Treated as outcasts and born to poor families, children of Dalits in Bihar stare at a dark future with little help from the government forcing a community no longer charmed by Nitish Kumar to accept harsh realities.
Editor’s Note: By June 2020, at least 32 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar, driven home by the pandemic. The state’s resources, already stressed to capacity, has barely managed to resettle these workers. Their daily economic hardship is now the primary issue in the run up to Bihar’s Assembly election, scheduled to take place between 28 October and 7 November. Firstpost travelled through the state to understand those issues faced by migrant workers that will play a critical role in voting patterns. This is the second report in a multi-part series.
“No one forced me to go,” says 10-year-old Chandu Ram*. “He told me I will get good food and clothes. He also told me I will be able to see the world, so I left without telling anyone.”
Chandu is one of the 70 children who were rescued last month from a bangle factory in Jaipur. “Nine of those 70 kids were from Nawada district in Bihar,” says Zeba Wasi, a social worker with ActionAid India, who was closely involved with the rescue and rehabilitation of these children. According to Zeba, local contractors periodically manage to smuggle young boys — between the ages of 10 and 14 — to their factories in other states and make them work for almost no wages at all.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, 216 children were rescued from Rajasthan, 25 from Gujarat, 25 others were intercepted in Bihar’s Madhubani on the way to Rajasthan, and five others were rescued from Pune. However, activists pointed out that the data did not clarify if these children were brought back due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, or rescued by way of a tip. As per the 2011 Census, there are 43.53 lakh child labourers in India, and Bihar stands third in the country with 4.51 lakh children who are engaged in employment.
‘Children are cheap labour’
“Most of them know the parents of these children. They know the living conditions. They are aware of their insecurities and their deepest needs. They attack those,” Zeba says of the labour contractors that put these children to work in other states.
“Most of these children will go back to the same factories once the states start running trains and buses. They feel they are better off working because here (in their homes) they neither have the education nor any means to earn a livelihood,” says Manoj Kumar, who runs Ek Kiran Aroh, an NGO based in Patna which works with marginalised groups in Bihar and Jharkhand.
The contractors target districts like Gaya, Nawada, Nalanda, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, Purnea, Sitamarhi, Vaishali and East Champaran, among others to source cheap labour. Desperate parents, who are unable to educate their children prefer to put them to work, earning whatever little they can instead of being “awara” the whole day.
The contractors or the “thikedars” pay a measly amount — between Rs 3,000 to 5,000 — to the parents as a one-time payment, and make the children work for up to 14 hours a day. The contractors are supposed to pay the parents a sum every month, but that never happens, some of the parents said.
A vicious circle of illiteracy and desperation
The Musahari block in Muzaffarpur is striking for the rich land that it is with sprawling acres of paddy fields adding a lushness to the otherwise mundane landscape.
“The Musahar community is historically landless. They cannot own land owing to their low caste status. They can only work in the farmlands of the upper caste. A day’s work fetches them not more than Rs 200, and this is only for a few months of the year when they can reap the harvest,” says Arvind Kumar, a social worker who works with the marginalised communities in North Bihar, especially in Muzaffarpur district.
The villagers of Naurali in Musahari block corroborate this fact.
“There is no scope for us to earn a decent livelihood. Iss sarkar ne humein ‘mahadalit’ ka darja diya, lekin uska kya fayda? (This government has categorised us as Mahadalit but we haven’t gained anything from it)?” asked Shiv Kumari, a 27-year-old from the Musahar community, who struggles to feed her family of seven. “My husband has no work. We earn a paltry Rs 170 daily, working in the farms of the upper caste where we cut grass and harvest the crop, but that’s seasonal work. I have three daughters and two sons, but even they just sit around.”
Education for the children from the Musahar community is still a distant dream. After their primary education, they are supposed to get admission to the middle school which is 6 kilometres from their village, but this is not an option for most of these children.
“The teachers at the middle school sent us away because we are neech,” says 14-year-old Sujata Kumari*. The middle school is supposed to admit all children from the ages of 11 to 15. According to the villagers, the teachers treat their children with disgust and malice because of their caste.
“Even if we send our children to the school, they get beaten up or end up doing odd jobs at the school for the upper caste children. It’s better they go out and earn a little with their heads held high,” says Tetri Devi, 36, whose children have not been to the school in the past year and a half.
