Will Mahagathbandhan be Able to Deliver on Social Justice Promise in Bihar?
Representational use only.
Bengaluru: The revival of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, uniting two of its most important political forces, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has fostered hope that it may provide the perfect counter to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its two most important faces, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Deputy, Tejaswi Yadav, have been active in trying to provide a fulcrum around which a broader unity among the opposition parties may emerge before the stage is set for the 2024 General Elections.
Significantly, media commentary has emphasised the promise of the two parties, which have a legitimate claim to the legacy of Mandal politics, in offering an effective and ideologically cohesive counter to Hindutva politics represented by the BJP. Implicit in such a telling is the postulation that the politics of social justice, which has a fairly long track record in Bihar’s political history, in the form advanced by these two parties, can bring about real social and economic change in the state, and is the perfect political antidote to Hindutva. Attractive as this may appear at first glance, how does this stack up with the reality of Bihar, particularly its countryside?
The agrarian structure of Bihar – a state that remains predominantly rural and agrarian – remains mired in poverty and inequality. Landlords continue to dominate the countryside. The villages in the state continue to exemplify underdevelopment for a vast majority of the population, even more so for those from the backward castes (including Dalits).
It is significant that this apparently unchanging aspect of rural Bihar is rarely highlighted in the discussions about its political future, both by political actors and commentators. As a result, politics in practice seems to be oblivious to the social and economic problems of the countryside in Bihar. This state of affairs continues even though the political power in the state for the last three decades has been alternating between the partners of the Grand Alliance, both of whom have sworn in the name of social justice.
The reality is that the politics of social justice, notwithstanding its progressive slant, has had limited impact in terms of rural transformation in the state. The reasons for this limitation probably lie in the material support base of the political parties at the forefront of the politics of social justice in Bihar.
Evidence from the Ground
Official databases point to the glaring development deficit that characterises rural Bihar. This is supported by ground-level evidence collected through extensive household-level surveys conducted by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) in two villages in Bihar. The surveys were conducted as part of FAS’s long-standing programme of village studies, the Project on Agrarian Relations in India. The programme involves the creation of a detailed database on villages in diverse agro-ecological and socio-economic regions of the country. The FAS has surveyed 27 villages, covering a wide range of agro-climatic areas and 12 states of India as part of its village studies programme.
One of the villages surveyed by the FAS in Bihar is in the West Champaran district in the far northwest of the state. The other is in the Samastipur district in central Bihar. These villages are fairly representative of the agro-ecological conditions of north Bihar. The villages were first surveyed in 2012. Later, in 2018, a follow-up study of select households from the list of households in the original survey were conducted in both villages. The FAS also conducted multiple rounds of telephonic surveys in these villages in 2020 and 2021, to gauge the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on their economies.
These surveys resulted in the systematic collection of rich data on different aspects of the socio-economic characteristics of the villages, including production and productivity, labour processes, agricultural incomes, migration, housing conditions, and basic amenities. The data is particularly unique in terms of the level of detail. Significantly, the surveys enable the calculation of household incomes, a unique endeavour of the Foundation, given that income surveys are a rarity in India.
The data provides a clear picture of the social and economic structure of the villages and has been used to stratify the households into different socio-economic classes. This exercise, in turn, allows for an in-depth study of the dependencies and inter-relationships that characterise the village structure. The data also provides for specific studies on sectional deprivation, particularly concerning Dalit and Scheduled Tribe populations, women, specific minorities and the income-poor sections.
A few research papers and notes based on this data have been published in a special issue of the journal of the Foundation, Review of Agrarian Studies (Volume 12, No. 1, January 2022). Let us now consider the following highlights from these papers.
Landlords continue to dominate the social and economic structure of rural Bihar. They can no longer be characterised as “semi-feudal” as they do not prevent investments from flowing into agricultural advancement. While they are capitalist in nature, primarily because they actively invest in profitable agriculture, they also retain a monopoly in land ownership enabling their control over village society and economy.
