Darbhanga: Do you remember Jyoti Kumari Paswan, the 16-year-old girl who cycled from Gurugram in Haryana to Darbhanga in Bihar in May this year with her ailing father, covering over 1,200 km in seven days due to the sudden nationwide lockdown? Her suffering and grit drew widespread attention, with people from different walks of lives offering help, with some politicians also extending monetary aid and making tall promises.
What has changed in the life of the teenaged girl and her family in the past five months? For one, the family now has a pucca roof over their heads after the amount they received from different quarters was spent on construction of an incomplete homein Sirhulli village. Also, there is a visible decline in the social exclusion the dalit family used to face.
“Those who never visited us now visit our home and have tea. This is a big change we have witnessed in the past five months,” Jyoti’s mother Phoolo Devi, who works in an Anganwadi as a cook, told Newsclick with a smile on her face. “Parents belonging to upper castes earlier used to raise objections to me (who belongs to Schedule Castes) cooking food for their children. But now, there is no such complaint,” she added.
However, Jyoti’s excitement of going to school following the Bihar government’s decision to provide free schooling is fading, as the school near her village has refused her admission and coaching classes stand postponed.
“She had appeared in the board examination in 2018, but she failed because she could not attend coaching classes due to financial constraints. Academic activities in government schools are not up to the mark. Classes are not held regularly, several subjects don’t have teachers and there is no co-ordination between students and teachers. To pass the board examination, students have to take private tuition or join coaching classes. Failure in the examination demoralised her and she had dropped out. But after she got nationwide attention, she was excited about resuming studies but was denied admission as she has already attended class X in the school,” said Jyoti’s father, Mohan Paswan.
He said the school administration asked her to prepare for the exam outside the school and she could appear in the board examination from the same school after fresh registration.
“The problem is the government will hold examination in February next year but coaching centres are closed because of lockdown restrictions,” Paswan added.
In Bihar’s secondary education system, if a student fails in the board examination conducted by the Bihar School Examination Board, he/she cannot re-attend classes in school.
“Anand Sir (who runs Super-30 in Patna to prepare students for IIT-JEE) has offered to sponsor my daughter’s higher education, but that will be possible only after she passes the crucial 10thboard examination,” he said.
The teenaged girl is flooded with promises from politicians. While Bihar minister Madan Sahni visited her native village to honour her, gave her clothes and an envelope containing Rs 5,000 as gift, former Chief Minister Rabri Devi, who spoke to Jyoti and her family via video call, promised to fund her education and marriage.
Jyoti also got financial help from the Bihar government and several politicians, such as Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav, Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) chief Chirag Paswan, Jan Adhikar Party supremo Pappu Yadav, Samajwadi Party national president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Jyoti had gone to Gurugram just before the COVID-19-induced lockdown was announced in March end to take care of her father, an e-rickshaw driver who had suffered injuries after being hit by a truck on January 26. While she stayed back, her mother had returned to the village to take care of her four younger siblings.
Things were fine and Paswan was recovering when the Centre suddenly announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24. Initially, the lockdown was announced for three weeks. At the end of this period, the lockdown was extended for another two weeks. Later, a third lockdown was announced.
The sudden lockdown had affected millions of migrant labourers across the country, who were left jobless and penniless. Since trains had been suddenly halted too, thousands of them could not return home and had to walk miles. Mohan Paswan was also left with no source of income and was running out of rations. Soon, he was left with no money to pay rent. His landlord wanted to throw him out and had even cut the power connection twice.
“I had undergone a major surgery and was unable to use public transport. We got in touch with a group of Muslims from Araria who were returning to their villages riding bicycles. They asked us to join. Initially, I was hesitant. But Jyoti gathered courage and agreed to paddle me on her bicycle. The group helped us a lot. When she felt unwell, they gave her medicines and took care of us throughout the painful journey,” said Paswan.
On May 8, Jyoti started cycling from Gurgaon with her father on the carrier. She covered the entire distance to her village this way, except for a short distance when a truck driver offered them a lift. They reached their destination after 10 days of travel, at around 9 p.m on May 17.
