Mission Sanjeevani Reaches The Musahars

Mission Sanjeevani Reaches The Musahars

Far from the political campaigns of Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, a group of semi-clad children are playing on the dirt-filled land of Chhateri village in Varanasi on a chilly afternoon.

These children are from the Musahar community ("Musahar" in Bhojpuri means "rat eaters"), a socially marginalised community located at the bottom of India's caste system. The community lives in Bihar and some districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

An elderly member of the community, pointed out, "Earlier our food was dependent on the availability of rats and grains, which we used to extract from the rat's bill. However, things are changing for the families of the Musahar community of some other village because their men have gone to different states to work, but nothing has ever changed for us."

Lack of land and livestock

There are habitations of musahar community in 28 villages of Varanasi district. Of these, we visited Chhateri and Thathra villages; no one in Chhateri village either owned land or livestock. They depend on grass, wood and leaves for food. In Thathra, some people have got houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. A few  but they have had to pay the Gram Pradhan to get their homes. In these villages, men migrate as labourers and stay away from their homes for almost 6-7 months a year.

"Earlier, people from the dominant castes used to employ us as labourers in their fields and give us ration in return. But after Covid, everyone stopped giving work. Sometimes someone from somewhere gives us some work for a week or ten days; otherwise we feed wood and leaves and whatever else is available in the forest to our families,” Sudama of Chhateri village explains.

The Musahars have been given the status of Mahadalit, which makes them eligible for various government schemes. But these have failed to lift the community out of poverty and backwardness.

Illiteracy, unemployment and caste discrimination

Caste discrimination is the main reason for lack of education, health facilities, clean drinking water and employment in Chhateri village. Communities are unhappy with the treatment meted out to them by the dominant caste. For instance, they are not allowed to use drinking water taps or hand pumps because people of the dominant  castes object to the use and beat them up. "We take drinking water from the nearby Pokhara (small pond). And this dirty water makes people sick. Look, at the swelling in our children’s bellies,” says Prema, pointing to a child standing close by.   

Amit Kumar Patel, a researcher from Ahmedabad’s Gujarat Vidyapeeth—Centre for Studies of Rural Management, doing his research on the Musahar community adds, "Due to their caste, their children are deprived of education. Their children are not admitted in government schools at first. If they do get admissions , the school taking advantage of the ignorance of the parents tells them that the school is only till the fourth grade and that they needn’t send them to school anymore."

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic

This Covid pandemic, in particular, has been the toughest the last two years, villagers tell us. "There was hardly any food to feed our children. We had to go from house to house begging for flour and rice and people simply hurled abuses at us. All the people who used to work as labourers outside, were stuck there. Sab kuch   Bhagwan bharose tha. We had no help, we were even ignored by the administration whether it was in distribution of rations, medicines or tests," says Sudama.

Another man, on the condition of anonymity chips in, "The local administration was allotted funds and rations, which they never distributed to us. They kept it all for themselves.”

Through Oxfam India's Mission Sanjeevani, dry ration and safety kits were distributed to the 500 families in the village.  The ration kits including rice, dal and oil, were designed to cater to the needs of a family of five for a month.

"The ration bag supported us a lot. There was so much food that we could our families for two months. Children could have full meals. Pet bhar ke khaate the. Without the kits we would have died of hunger even before the disease could kill us,” says Hiramani.

A Blurry Future

But ration is just one part of their problem.  "Now, the challenge is to find new work in the middle of this pandemic. Some people from the community worked, but most of us were unemployed and starving to death. Those who got a job, about 5-10% of the population, worked on daily wages, that too away from the family in far away states," says Akash (name changed).

As the number of Covid cases rose during the second wave in Varanasi, they had neither the information nor the means to deal with the raging pandemic.

On a question on education, Sukumar (name changed) says, "My children's studies are getting affected. Anyway, many people from this place do not go to school. For most families it is a matter of survival. So things like education or mental and physical development, is not on anyone’s list of priorities."

Ritesh (name changed), sitting nearby, says, "We sit at home all day, we have nothing to do. Sometimes we get work in the farm, on other days we go hungry or eat whatever little grain we get. Governments, cities, times may have changed, but nothing has changed for us. We still eat, live, and sleep like our ancestors."

One thing is clear from talking to this community that whether it is governments or society, they have all given up on them to live and die on their own. For the people of the Musahar community, the future is a haze unless the government takes steps to improve their situation and no government seems to be taking steps in this direction.

At the end of John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, workers living tough lives in metros/cities return to their villages, as they realise that they can regain their self-esteem and life only by working in the fields. But Steinbeck's workers must not have faced the centuries-old caste system  either in the city or in the village. For the Musahar community, even centuries later, self-esteem is nothing more than a word.

Priyansh Tripathi is a social worker by profession and a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. He has keen interests in issues related to gender, livelihood, sexual rights and reproductive health, and human rights.

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