Leading Musahars to their Rights and Hope

In spite of Constitutional safeguards and legal provisions for devolution of power to the grassroots and large budget allocations for development, an increasing trend of collective poverty and progressive marginalisation of poor communities has been observed. This is because of a lack of political will for proper implementation of the law to ensure actual devolution of power to the grassroots. As a result, Gram Sabha (or Village Assembly), the key institution of Self Governance, instead of being an institution of governance has been reduced in many instances to an institution of exploitation of marginalised communities by vested interests. The problem is further exacerbated by the culture of passive acceptance, subservience and subjugation that the tribal and dalit people suffer from, due to a history of exploitation and denial of human rights. The fallout of this institution-based exploitation has been noticed in gradual disempowerment of the marginalised people. This is manifested in their progressive alienation from land, denial of access to forest and other natural resources, displacement from native lands due to mining projects and large dams and total loss of access to Government institutions and Social Security Schemes.

Musahar is a caste that forms the lowest rung of the dalit society and faces untouchability and discrimination even at the hands of other dalits. In Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Musahars are spread over Kushinagar, Gorakhpur, Deoria and Mahrajganj over an area of 11718 sq. kms and they cover the East Champaran (Purbi Champaran) district in Bihar.

The word Musahar literally translates into ‘rat-eater’ which is a pointer towards the extreme destitution experienced by this community, as they are forced to eat rats in order to survive. Their hamlets are allowed to be located only at a great distance from all other hamlets and the size of the hamlet is not allowed to be increased even when their population continues to increase. They live in huts made of leaf or thatch and are so small that they serve more as a place to cook rather than as shelter. With no grain to store, Musahar houses often have two vessels as their only valuables. They are not allowed inside other hamlets unless summoned. There may be pucca/semi pucca roads leading to other hamlets but the Musahar hamlets are not connected.

The word Musahar literally translates into ‘rat-eater’ which is a pointer towards the extreme destitution experienced by this community, as they are forced to eat rats in order to survive.

An initiative by ActionAid, under the PACS programme, has identified Musahar as an extremely vulnerable community. These include economic deprivation in all its forms- no assets, low-income levels, hunger, poor health, insecurity, physical and psychological hardship, social exclusion, degradation and discrimination and political powerlessness and alienation. The organisation plans to have a long-term engagement to build the capacity of the community to fight for its rights.

Centuries of exploitation has resulted in passive acceptance of the situation among Musahars. In tangible terms, the impact of such exploitation is low literacy levels, no access to resources and poor health, reflected in a higher rate of mortality and morbidity among these groups, especially those related to childbirth and infant care. Most Musahars are illiterate and unaware of their civil rights.

Expectedly, women get the worst treatment. Along with the burden of feeding their families amongst degrading poverty, many Musahar women face sexual exploitation by the upper castes. However, no cases are registered with the police for fear of reprisal from the upper castes.

Economically, the Musahars are the most impoverished community in the two regions. Traditionally forest dwellers, some Musahars took to working in the fields of upper castes after the destruction of forests. They were paid a pittance for their labour, but with the advent of modern agricultural techniques, this option of earning a livelihood is on its way out. Land ownership among them is negligible. Even in cases where they have received land through the Land Ceiling Act, they either have no control over the land or it is unsuitable for cultivation. Some Musahar settlements also depend on working in brick kilns (which also have exploitative work conditions). Others migrate leaving behind women, children and the aged. Many Musahars are in debt for expenses incurred for marriages, deaths etc., and this further ties them in the vicious cycle of poverty. Understandably, the spectre of food insecurity constantly haunts this community.

Politically, Musahars remain voiceless even today. Their voice is neither a part of the dalit voice in the region, nor do they find any representation at the local panchayat level. Even benefits meant for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes do not reach them. The poverty faced by them is an extremely complex phenomenon, which manifests itself in a dense range of overlapping and interwoven economic, political and social deprivation.

Centuries of exploitation has resulted in passive acceptance of the situation among Musahars.

The problems of the community cannot be solved by merely providing financial relief and doles. In consultation with the community, ActionAid has proposed a process of collectivisation and community led action under the PACS programme, through which immediate poverty needs can be addressed and human security systems established. ActionAid would work not only with Musahars themselves but strive to forge links and solidarity with other castes in the villages and plans for a social reintegration of Musahars into the village community. ActionAid will also try to advocate with other Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) to include Musahars into their development work.

