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Is Culture the Culprit?

The poor in Gaya, Bihar, are commonly believed to be responsible for their abject poverty since they are said to lack a work culture and drink away their earnings. However, research uncovers a truth that not only gives the lie to this belief, but will also make planners and development thinkers, who go along with this perception, uncomfortable.

Is Culture the Culprit?

The poor in Gaya, Bihar, are commonly believed to be responsible for their abject poverty since they are said to lack a work culture and drink away their earnings. However, research uncovers a truth that not only gives the lie to this belief, but will also make planners and development thinkers, who go along with this perception, uncomfortable.


ome hundred metres from the sacred Bodhi fig tree at Bodh Gaya is a settlement called Premdasa Nagar in the village of Mastipur.1 Named after the then president of Sri Lanka and dedicated to its present-day inhabitants in 1993, it consists of a 100-odd houses financed and built by the Sri Lankan government. Each unit is a one-bedroom house with a living room, a small kitchen and a toilet. In the beginning, the houses had electricity and municipal running water. The Sri Lankan president himself handed over the keys to the residents. The district administration pitched in by providing a few income-generating opportunities like a small retail shop or a kerosene oil dealership. Others got pedal-rickshaws while yet others received training in and financial support to start candle/incense making. Surrounded by opulent monasteries, Premdasa Nagar at present is a decrepit shadow of its former self. Most residents live in extreme poverty. The relatively better off ones are either mason-helpers who work for daily wages or those who illegally brew and vend liquor. Also well off are the few who have successfully continued with their kerosene oil dealerships. In what way do the residents of Premdasa Nagar correspond to the generally held view that poverty is either due to the laziness of the poor or because their governments are notoriously porous? Individual laziness and systemic corruption are twin factors that are often brandished as causes of poverty in third world countries. Here is a settlement, whose residents received an undreamt of largesse, a settlement that got exceptional support from the local administration in starting many an income generation enterprise, a settlement which had no dearth of lifestyle motivation, surrounded as it was by monasteries frequented by foreign visitors and yet it failed in converting these advantages into a sustainable prosperity. Why?

The story of Premdasa Nagar however did not begin with the Sri Lankan intervention in providing concrete houses to its residents. There is yet another enabling layer, much richer than just a charitable intercession. It concerns a people that rose to fight oppression and also win the battle. A battle that the people of the village along with others in the region waged against the oppressive authority of the Bodh Gaya math, largely a Hindu institution that had acquired thousands of acres of land by virtue of being the self-proclaimed trustee of the Maha Bodhi temple.2

All the residents of Premdasa Nagar were once ‘kamiyas’ of the Bodh Gaya math. Kamiyas are bonded labourers and the math was an exacting work master. Nowhere in Gaya was the feudal exploitation of the peasantry more intense than in the administrative blocs of the Bodh Gaya, Mohanpur, Barachatti and Dobhi regions, all under the complete control of the Bodh Gaya math. It was this concentration of the land in its hands that made it so repressive.

By 5 am, people had to be in the fields. By forenoon, they would be given ‘sattu’, a flour-mix of maize and ‘khesari’, a coarse crop that is not even grown at present. The sattu was mixed with water not in a pot but in a ‘gamchha’, a multi-purpose piece of cloth that rural folks always keep on their person. In the evening, every labourer was paid the daily wage in grain, which was two kilograms of paddy rice. This was just enough to sustain their bodies, which were barely clothed. Most homes had only the bare necessities.

It was against this exploitative life that the people rebelled openly on a number of occasions but it was only in 1978-79 that a group of youths, fired by idealism and enthusiasm, organised them to fight and win. The struggle, run by the Chatra Yuva Sangarh Vahini, was led by youths influenced by Jaiprakash Narayan’s inspiring call of a “Total Revolution” in 1974. Vipath Paswan of Mastipur, one of those who suffered imprisonment, police

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 atrocity, and the ferocity of the math’s reprisal during the struggle, says the youths camped in villages and ate and lived with them. It fostered solidarity between the activists and the oppressed.