In caste terms, the landlords are either Bhumiars or belong to the upper backward caste (BC-2), mostly Yadavs. The other extreme of the agrarian structure of the villages is rampant landlessness. More than half of the households in West Champaran village and more than two-thirds in the Samastipur village were landless. Almost 90% of Dalits in the villages are landless. Landlessness is a prevalent feature among Extremely Backward Class (EBC) households as well. Unsurprisingly, there are no landlords (or even big capitalist farmers) from among the Scheduled Castes or EBCs.
The relationship between landlords, tenants and wage-workers in the villages reveals the persistence of non-market forms of exploitation, reflected by instances of labour attachment. The relationship of labour servitude is evident in a few types of tenancy arrangements in the villages, particularly between the landed castes and Dalit households. Such tenants are more like labouring households with all family members available for work at the beck and call of the landlord. Their continued dependency on the landlords for small parcels of agricultural and even homestead land, and credit, is a binding constraint on their ability to bargain with the landlords. The dependency also shuts off the possibility of wholesale migration of all the working members of labouring households.
Remnants of Bonded Labour
Strikingly, the papers reveal that almost 17% of households in the village in West Champaran did not own legal rights over the house site, the land on which their house is built. About a quarter of these homestead-landless households in the village live on malikana zameen, that is, the land provided by landlords or capitalist farmers.
The proportion of households with no legal right over the house site is even higher -- 29% -- in the Samastipur village. About 85% of these households had no legal ownership of their homestead land and lived on malikana zameen. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming proportion of these households were agricultural and non-agricultural wage-workers, most of them Dalits or EBCs. This is an obvious source of insecurity for such households.
The owner of the homestead land is often the landowner on whose farmland the worker is employed, thus rendering the worker almost totally dependent on the employer. Non-market forms of oppression of this kind indicate the remnants of feudal forms of bondage.
The data from the village surveys portrays an equally gloomy picture in terms of the material well-being of the backward castes.
In the West Champaran village, for instance, Dalits, comprised about 12% of the households but owned less than 1% of the total value of assets across all village households. Further, they owned merely 0.3% of the total value of productive assets of all households. The situation is even starker in the village of Samastipur, where Dalits comprised more than a third of the village households but owned less than 2%of the total value of assets of village households.
The EBCs, too, were equally worse off regarding wealth ownership in the villages. The income levels of not an insignificant proportion of the peasants, as well as worker households in the villages, were less than what could have been attained had they earned the statutory minimum wages. In fact, the data suggests that the average annual income in the villages declined between 2012 and 2018. Absolute poverty in terms of income and wealth among Dalits, and, to a lesser extent, among EBCs, clearly appears to be the norm.
The lack of adequate employment in agriculture in the villages is evident, and there has not been any appreciable expansion in the non-farm sector that could possibly absorb the workforce. Wage rates in the villages are low for both agricultural and non-agricultural operations. The employment crisis has resulted in consistent out-migration, which has undoubtedly led to some economic mobility in Bihar in the past. But here again, the survey data underscores the fact that significant social and economic benefits resulting from migration have been limited to the richer and middle segments of the population in the villages.
Underdevelopment of Social Sectors
The reality of the villages also lays bare the narrowness of the claims of “development” made by Nitish Kumar’s government (especially whenever he has been supported by the BJP).
Acute underdevelopment of the social sectors is a defining feature of rural Bihar. The data from the village surveys reveal the low living standards in terms of the quality of housing, access to electricity, and the use of clean fuel, such as LPG for cooking. Open defecation is prevalent in both villages. The papers also highlight the low levels of literacy and schooling in the villages.
The level of underdevelopment is even more severe among the backward castes and women. For instance, a mere one-third of all Dalit males in the two villages can be considered literate (even in a fundamental sense). The median years of schooling of persons aged 16 and above were extremely low in both the villages, and it is near zero for females in that age group. While there has been an improvement in the level of school enrollment among children in the villages, the study reveals a weak association between schooling and occupational diversification. Upward mobility arising from educational attainment was a rare phenomenon, limited to a small segment that was highly educated.
