Signs of Hope from Fighting Bihar

The publication of Bihar's caste-based population figures and socio-economic survey report has come as a massive reality check not just for Bihar, but for much of North India as well. We now have a much clearer idea about the caste configuration of Bihar and also about the scale of poverty and unemployment that continues to persist despite the relentless rhetorical celebration of development in the state. We now know, for example, that despite the 'Modi guarantee' of universal housing by 2022, Bihar still has more than thirty percent households living in huts and non-pucca houses. The report should now lead to a reorientation of Bihar's development priorities, policies and plans; it also provides a template for the entire country, especially all backward regions. 

The caste survey has revealed that the OBC/EBC population has all along been underestimated. When the SC/ST population is included, the 'bahujan samaj' or SC-ST-OBC sections account for nearly 85 percent of Bihari society. Reservation in government jobs has been the primary plank of social justice to address the issue of acute social inequality, but only 1.57% of the people have government jobs. Even with reservation, the proportion of EBC/SC/ST population with government jobs is way lower than the average (0.98, 1.13, 1.37 respectively) while the general category is better placed with 3.19% coverage which is double the overall ratio. Clearly a lot needs to be done to improve the efficacy of reservation as an instrument of social justice. Increasing the cap is certainly a first step and the Bihar government and Assembly have already taken that first step. Equally important is the issue of filling up of all vacancies, creation of more jobs and extension of reservation to the private sector. But we must remember that according to the survey private sector jobs in both organised and unorganised sectors cover only a little more than 3% population. So to reach the remaining 95% population, we have to look beyond reservation and focus on the neglected arena of land and agrarian reforms.

The survey presents an alarming picture of poverty in Bihar. Even taking a very low monthly household income of Rs 6,000 as the benchmark of poverty, the survey finds nearly ten million families trapped below that line of extreme poverty. In percentage terms that is 34.13 or every third household in Bihar. If the extreme poverty line is raised to 10,000 rupees a month, we have another 29.61% families. In other words, almost two out of every three households in Bihar have to make do with an overall income of less than 10,000 rupees a month. The incidence of this poverty is not caste-neutral, it is visibly more pronounced among OBC/EBC sections than the upper caste population, and much more so among SC/ST segments.

How does Bihar tackle this poverty? The impact of this poverty cannot be fully measured by lack of income alone. In a situation where the poor have very little resources with no land and often no house, at least not a house of one's own, and have to depend on the market for all services, with very little state support for even education and healthcare, low income which means eroded purchasing power invariably leads to more acute poverty. We should remember that the income here refers to combined earning from all available sources which includes income from agriculture, any other source of earning from either government or private jobs or self-employment and any assistance from the state. To raise the level of this abysmally low income, attention will obviously have to be paid to all these income-generating sources. 

For example, MNREGA could be used to raise a household's monthly income if jobs become more regularly available and wages are increased from the current sub-minimum level. Midday meal workers get only 1650 rupees per month, almost all scheme workers get less than this below-poverty level remuneration - any increase in the remuneration of scheme workers and unorganised sector workers and enhanced pension for elderly people can surely help increase the combined household earning of the poor. Bihar government has made a welcome announcement of one-time financial assistance to all poor families, but the real issue is to assure sustainable increased income. And we must also remember that Bihar is still predominantly rural and agrarian. The need to make agriculture more viable, especially for the unrecognised and neglected share-croppers and land-leasing tenants, remains a core imperative for any vision of sustainable agrarian and economic development. 

Another pressing concern for Bihar is the acute crisis of housing. The survey tells us that only a third of Bihar households have access to brick houses with at least two rooms. More than 40% households reside in huts or houses without pucca roofing. The unresolved housing question is inextricably linked to the land question with millions of households not having their own homestead land. Education remains another major area of concern and challenge. The literacy rate is now close to the 80% mark, but half of the people still do not complete school and the proportion of graduates is only a little above 6%. 

Nine years ago, the CPI(ML) had conducted a sample survey to study the socio-economic conditions of the toiling people of Bihar. Between July and September 2014, our survey teams had covered 2,00,016 rural and 6,634 urban poor households. That survey had identified landlessness as a key feature and cause of rural poverty. More than 60% of the households surveyed had no land whatsoever while another 30% had less than one acre. Another feature of poverty that had come up through the survey was heavy indebtedness leading to a veritable debt trap. Even though the socio-economic survey done by the Bihar government does not cover these two crucial dimensions of poverty, it gives us an otherwise fairly comprehensive and analytical picture of chronic poverty that continues to retard Bihar's socio-economic advance. 

The caste-based socio-economic survey and the subsequent announcement of increased reservation and financial assistance and the sizable recruitment of teachers indicate a welcome direction for Bihar. In a period of massive corporate loot, mounting inequality and social oppression and aggressive privatisation leading to unprecedented unemployment and job insecurity, these Bihar developments are surely hopeful signs. It is the sustained struggle and assertion of Bihar's poor that has brought about this reality check. Now that the survey has given us the latest X-ray report, the treatment for betterment must begin in real earnest and once again we need a powerful people's movement and mobilisation to take us forward.