By the early 1980s, the movement had succeeded in dismantling the math’s power.

Waves of Change

The Premdasa Nagar residents witnessed two waves that substantially changed their lives. The first was the struggle against the math to get the land distributed among the tillers. The second was to get concrete houses. The Vahini activists who organised them and led them into a struggle against their former estate-managers supported the first wave of change. The Sri Lankan government that gave them clean, concrete houses at the very site where their thatched huts had existed sowed the second wave of change. Both waves brought substantive differences in the lives of the people.

The case of Premdasa Nagar now needs an investigation at deeper levels, at the level of the intricate process of policy intervention and implementation. One needs to unravel the complex realm of the “system” rather than dwell on the “culture” to find answers.

The land struggle against the math, as Paswan says, “was an inspired moment”. The struggle strengthened the mind and toughened the body. It was for this battle that a community was forged and differences were subsumed. With the dismantling of the math’s sovereignty and structure that battle was won but the real war began soon after. In the very success of the movement lay the seeds of failure. In the very cause that brought their unity lay the symptoms of fragmentation. The battle against the math was just a prelude to the actual war.

After the struggle, land distribution became the first source of conflict. At stake were some 10,000 acres of agricultural land to be distributed among the former tillers and tenants of the math. In Premdasa Nagar, new players emerged to stake their claim. And the real players who had led the struggle and borne the brunt receded into the background. The Vahini got enveloped with internal contradictions and organisational crises that led to its rapid and eventual disintegration. The bureaucracy as usual colluded with anyone who could influence them or buy them off.

A total of 115 residents of Premdasa Nagar received land after the struggle. But that is just a number for the records. The selection of the beneficiaries acquired a political overtone, and the politics of patronage and votes crept in. The local political-bureaucratic nexus took upon itself to distribute the land among the beneficiaries. In the list of favourites were also those who had sided with the math during the course of the struggle and who used to subvert and malign the movement. Those who had fought and struggled received lands that were unviable holdings, relatively unproductive, well removed from their settlement and source of irrigation. All this upset people’s faith in their capacity to struggle and get what they had set out to achieve.

Again, the way the political-bureaucratic authority decided to promote individual

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    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

    landed proprietorship and agricultural entrepreneurship upset the people. The land distributed lacked viability, as each unit was an acre or even less. Even the government accepts that a family for sustainable subsistence requires a minimum of five acres of arable land. To give a one-acre plot was a mockery and its end result was bound to be tragic. Being prime property in the vicinity of an international pilgrimage site it always had more real estate value than agricultural. The sale of such land was not allowed, however putting it on lease or using it as a mortgage was. The small acreages of the holdings made them viable only for lease or to be kept on mortgages to others who had bigger plots in the vicinity. Most of such land today belonging to the residents of Premdasa Nagar is under lease or mortgaged.

    Further, the revenue officials despite repeated pleas did not make revenue assessments, and that made holdings legally untenable. “They ask for a bribe of Rs 5,000 to assess the land revenue”, complains Basant Manjhi. The lack of revenue assessment and a seal of authority over the land under possession became a constant source of problems. The small sizes of the land units were not the only disgraceful element in this saga. The authorities, in their enthusiasm to donate a limited amount of land to maximum beneficiaries, distributed even village ‘ahar’, irrigation tank land that suffocated the traditional irrigation system forever. The distribution of such ahar land to the poor and the landless gave the politicians votes in the elections but it erased the natural and traditional irrigation system in the region.

    In making provisions for irrigation, the officials thought it prudent to replace the existing traditional irrigation network with energy-intensive pump-sets. One pumpset was given to a set of four users. Two problems cropped up. First, maintenance became a problem as no specific guidelines were formulated for the water users.