Social Justice: A Distant Dream
As we review these results, the hope of political change leading to social and economic transformation in Bihar somewhat begins to lose its sheen. The study, although based on data from two villages, portrays enough to conclude that the idea of social justice that has been dominant in the discourse of Bihar politics for about half a century has had a limited effect on the reality of rural Bihar. The study also highlights the narrowness of a neo-liberal process of development promoted in the last few decades. Official databases, while varying in detail, broadly agree with the trends and patterns revealed by the village data.
One cannot help wondering why the discourse of social justice has failed to penetrate rural Bihar's social and economic reality. The idea of social justice, pioneered by socialist leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohiya and Jayprakash Narayan, tried to combine the politics of dignity and economic upliftment for all backward castes.
As it evolved in North India, the politics of social justice conceptualised caste as central to the problem of development. Implicit in this political trajectory was the call for an upsurge against the social, political and economic domination of the upper castes. These ideas were first put into practice in the late 1970s by the Janata Party in Bihar, most notably by Karpoori Thakur, who, as Chief Minister of Bihar, was instrumental in strengthening the movement for reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC). He also broadened the coalition by conceptualising the special category of Extremely Backward Castes (also known as Annexure One Castes, or BC-1) among the OBCs.
The politics of Bihar thereafter have drawn on this legacy in various ways and degrees – be it Lalu Yadav’s confrontation with the largely upper caste bureaucracy and his efforts to ignite the notion of self-respect and political agency among the backward castes; or Nitish Kumar’s efforts to extend the reservation for EBCs to Panchayat institutions, and create a subcategory of Mahadalits demarcating the most deprived social groups among Dalits.
However, this does not imply any equivalence between the two prime leaders of Bihar. Nitish Kumar, after all, has been instrumental in allowing the growth of Hindutva in the State, as against an unblemished record of secularism upheld by Lalu Yadav. Nitish Kumar has also enthusiastically tried to imbibe and popularise the tenets of neo-liberal development championed by the BJP in the state. However, the overriding influence of social justice is evident in their political thought process, despite these significant differences.
Notwithstanding this legacy, however, the material support base of both RJD and JD(U) – big landowners from the upper backward castes, particularly Yadavs and Kurmis – has perhaps prevented them from taking major concrete steps towards accomplishing social justice in practice during their long tenures at the helm. Nowhere is this more evident than in the deep-rooted reluctance in both parties to bring about any concrete steps toward breaking the monopoly on land.
The big landowning upper backward castes and traditional upper caste landlords, who constitute the primary support base of the BJP in Bihar, are equally against the idea of land reforms. The reluctance to break the land monopoly is made apparent by the conspicuous silence on the report of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission (2008), headed by D Bandopadhyay. The Commission had strongly recommended the redistribution of land and voiced the need for legislation to protect sharecroppers. These, it concluded, were necessary steps for any progressive transformation of rural Bihar.
The hope brought about by the recent political developments will be realised only when social justice is reflected in the policies and practices of the Mahagathbandhan government, leading to a real change in the social and economic reality of rural Bihar.
Given the reality of rural Bihar, any meaningful change for the better would have to be based on concrete steps toward land reforms. Only such a course could provide a durable base for political unity that offers an alternative to the BJP’s communal and neo-liberal ideology. Without adopting such a course, the Mahagathbandhan’s ability to take the politics of social justice towards its logical end will remain suspect.
The central question, however, is whether the class basis of the Mahagatbandhan will allow social justice policies to come to fruition.
Sandipan is the Director of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (https://fas.org.in/). He is a scholar of the history of science and technology in India, with a particular focus on agriculture. He is interested in studying the interplay between science, technology and society.
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