“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?”
Madan was referring to the fact that Bahuarwa’s residents are all landless and the mill’s owners have ensured that they remain so. Acchelal told me that the current mill owner, Vivek Madhavlal Pittie, and his ancestors acquired this land illegally over the years, and that some of the land rightfully belongs to Bahuarwa’s residents. Prakash, a land-rights activist who has worked in the region for decades, corroborated Acchelal’s claims. The land acquired by the mill owners’ over the years is agricultural land which should have been redistributed among a scattered population of villagers as per the Bihar Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling Area and Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act, 1961. Prakash told me that the villagers’ rightful claims over the land have been “cunningly side-tracked” by the mill’s owners due to the complicated nature of the land reform act. According to a 2017 order of the Court of Land and Revenue Department, West Champaran, successive owners, including Pittie, have illegally accumulated a surplus 4,293 acres located on this stretch of the National Highway 21 across four blocks in the district—Bagaha 1, Bagaha 2, Ramnagar and Gaunaha.
In addition, the locals’ houses were built in 1985 under the Indira Awas Yojana, or IAY, a central government housing scheme, now known as the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana. According to the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Rules, 1948, if a person has a residence on agricultural land and has lived in it for over a year, they have the right of ownership on that land once it is approved by the local department of revenue and land reform. In 2009, certain IAY beneficiaries were brought under the homestead act. Prakash told me that the residents’ papers establishing their homestead rights on Bahuarwa’s land were currently with the department of revenue and land reform, in Ramnagar. When I called the present circle officer of the department, VK Mishra, he told me, “Whoever has made this claim that the papers are lying with me should come and meet me after the elections.”