SIRHULLI VILLAGE — A PROFILE
Located 17 km from district headquarters of Darbhanga, Sirhulli village at Tektar panchayat in Singhwara block is waiting for industrial development, education, clean drinking water and health services. The village, which houses around 800 families and has a voter population of around 7,000, has two ration shops run under the public distribution system, a branch of the State Bank of India at Tektar, a high school at Pindaruch village, which is about 2.5 km away and a primary-cum-upper primary school.
According to Raghunandan Prasad Tate, a local leader, 50% of the households here do not have toilets. A small section, he said, got Rs 15,000 from the government for construction of toilets after they paid a bribe of Rs 2,000 to officials concerned. Those who refused to pay the bribe did not get the funds, he alleged.
The majority of the population is weavers, he said, adding that the village was known for its handloom industry that collapsed after the Khadi Gramodyog here was shut in 1980.
“The shutting down of the Khadi Gramodyog left thousands of villagers unemployed. As much as 80% of the population here migrated to big cities to earn livelihood. There is no other source of employment here, except works done under MNGREGA. The contractors who get work under the rural employment guarantee scheme have to pay up to 40% of the amount of the tender to officials in the name of commission, he said, adding that to compensate his loss, the contractor takes up to 20% from the wages of the labourers.
“Despite the fact that the residents of the entire region mainly depend on agriculture, yet there is no system of irrigation. This is a flood prone area. There is no water reservoir and good embankment for water storage. Paddy crops are washed away by annual flood water. We met our representatives with these problems, but our efforts went in vain as no one is ready to listen to people’s plight,” he added.
MIGRATION AND REVERSE MIGRATION
A large number of migrants returned empty handed to their villages because of closure of factories or being fired by their employers. They got very little support from the government — Rs 6,000 in the name of flood relief and free ration (3 kg of rice and 2 kg of wheat per head) till November.
Vijay Prasad, who works in a factory in Chennai as a daily wage labourer, had go back to work on a reduced salary after he failed to get any work back home. Residing in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu for the past 10 years, he used to get Rs 10,000 per month. But now, he is working on just Rs 7,000 because his only son, Mithilesh, is suffering from liver-related ailments and needs regular medication.
“He (Vijay) came to the village in March and went back in June after he failed to find any job here. When he returned, the factory was hesitant to re-employ him. He was reinstated after he spent 14 days in quarantine and produced a negative coronavirus test report. But this time, he has to work on a reduced salary,” his wife Gita Devi told Newsclick.
Gita, who works as an Anganwadisahayika(helper) and gets Rs 2,000 as remuneration, said: “Unfortunately, our government is poor, so that it is unable to pay even this small sum regularly.”
The family is facing a severe financial crunch as they have a debt of Rs 2 lakh, which they borrowed from a local money lender.
Kanhaiya Prasad (42), who was a mechanic in an automobile company in Gurugram in Haryana, had been living there with his wife and three teenage children since 2011.
“After the first phase of lockdown was announced on March 24, we came to our village because the workshop shut down and we were asked to leave. After the government lifted restrictions partially, I went back alone in August, but the factory refused to hire me. Following repeated requests, the owner agreed but offered to pay Rs 8,000, which is just half of what I was getting earlier (Rs 16,000). The work shift was also increased from eight hours to 12 hours. Unable to meet my expenses there and the expenditure back home in the offered salary, I was left with no option but to return home unemployed. I tried other companies as well, but none had work,” he said.
Jyoti’s father Mohan, who now has no plans to go back to big cities, blames lack of development in the state for this situation. “Bihar was de-industrialised in the past 30 years. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had emerged as a hope, but he too failed us. No one of us earns a lot in big cities. My monthly earning was around Rs 15,000. We go there to work because we don’t have employment opportunities here. Had there been factories, no one would have left the state,” he said.
A large number of migrants are still in villages, running from pillar to post to get some work.
Ironically, for Bihar Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, people migrate with an aim to lead a “lavish” life. “No one these days has any problem in arranging two meals. Migration is taking place because people want to lead a lavish life,” he said in an interview recently.