A group of seven boys, between the age of 10 and 14, who recently returned from Rajasthan and Gujarat in the nearby village of Manika Bishanpur Chand, narrate a different ordeal.
Huddled on a charpoy under the shade of a giant tree, the boys sit surrounded by their parents and the elders of the village. The boys returned from Jaipur in the middle of the lockdown, where they were put to work by labour contractors. “The contractors did not even send them back. We had to track down our own children and arrange their return,” says the father of one of the boys, who requested anonymity. All the families belong to the Manjhi community.
One of the boys starts narrating how he left for Jaipur in the first place. “We went with a contractor from Gaya, who was known to another family in the village. Fifteen boys lived in two rooms and used one bathroom.”
Chotu Manjhi (14), who was taken to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, says the Motihari-based contractor promised him money, clothes and food. He paid Chotu’s brother-in-law Rs 500 before taking him to Gujarat. Chotu’s mother and father work as daily wage labourers in Bihar.
“After rigorously working for 8 months, he did not pay us a single penny. He just gave us the train ticket, Rs 1,000 and told us to leave,” says the minor. The contractors usually pay Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 upfront per child, but during the lockdown, these families got nothing.
According to Chotu, there were at least 24-25 young boys who lived in a makeshift tent near the construction site where they worked and were told to go to use the nearby field as their toilet. There was no provision for clean drinking water and they were fed twice a day. “Once in the morning they would give us khichdi at around 8, and then we would get dinner at around 11 pm. We worked for 14 hours a day.” The boys alleged physical abuse at the hands of the contractors.
Most of the affected children belong to the SC/ST and minority communities
According to the Bihar government’s social welfare department, a majority of the children taken to other states to earn a livelihood belong to Scheduled Castes, Muslims and other minority communities. Dalit children in Bihar account for the largest section of child labourers in the state and are among the most exploited as well. The 2011 Census shows that 51 percent of SCs and 56 percent of STs live below the poverty line in the state.
“There are 13 districts in Bihar including Gaya, Nawada, Nalanda, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, Purnea, Sitamarhi, Vaishali and East Champaran which are the hubs for local contractors and traffickers to pick up children and target vulnerable families,” says an official with the department, requesting anonymity.
According to social workers and district officials, Gaya is the prime spot for child labour and child trafficking in Bihar. Social workers, who work with the affected families on the ground, say that years of oppression and caste persecution are major reasons behind this.
“The Musahar and the Manjhi communities (Scheduled Caste) in Bihar are the lowest rungs, and there are forces that don’t let them forget it. The conditions that they live in, the way they are treated by the upper castes, and the forgetful attitude of the State towards them can only be defined as apathy,” says Shatrughan Kumar, a social worker based in Gaya.
Anti-Nitish sentiments on the rise
The Musahari Block falls under the Bochahan Vidhan Sabha constituency, which is reserved for the Scheduled Caste community. Inhabited mostly by Dalits and Mahadalits, villages in the Musahari Block are poverty-stricken and the villagers have little hope from any government. According to the 2011 Census, Dalits constitute nearly 16 percent of Bihar’s 104 million-strong population and are a vital voting block in the state.
The creation of the Mahadalit category was not just for social and economic but was also meant to shore up the Mahadalits vote by giving them a separate identity. Since then, Mahadalit politics in the state has continued unabated.
“They say elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh affect the results in Delhi. We vote every year. We don’t have ration cards, but we have voter cards. But our children don’t have the education. We are forced to send them to work because there is no scope for them in this region. It’s better if they go and earn some money outside,” says Pankaj Manjhi, father of one of the boys who returned from Jaipur in the middle of the lockdown.
Every government promises development and they will duly come to ask for votes when the elections are near, say the villagers of Ratnauli in Musahari block. “What choice do we have? We have to vote for someone. Every year it’s the same story and we keep voting with the hope that someone will turn their eye towards us and give us the basic dignity of life,” says Saraswati, the wife of a daily wage labourer, who herself earns Rs 122 a day working in the fields.
A majority of these families, whose children are compelled to take up manual forced into labour at a very young age, are impoverished and live as destitute.