The Plan includes:

1. Addressing immediate poverty needs

2. Securing government entitlements

3. Sensitisation of other village communities

4. Community capacity building for political participation

5. Community institution building

6. Research and policy analysis for bringing about legal reforms

7. Media campaigns, advocacy and lobbying.

1. Addressing immediate poverty needs

The first interventions would be to ensure their right to food through reviving the institution of grain banks, which were an important social food security mechanism in the past. The health / emergency revolving fund will provide support for health emergencies and also used for other emergencies in the community. This fund would be managed by women. Health camps will be organised in the villages. They will offer both curative services and also awareness for preventive health care. Alternative livelihood options will be explored for Musahars. Seed capital would be given to the most destitute Musahars, especially women to start alternative livelihood. Money would be leveraged from other government schemes for the same.

2. Securing government entitlements

ActionAid and its partners will inform Musahars of the various government entitlements

Musahars rally for thier right
to employment

 meant for them under various schemes and establish linkages to secure these. These include access to health care facilities, the public food distribution systems, rights to Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) and dead fuel wood from the forests, etc. Interfaces with the government functionaries would be organised. This would include not only lobbying with the Government social service delivery organisations/departments to ensure that their schemes are made effective but also awareness building within the partner communities to raise a voice for respecting entitlements. The community would be made aware of their legal rights, to protect them from exploitation. The partner NGOs will also look into the issue of land rights of Musahars and help those, whose land rights have been fraudulently taken away. The project will also establish linkages with schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for education of Musahar children. The campaigns, as laid out in the establishment of the grain banks, are one of the concrete ways of doing it.

3. Sensitisation of other village communities

Sensitisation of other village communities, especially those responsible for the denial of rights of the Musahars, would be attempted. The project facilities like health camps would be open to all communities in the village and provide negotiation grounds for Musahars for redefining their relationship with other communities. The process of Lok Adhikar Yojna is one of the mechanisms to do it.

4. Capacity building for political participation

Capacity building of the target community would be done to participate in the political mainstream. They would be made aware of their rights as voters, encouraged to participate in the gram sabha (village assembly) meetings and stand for elections in the local bodies. Their capacity would be built to negotiate for their rights and benefits when village level schemes are designed.

5. Community institution building

The NGO partners would identify promising young Musahar men and women who can be trained as a cadre of community volunteers. ActionAid and the umbrella partner organisations will encourage formation of their groups and strengthen them so that they can take up the cause of Musahars themselves. This cadre would be extensively trained in participatory methods and other skills required. The cadre will also be trained in preparing peoples’ plans that is the Lok Adhikar Yojana. This process will take into account the socio-economic situation of Musahars and preparing plans at village level to better their situation.

6. Research and policy analysis for bringing about legal reforms

Resource centres for Musahars will do policy analysis on issues of Musahars and research activities. It will act as a clearing house of information.

7. Media campaign, advocacy and lobbying

A media campaign will be undertaken to bring to public view, the problems faced by this community. At the local level advocacy will be carried out with other NGOs, at state level with academic bodies and the administration to ensure social justice for them. Information, education and communication materials such as posters and pamphlets will be printed on issues of Musahars. Links will be established with other advocacy efforts and campaigns such as Right to Food Campaign, Education Campaign, and Prisons Study being carried out by ActionAid all over the country. q

In Focus

On 13th May, 2003, over 5000 persons from 110 villages belonging to the dalit Musahar community came together to participate in the Musahar Dignity conference. It was for the first time in the history of East Chamaparan, that the Musahar people were organised at one place to attend a conference. There were four programmes organised by SSEVK, Mehsi, and East Champaran in association with "Musahar Vikas Manch", an organisation of the Musahar community. The objective to organise these programmes was:

« to increase the social dignity of Musahars,
« to increase fraternity and cohesion among the Musahars
« to revive their culture of worshipping land
« to interface with government officials
« to provide immediate medical help to Musahars.

From the PACS supported ActionAid project on
empowerment of Musahars.

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