Some 30 kms away from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur, in Moshari block, peasants sit around a common hookah at a village chaupal after an exhausting day. They sign Maithili folk songs and relating stories of Raj Kishore and Tasleemudin, legendary Naxalite leaders who took on local landlords in the 1960s.
This region, along with Naxalbari in neighbouring West Bengal, was the centre of bloody clashes, forcing socialist leader Jai Prakash Narayan to camp in the Menka village of this block for over six months to preach peace. Both Naxalite leaders were killed in a police encounter, but not before they spread terror amidst upper caste landlords, forcing them to part with their lands and hand them over to peasants. There are no medals for them. But their stories are told. Ironically, the village is now the only island with a Congress foothold, with Raj Kishore’s brother-in-law managing its local office.
Some four decades down the line, there aren’t many big landholdings, but new issues confront farmers and small industrialists alike. Dharminder Singh, a 76-year old farmer who has just returned from his farm after toiling hard the whole day in the scorching summer, complains of not being able to find labourers. The culprit,he believes, is the Centre’s flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Scheme (MGNREGA) and the latest Food Security scheme. “Both schemes have wrought havoc for farmers here. We are unable to get labourers to till the lands, and sowing season will end soon,” says Singh. “Last year, I had to leave vast stretches of my land barren for want of labourers.”
Before MGNREGA was implemented, labourers charged Rs 50-75 per day for work. Now it is difficult to find one for Rs 300 for four hours. Surviving on agriculture is therefore becoming unsustainable for many in this region.
Professor Krishan Mohan Prasad, who heads the department of economics at Muzaffarpur University, says the Centre’s two flagship schemes have belied basic economic principles. “When a labourer gets food and wages without working, why should be toil?” he asks. “Those making policies in air-conditioned rooms in Delhi have no idea of a village economic cycle, which relies on inter-dependency. “By getting labourers out of this cycle, they have broken the chain,” he says, adding these schemes should have been linked to wages. “If they had thought to link them to work, it would have addressed the issue of unemployment and also used this money to increase productivity rather decreasing it.”
In Chhatuna village, 10 kms from neighbouring Samastipur, where social scientist Professor Sachidanand Singh, who has taken to farming after retirement, says a successful agriculture requires four ingredients: capital, irrigation, labour and market. He rues the drying up of labour in the region. “People are either migrating to cities, or sitting idle, banking on NREGA and Food Security,” he said.
And this is true not just for farm hands, but for small-scale industries as well. In Muzaffarnagar industrial estate, Chitranjan Prasad, a small industrialist who makes PVC pipes, says he used to hire labourers for Rs 150 a day. The rate has now gone up to Rs 400, making his trade uneconomical. “If the government wants to promote industry and address unemployment, it needs to look at the labour issue as well. I have been hit below the belt due to NREGA and Food Security.”
He believes NREGA, instead of creating the promised 6 crore rural jobs at a government investment of Rs 70,000 crore, has only increased absenteeism from regular employment, and wage levels in traditional vocations. “Instead of working additional hours, enhancing incomes and climbing the aspirational ladder, the rural people seem to have given up their regular occupations and chosen to be satisfied with their current levels of income and consumption,” he added.
Yet, no matter how serious these issues are, they hardly find mention in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. An upper caste Bhoomihar (Brahmin land owner) Sachidanand Pathak in Menka villagesays “vote and daughters are given only in own caste, not outside”, implying that despite the economic issues, caste reigns supreme in the choice of public representative.