“It is 2020 and we don’t have a toilet in our village. Our mothers, wives and daughters still have to go to the fields and take showers in the open,” says another village elder from Narauli. In 2017, Bihar rural development minister Sharwan Kumar had said the government had decided to achieve an Open Defecation Free Bihar by 2 October, 2019 under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G). The mission is far from complete.
In the absence of basic amenities like toilets, the villagers wonder how the government hopes to uplift lower castes, give their children equal education and the life that they deserve.
How effective is the rehab process?
Social workers in Bihar bluntly call out the government on a systemic failure as far as the rehabilitation process for these children is concerned.
“There is such rampant corruption and apathy among the officials that most of the affected families wait for years to get any monetary compensation. Sometimes, even after waiting for years, they get nothing. For a daily wage labourer, every day is a struggle. And they are literally watching their families starve in front of their eyes. The government needs to understand these harsh realities,” says Manoj.
Rakesh Ranjan, Labour Superintendent for East Champaran and Sitamarhi, said that the government has several policies and programmes in place to help the affected families and their children.
“All rescued children (below the age of 14) since 1 April 2014, get Rs 25,000 (per child) as Fixed Deposit from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. The information regarding the rescued child is uploaded on software called Child Labour Tracking System, which has been developed with the help of the labour department, social welfare department and UNICEF. The child also gets immediate monetary assistance of Rs 3,000 – for his clothes and medication. Apart from the financial assistance, the Bihar government is also committed to the growth of the child, so we ensure that the child (if below the age of 14) gets admission in a school and his parents get all the assistance from the social welfare department – like ration cards, job cards, benefits under the Indira Awas Yojana, etc.”, he explains.
Gaya district is the second-largest source district for child labour in Bihar. Official data till 2019 shows that an almost negligible number of children have availed benefits under the sponsorship programme of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, which aims to keep children in school and prevent child labour and trafficking.
Almost 20 kilometres from Sherghati town in Gaya, Nima village is inhabited mostly by SC/ST and OBC communities. Badho Manjhi, 45, sent his 15-year-old son to Punjab in the middle of the lockdown. The family knew the contractor. “Before this, he was in Rajasthan,” says Manjhi. He said the family did not receive any benefit from the government after the son was ‘rescued’ the first time. Manjhi is the sole earner in the family of eight and makes a paltry sum of Rs 150 daily. “There is no means of livelihood here. None at all.”
A few kilometres ahead, another Manjhi family is distressed since their son was ‘rescued’ from Rajasthan last year. Rampiyari, the matriarch of the family, says, “What will we do if we don’t work? There is no way our children can study here, there is one school which has no teacher. Even with a teacher, our children are treated like dirt,” says the 50-year-old.
At Hamzapur village in Sherghati, two minor boys (names withheld) sit on a charpoy outside their mud hut. They were rescued a year ago from Rajasthan. They were 14 at the time. A year on, they have not been to school or been given any monetary assistance apart from a one-time payment of Rs 3,000.
Ranjan, who has worked extensively on the issue of child and bonded labour in Gaya, says that the district has a larger child migration issue. “We legally cannot intercept a minor if he/she is accompanied by the parents. Most of these children are taken by their parents to states like Rajasthan and Gujarat to work with them. Thirty percent of Bihar’s SC community is from Gaya, so most of the children who are taken for child labour come from an extremely poor background,” he says.
Ranjan concedes that it is difficult to ensure smooth implementation of policies and disbursal of monetary benefits on the ground on a procedural level, because of the number of people involved in the process. “The process is long, for sure, but it’s important to verify the authenticity of the claims that we get. Additionally, different policies operate under different departments which require different block and district level officers to officiate on it. The process is time-consuming,” he adds.
But that is no consolation for one of the boys from Hamzapur who looks clueless when asked what he wants to do in the coming days. He has been sitting at home for the past year. His father, Ramkumar Manjhi, earns very little as a daily wage labourer. The story repeats across Bihar among the Manjhi and the Musahar community, whose votes will be critical in the upcoming election.
He knows there is no future in the village, and in the absence of education and no means of earning a livelihood in Bihar, it is inevitable that he will have to return to the Jaipur bangle factory soon enough.
**All names changed/withheld as all the children mentioned in the article are minors