillageSquare.in.
Ignored and ignorant
According to Verghese, government welfare schemes hardly reach the Musahar community. “That is because we are illiterate and are not aware,” said Sarju Manjhi of Kolxaura, barely 2 km from the Bodh Gaya shrine. Many drop out of school.
A group of children playing said they did not attend school since they were discriminated against. “For them, we are unclean because we eat rats, rear pigs and live in a poor environment,” Bhola Manjhi, one of the children, told VillageSquare.in.
Sada said the community has no access to health facilities. There are no primary health centres near their settlements. He also pointed out that Musahar children are easy victims of malnutrition, kala azar and encephalitis. “It is common to find parents who have lost their children,” he added.
According to Manoj Manjhi, in 2009, the state government promised 3 decimal (1,307 square) land to landless Mahadalits, including Musahars, but this has not been implemented till date. Musahars also do not benefit from old age pension schemes as most of them do not survive till 60.
However, Bihar’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department Minister Ramesh Rishidev said several schemes have empowered Musahars for more than a decade. “Our government has been trying its best to empower Musahars,” he told VillageSquare.in. “It is visible; their life condition has improved.”
Philip Manthara of Manthan, an organisation working among Musahars, said they should be provided equal opportunity to improve their status, adding, “Children’s education is the need of the hour.”
Anto Joseph, director of Bihar Dalit Vikas Samiti, concurred, saying that they needed a special education programme. According to Joseph, there is no easy solution for the economic empowerment of Musahars, unlike other marginalised communities. “It is an irony that an agrarian community dependent on an agrarian economy is landless,” he told VillageSquare.in. Joseph as well as Manoj Manjhi and Verghese suggested that they should be given agricultural land for their economic empowerment.
Vijay Prakash, a retired bureaucrat who has worked with the community, said the government should certify them as skilled labourers considering their agricultural skills. Manoj Manjhi is hopeful that the situation will improve and that a time will come when the much-awaited land reforms come into effect.
Sunil Ray, director of the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, said Musahars have to be brought to the mainstream. “Their marginalisation will continue if no attempt is made to eradicate the victimisation that has continued for generations,” he told VillageSquare.in. “Society has to create space for them to lead a dignified life.”
Mohd Imran Khan is a journalist based in Patna.
This article first appeared on Village Square.