Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bihar's new social equations : Amitabh Srivastava

Bihar has been one of the most important bastions of national movement. The state is also known as the launch vehicle for caste politicians, who have always been found struggling within the state, rather than doing it for the state.

In fact, since the post-colonial times the politics in Bihar remained deeply caste based and caste ridden. No wonder, many caste organisations that were formed to fight the foreign regime remained intact in some loose form in the later years too.

Even today, the caste movements have continued in Bihar-though under the garb of seeking equitable distribution of deliverables- which bring in societal disequilibrium and creates a strained social milieu.

This is surely not the best pill for Bihar that is starved of development. But can the caste system ever be shaken off Bihar? Social scientists argue that it cannot be wished away unless the caste pattern of poverty is eliminated in Bihar.

On the face of it, caste, class and politics have always been the dominant themes of Bihar politics where different social groups have kept struggling to board the gravy train to the exclusion of the others.

Till 1980s, the upper castes dominated Bihar's politics. The seat of power was wrested by the dominant backward castes in the 1990, though the extremely backward castes remained somewhat marginalised.

It is in this backdrop, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's decision of granting 50 % reservation to women and 20 % to extremely backward communities in all the three tiers of the Panchayat Raj Institutions is expected to have a positive impact for the delivery of development tools in Bihar's backwaters.

But, has Nitish Kumar's so called inclusive political plan started paying off? Though, it is too early to predict the end results, there is surely some fear that these initiatives may have further fragmented the society.

Nitish Kumar's opponents like Ram Vilas Paswan, however, castigate him for targeting caste groups and practicing divisive politics in the name of affirmative action. "He is doing it just for political gains," Paswan said, berating the Nitish government announcements of special welfare measures for the Mahadalits.

While Paswan's criticism may or may not hold water, it is equally true that rural poverty in Bihar appears to be concentrated among the weaker sections of people-SCs, STs and the EBCs- some of which have been picked as target groups by the present regime.
Research scholars have agreed that there was a strong linkage between caste, land, occupation and poverty in Bihar. The observation also suggests a convergence of land, caste and occupation in an almost watertight bracket.

In fact, landless and those with negligible land in Bihar have almost invariably been found poor. Besides, the distribution of land across caste and communities in the state suggests that majority of the landless comes from SCs and the STs and the extremely backward communities (EBC).

In this backdrop, the government's proactive role towards a selected few communities cannot be faulted, as it appears a part of the affirmative action policy. But this is a tightrope walk because Bihar politicians are often known for pitting social groups against each other for political mileage.

Shaibal Gupta, the prominent social scientist from the Asian Development Research Institute, however credits Nitish Kumar for "scripting a coalition of extremes."

"From the elite to the subaltern everybody seems to be on board. This multi-caste, all inclusive politics will strengthen sub-nationalism while stitching a cohesive unity for Bihar. This will be good for the state," Gupta told India Today.

In fact, unlike states like Haryana and Himachal Pradesh where rapid progress has been witnessed after their separation from Punjab, Bihar has remained bereft of any sub-nationalism. This is perhaps because of the fragmented society here.

Commentator Gupta now believes that with the broadest possible social coalition in his kitty, Nitish Kumar can now galvanise a sub-national identity for Bihar which will only hasten the development process.

Bihar, meanwhile, still represents a land of paradoxes; of extreme poverty in the midst of potential plenty, slow agricultural growth though endowed with fertile soil and availability of water.

And to cap it all-despite excellent growth potentials Bihar has remained economically the poorest; and worse still; socially the most divided. Whether Nitish's sub-nationalism will turn it around? Only time will tell.