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What we talk about when we talk about Bihar

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.

This needs to be understood….

Do read.

PS: Our previous wraps, here. Tamil Nadu. Punjab. Odisha. Mizoram. And, this one, at the halfway stage.

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Caste Calculus: How the BJP is expanding its footprint in Bihar

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.

Fear and loathing in Chhapra: How a peaceful Bihar town became a communal tinderbox

Over the past four years, religious tension has steadily increased in Chhapra, Bihar.

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.

What’s common between coaching classes in Bihar and its bahubali leaders?

Career Plan Coaching Centre is not much to look at. It is a tiny room, tightly packed with benches and desks, housed in an unplastered brick structure, one half of which is a garage.

A board advertises the services offered by the centre, located in Geetwas, a small village near Araria in northeastern Bihar: tuitions for students between class 8 and class 12.

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.

Career Plan is a homegrown response to the larger crisis of public school education in Bihar.

The third — and concluding — article in our series on government functioning in Bihar looks at the aftermath of a state absenting itself.

Bihar’s Nitish Kumar has been in power for 12 years. Why has he failed to change its fortunes?

Kanwar jheel is a freshwater lake spread over 6,311 hectares in Bihar’s Begusarai district. Till the 1970s, the lake used to attract as many as 100,000 freshwater birds each year. But, in recent decades, it has been under attack. Landowners from the Bhumihar caste have been draining Kanwar jheel to farm on its lakebed. This has resulted in protests from local fishermen, belonging to an extremely backward caste called the Sahnis.

What is telling, said Arvind Mishra, an environmentalist who lives in Begusarai, is the government’s reaction. Despite an order by the Patna High Court and appeals from the Sahnis and environmentalists, it has not intervened.

The fallout: Sahnis, who are seeing their fish catch fall, are hunting birds instead. Between that and the habitat loss, the number of birds coming to Kanwar jheel has fallen to 4,500-5,000 each year, he said.

What explains the lack of government response?

The second part of our trilogy on why Bihar underperforms on the welfare and development front.

Bihar is struggling to improve the lives of the poor even after 27 years of backward caste rule

The district hospital of Muzaffarpur, 100 km north of Patna, Bihar’s capital, is struggling with a shortage of doctors.

With 160 beds and an estimated inflow of 500-600 new patients each day, the hospital should have 48 full-time doctors and 52 nurses, said one of its administrators. What it has, instead, is 12 full-time doctors, 24 part-time doctors and 28 nurses. The Intensive Care Unit should have four doctors but has just one. The unit for newborn babies, which should have four pediatricians, is managing with just one.

Given such understaffing, the hospital doesn’t meet the district’s healthcare needs.

When Madina Begum, a resident of Ratnauli village, took a neighbour with a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit to the hospital, she said, “All the doctors did was give her a bottle of saline. Nothing else. No medicine.” The woman’s companions had to put wet clothes on her all night to cool the fever down.

That is the story across Bihar. Seventy years after Independence, the state’s healthcare infrastructure continues to be grossly inadequate. Seventeen of the 38 districts in the state have no more than three government doctors for every 100,000 people. One district, Siwan, has just one doctor for 100,000 people. The highest, Sheikhpura, has eight doctors per 100,000 – or one for every 12,500 people. To put that in perspective, the WHO-prescribed level is 1:1,000.

In the same way, while the Right To Education law mandates student-teacher ratios at 30:1 in primary schools and 35:1 in upper primary, the ratio in Bihar districts hovers between 43:1 and 96:1. As a result, learning outcomes are poor in the state.

All of which echoes what we saw — in relatively greater detail — in the state’s remarkably inadequate response to both arsenic contamination of groundwater and the rising incidence of dengue. Embedded in all this is a paradox. In the last 12 years under chief minister Nitish Kumar, as the article says, Bihar has notched up large improvements in law and order, road connectivity and electricity supply. But its performance on issues crucial for the poor – like health, education and land redistribution – remains weak.

Which is odd. In the last 27 years, the state has been ruled by backward caste leaders, who rose to power by appealing to the poor. Given that, why is Bihar’s track record on crucial issues that most affect the poor so underwhelming?

Out today is the first of a three-part answer to that question.

How technology is changing popular culture in Bihar

Sudhanshu is hard at work in his shop on Patna’s busy Boring Road. The small strip of a shop has two desktop computers, both loaded with music and movies downloaded from the internet.

The songs and films are Sudhanshu’s livelihood. Boring Road, with its government college and several dozen coaching centres, is a beehive of students. Every day, several of them visit the shop to purchase the latest movies and songs for their phones and pen drives.

One sleepy afternoon in March, Sudhanshu, who does not look older than 20, rattled off the names of the hit movies of the moment: Akhil The Power of Jua, Heart Attack, Businessman 2, Shivam, Viraat, The Return of Raju. All South Indian films, mostly Telugu, dubbed into Hindi for audiences in the north.

“We have more people coming here for Tamil and Telugu films than for films in other languages,” Sudhanshu said. Apparently, South Indian films have soared in popularity in the last five years. And not just in Patna. At an autorickshaw stand outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital in Bhagalpur city on another March afternoon, two young men were watching a movie on a mobile phone.

Which film? “Tamil hai,” one of them replied. It is Tamil.

Wait! Why are people in Bihar watching Tamil/Telugu movies all of a sudden? Read on.