Landless Mahadalits in Bihar’s Bahuarwa have no hope from Modi’s election promises

07 November 2020
A typical dwelling in Bahuarwa Musahar Toli, a small settlement of around 500 families, in the West Champaran district of Bihar. The entire village is comprised of the Musahar community, an impoverished Dalit sub-caste. All the residents work as unskilled labour for the Harinagar Sugar Mill, which owns the land they live on. They are paid abysmally low wages and have been caught up in an unending cycle of exploitation that stretches across generations.
Ramji Sharma
A typical dwelling in Bahuarwa Musahar Toli, a small settlement of around 500 families, in the West Champaran district of Bihar. The entire village is comprised of the Musahar community, an impoverished Dalit sub-caste. All the residents work as unskilled labour for the Harinagar Sugar Mill, which owns the land they live on. They are paid abysmally low wages and have been caught up in an unending cycle of exploitation that stretches across generations.
Ramji Sharma

“I am 60 years old and I must have visited the collector and other administrators’ offices at least 95 times, requesting them to provide us basic living conditions and our legal rights. But all my efforts were in vain,” Acchelal Musahar, a resident of Bahuarwa Musahar Toli in the Bagaha division of Bihar’s West Champaran district, told me. The century-old village is a small settlement of about two hundred fifty ramshackle one-room houses that accommodate around five hundred families, and all of them hail from the Musahar community. The Musahars are a Dalit sub-caste, classified as Mahadalits in Bihar, and treated as one of the lowest castes in the social hierarchy. The hamlet, crammed into an area of barely 3.5 acres, is part of an almost 4,500 acres spread owned by the Harinagar Sugar Mill. “The previous mill owners forced my ancestors into bonded labour and didn’t allow them to migrate,” Acchelal said. “The new owners, they pay us a meagre amount and some of us move to the cities, that is the only change. The mill owners have forced residents to stay here across generations in extreme poverty.”

Every resident of the settlement is employed in the farms surrounding the sugar mill, barring the few who managed to migrate. All the residents are illiterate and unskilled, and consequently do mostly manual labour on abysmally low wages. Some families are still bonded to the mill owners. The residents told me that the mill owners did not pay even basic wages, employed under-age children, and exploited them at every chance. Acchelal said, “Every now and then the houses collapse. We have no health, education, sanitation and other facilities.” But the mill owners and successive administrations have ignored the residents’ plight, and they continue to subsist on bare minimum wages and appalling living conditions.

On 1 November, the prime minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally just across the road from Bahuarwa. The Bharatiya Janata Party is part of the ruling coalition in the state, headed by the Janata Dal (United) and led by Nitish Kumar. Modi was campaigning for the last phase of Bihar’s assembly elections, including West Champaran, which were held on 7 November. Raghav Sharan Pandey was the BJP’s legislator from Bagaha. However, in these elections the BJP dropped him and fielded Ram Singh instead. Madan Musahar, who attended the rally, told me, “Modi promised land to the landless people of Champaran if voted to power. It’s bewildering that the MLA is from his party but in the past five years, the MLA never told him of the denial of land rights just 400 metres from his rally spot?”

Zumbish is an independent Delhi-based journalist from Bihar who has previously worked with the Indian Express, the New Indian Express and Ahmedabad Mirror.

Keywords: Bihar Elections 2020 Land Reforms Mahadalits Musahar Champaran Sugar Mills
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