A wrap of all our #EarToTheGround reportage from Bihar is finally out.
The arsenic crisis is not the only problem area where the state’s response has been weak and underwhelming. Bihar has improved on law and order, roads and power, but as the previous stories in Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground series have reported, its performance on matters crucial for the poor – preventing infectious diseases, implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that promises all rural households 100 days of employment in a year, pushing land redistribution, providing quality education – remains abysmal.
As Gujarat’s Vadnagar station gets a makeover, a local resident asks: ‘How many jobs will it create?
Its solitary rail track – a 57-km long metre-gauge line connecting the town of Mehsana to the Jain temple at Taranga – has been ripped out. It is being replaced by a broad-gauge line and extended till Abu Road in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan.
Paint and plaster have been hammered off the tiny asbestos-roofed building housing the station’s ticketing office and station master’s room. It is being redone as a part of a Rs 8 crore project to redevelop the station as a heritage station, said Hardik Bhand, who runs the ticketing office at the station.
Look to the left and the station’s solitary platform blurs into a construction site. One group of men carries iron rods bent into rectangular brackets past the yellow board at the edge of the platform announcing the station’s name. Another set inserts these rods into the steel scaffoldings of what will become concrete pillars. Behind them, an earthmover moves soil around. The whole station is seeing an upgrade. From one platform to three. From one train trip a day – which stops at Vadnagar while heading to Taranga and again while heading back – to three a day.
It is a real overhaul. At one time, with its single platform and no more than two train halts a day, this station in North Gujarat must have been quite sleepy. And pretty too – herons roost on the trees behind the station.
It is not easy to locate the reason for this exuberance of redevelopment. Around here somewhere is the tea stall where Prime Minister Narendra Modi used to sell chai as a child. But ask around and you get contradictory answers….
In a hamlet between Badlapura and Chirandgaon villages near Chhapra, Bihar, a small temple is packed with about 40 women. Unmindful of the summer afternoon heat, they are absorbed in worshipping the Hindu god Shiva.
It is a Shiv Charcha, Ajay Pandey, the priest of a nearby temple, explained. The women live in five villages surrounding the temple and get together for three or four hours of prayer every afternoon. Crucially, they belong to different jaatis, or sub-castes.
Shiv Charchas are a recent addition to religious life in Saran district. “These started in our area three or four years ago,” said Arun Kumar Das, a Dalit activist from a nearby village, Baniyapur. What sets these apart from other such religious practices, Das said, is the focus on Dalit women.
Shiv Charchas were apparently introduced to Bihar about five years ago by one Harendra Bhai. He was born into the Bhumihar caste in Bihar’s Siwan, according to Pandey, and he and his wife Neelam set up Shiv Charchas in Jharkhand before moving back to Bihar.
It isn’t clear whether the Shiv Charchas are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, the network of organisations that espouse Hindutva, but they are aiding the electoral prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.
Part 2. Note the bit about whether only casteism can beat communalism too.
For evidence, see how this once peaceful town in Saran district now celebrates Ram Navmi or Maha Shivaratri: the high point of the festivities is large processions of young men wearing saffron headbands brandishing swords and shouting “Jai Shri Ram” to a soundtrack of techno music.
Most chants, though, are not remotely religious, said Jeelani Mobin, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s head of Chhapra Zilla Parishad. “Doodh maango, kheer dengay. Kashmir maango cheer dengay,” goes one slogan. “Ask for milk and we’ll give you kheer. Ask for Kashmir and we will cut you down.”
In such a charged atmosphere, even petty disputes take on communal overtones. “Recently, a Muslim boy killed a monkey that had been biting passersby,” Mobin offered an example. “A village headman began saying ‘Hanuman has been killed’ and a mob quickly took shape.”
In Wajidpur, a small village about half an hour from Chhapra, Mohammad Shamsher, 22, was stabbed by a group of Hindu boys on the day of Holi, March 13. Shamsher died on the way to hospital. Two days later, his family told Scroll.in they still did not know why he had been murdered. But what had transpired just after the stabbing was telling.
Over the last four or five years, the Bajrang Dal, the muscle of the Hindutva network known as the Sangh Parivar, has established itself firmly in this part of Bihar. If there is any incident involving Muslims, its members quickly reach the spot. This is what happened on March 13. Shamsher was stabbed at half past six in the evening. At around eight, a Bajrang Dal posse assembled in the lane leading to the 25-odd Muslim houses and the mosque.
Go to a state. Urgently ask about the biggest, newest changes. And sometimes you find really ugly stuff. As in Bihar. Five months in that state and the biggest development seemed to be this abrupt spike in communal tensions. It was a puzzling spike too. One that did not fit into the state’s past history of communal violence — the triggers, the nature of violence, they are both different.
This is Part One. Do read.
The street resounded with the clacketing of powerlooms – five or six machines in dark, poorly ventilated rooms with split levels. Most of these were family-run businesses. The looms were on the groundfloor with families working by day and sleeping upstairs at night.
Now, the inner city is more quiet. There are still powerlooms aplenty in the industrial clusters around the town. But within the town, they increasingly show up in junkyards and the shops of scrap merchants. The premises that used to house them now lie empty or have been repurposed. Some are used by people in the embroidery trade. Others serve as parking spaces for two wheelers.
The castes that traditionally operated these looms – Khatris and Ghanchis – have left the trade as well. Some have entered new businesses. This reporter met some driving rickshaws. Others have given out their premises on rent and live off that income.
This silence – and the departure of weavers from their traditional trade – reflects something important. Surat’s small and medium businesses were struggling even before the government announced that it would implement the Goods and Services Tax from July 1, subsuming all indirect taxes, from octroi to service tax, into one rate that would be consistent nation-wide. This reflects the situation Scroll’s Ear To The Ground project found in the other states we reported from as well. There too, small and medium enterprises were in trouble.
The second (and concluding) part of our article on Surat’s textile cluster gets into more detail — and asks pointed questions about India’s vapid claims of manufacturing competitiveness.
Until ten years ago, Mehra used to take orders from garment wholesalers in big cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, buy the cloth and thread he needed from garment clusters like Silvassa, and get the blouses stitched in Amritsar.
But this business model ran into trouble when blouse-making units came up in Surat, one of India’s biggest synthetic fabric and sari-making clusters. Enjoying advantages like proximity to cloth- and thread-makers, these units made cheaper blouses than their counterparts in Amritsar.
Now, as India readies to overhaul its tax regime for businesses, replacing a welter of sales and income taxes with a single tax called the Goods and Services Tax, Mehra has run out of ideas. “Kya hoga?” he asked. “Kaise chalega yeh sab?” What will happen? How can this business continue?
No more than 20 minutes away from Mehra’s shop in the basement of a building opposite Surat’s old Ratan Cinema, in the heart of the town’s textile market, lies the soot-blackened industrial estate of Pandesara. This is where Sanjay Saraogi works.
Described by his peers as one of the sharpest minds in the Surat textile industry, he entered the family business at 14 when his father fell very ill – he would go to school in the morning and spend the rest of the day in the shop. Over the last ten years, he has steered Laxmipati beyond trading into sari manufacturing.
But, as Gautam Kumar, a mathematics graduate in his mid-twenties who runs the centre, explains, he does not merely provide supplementary education to students lagging in one or two subjects – he teaches the entire school curriculum.
The third — and concluding — article in our series on government functioning in Bihar looks at the aftermath of a state absenting itself.