    Second, these pump-sets were run on electricity. At the time, the officials had promised free electricity for irrigation but some years later bills began to pour into the poor households. The bills calculated the consumption since the year of the distribution of the land and sent the bills amounting to lakhs of rupees. People got terrified. They preferred to leave the fields fallow rather than to till and sow crops. “Complaints to the authorities never work”, says Manjhi. “You go to the district magistrate’s office and he is not there. Money, effort and time all go in vain. How can a daily wage labourer afford to go frequently?”

    Most cultivation therefore depends solely on the monsoons, and its failure or its erratic behaviour causes all-round hardships, starvation, forced migration, and has a spiralling affect on all aspects of living, including wage work. In the absence of an assured supply of electricity and with the cost of diesel rising steadily, irrigating land with underground water with the help of diesel-propelled pump-sets becomes unviable. Only those who had bigger plots and substantial means could till their lands and sow crops. A consolidation of the land was therefore inevitable. Effectively therefore the struggle against the math and its landed empire that culminated in the redistribution of land did not materially bring any substantive change in their living.

    Today, monasteries offering free medical services to the poor surround the whole of Premdasa Nagar and yet the colony has a quack sitting in the middle of the settlement. He treats mostly for tuberculosis, a disease of poverty. Every house now brews the ‘mahuwa’ drink, an occupation of distress. Women generally take to brewing as it provides an opportunity to earn while being at home. Although brewing creates its own problems, it is the only certain source of income. And drinking is rampant. It has its own vicious cycle. The cash flow in the villages has certainly increased due to the footloose status of the labourers in which there is both uncertainty and mobility. People’s assets however have declined. While almost all have leased land to others, some have also sold or rented a part of their concrete houses.

    Myth of Laziness

    Evidently, as the case study of Premdasa Nagar shows, the cause of the production of poverty is systemic. The malfunctioning systemic joints, perfectly eradicable by measures such as enforcement of accountability, transparency and mutuality, do not only produce poverty.

    Thirty per cent of Gaya’s population comprises of dalits, of which bhuiyans, “the lowliest and last” are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Most of these dalits were bonded to Gaya’s agricultural economy in a system called the ‘kamauti’ under which the kamiyas, were tied to the landowners and worked in their fields. “The kamauti in Gaya was a uniquely oppressive institution that perpetuated a system worse than slavery”, says Dwarko Sundrani, doyen of voluntary work in Gaya. “In slavery, the slaves were fed irrespective of the availability or assignment of work. Here, they were not given food if they did not work due to personal or natural hindrances.” A kamiya often fell into the web of deceit when he took a small loan, from the landlord. In lieu of the financial transaction either he himself or by his filial relations, his life was entrusted to the landlord. Such an exploitative relationship came to be legally sanctioned during the rule of law of the British. He would put a thumb imprint over a contract declaring unflinching fidelity to his landlord in spite of regular thrashings, constant overwork, and a starvation wage.

    Dalit ‘tolas’, as the hamlets are called, are located in such a manner that the inhabitants have no escape from the centuries old traps except by migrating. Those living here own no arable land, no homestead land and no resources. Such a situation does not emerge in a day. It has evolved out of a complex process, a process that has aggravated into a terminal disease of resource less eking. It is when caste oppression becomes unbearably crass, when resource alienation makes even bodily survival unsustainable, it is then that hamlets such as these attain a new name, that of ‘Azad-Bigha’, (free-land). All over Gaya, there are scattered dalit hamlets bearing the name Azad-Bigha, located on no-man’s land. They either occupy commons or settle on river banks or embankments. But this liberty does not mean much. The labour that was exploited remorselessly with wages just high enough to keep the heart beating is without any resources to begin reconstruction. This is a trap the poor and the rural economy find themselves in. The poor do not own the land on which they have built their thatched mud houses. They do not own the land on which they work on wages or as sharecroppers.




    1 The field study was conducted during a six

    month stay in Gaya district in July-December

    2005. The quotes are the outcome of personal

    interviews. 2 For a detailed chronicle of the struggle, see

    Prabhat, 1999, Jamin Kiski, Jote Uski: Bodh

    Gaya Bhoomi Andolan ,Kisan Vikas Trust, Patna.

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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