Till a year ago, 12-year-old Vinod Manjhi was just like any other Musahar child of Chajjan-Gangaram village in Muzaffarpur, north Bihar, working at a brick-kiln, earning a paltry Rs 20 a day. When he didn't get work at the kiln, he would work on farms, where landlords would give him two kilograms of grain for his efforts at the end of the day. And when even farm work was not available, Vinod would hunt for crabs, snails and fish to quell his hunger.
This had been his routine for the past six years. But work, both at the kiln and the farms, was drying up fast and he couldn't contribute his mite to feed the impoverished family of five, run by his landless father. And one day, in February last year, he simply vanished from the village. Munshi Manjhi, of course, knew his son's immediate fate—he had sold Vinod to a broker for Rs 2,000 who had promised him a job somewhere in Punjab. But a year has lapsed and there's no news of his son yet. "I don't know where Vinod is, I don't know how he's keeping," says the teary-eyed father today. The broker had promised him that Vinod would send him money every month from his wages in a new job, but even the broker's untraceable.
Munshi is not alone in his grief. In the benighted world of Bihar's 13-lakh-strong backward scheduled caste Musahar community, selling children is just the newest, most desperate way to keep the home fires barely flickering. The community's lot has not risen after being slapped with the self-explanatory moniker of Musahar, somebody who survives on eating rodents (musha means rat and har is eater). But these days even that is not enough: in the north Bihar districts of Madhubani and Muzaffarpur, Musahar families are routinely selling off their children to capricious brokers for anything between Rs 400 to Rs 4,000 to survive. Siyaram Sada, the only matriculate villager of Rakhwari, insists more than 500 Musahar children have been sold in Madhubani alone. "If an independent inquiry is held, the number would rise further," he claims. Laxman Bhagat, the block development officer of Muzaffarpur's Kurahni block, admits to "some incidents" of sale of children by the Musahars. "But no one complains to us," he's quick to add.
But evidence abounds in the parched, poverty-stricken hamlets of Muzaffarpur. Kamata Manjhi, of Chajjan-Gangaram, sold his 11-year-old son Ramesh Manjhi for anything "between Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,500" some six months ago. He has no news of his son now. Driven by hunger, Sarjug Manjhi sold Butan, his 20-year-old son, to a broker about five years ago. And in the case of forty-something homemaker Phoola Devi, her husband Poshan Manjhi disappeared with her three sons, leaving her to feed their three minor daughters. "I don't know where they've gone. Neither have I received any money from them," she says. Frail-looking Yugeshwar Manjhi's four sons—Harchandra, Srichandra, Shankar and Sakla—have disappeared too. Villagers whisper that Yugeshwar was paid Rs 10,000 by a broker for the four boys.
About 150 km away in Madhubani district, similar instances of sold-and-missing children abound. The Musahars of Rakhwari, Phulwaria and Olipur villages under Andhratharhi block, Kamat Bhawanipur in the Rahika block and Jagatpur, close to Madhubani town, are selling their children to meet their hunger and to fight the ever-tightening grip of poverty. In fact, as early as in 1997, in one of the first, isolated cases, six-year-old Sukhdeo Sada of Rakhwari was sold off to a broker for just Rs 400. Bhagat agrees that "it is necessary to identify and arrest the dalals (brokers) who befool the innocent Musahars." But the racket shows no signs of abating.
Selling children is, however, not the only way the Musahars are trying to eke out a desperate living.Over the years, a large number of their womenfolk have been initiated into prostitution to feed their families. Panno Devi of Chajjan-Gangaram village, for instance, charges her clients Rs 10-15. Sitting in her derelict hut plastered with posters of Bollywood stars, Panno says: "What can we do? Should we die of hunger? There's nobody to take care of us anyway." The police also admits to increasing cases of prostitution in the community.
All this despite the official statistic that since Independence, successive governments have 'spent' Rs 35.6 lakh on each Musahar through various development schemes. Result: the community still has a paltry per capita income of Rs 200. Government records boast of schemes like the Swarn Jayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, the Integrated Rural Development Programme, the Jawahar Gram Samridhi Yojana, the Jawahar Rojgar Yojana, the Employment Assurance Scheme, Indira Awas Yojana, the Drought Prone Area Programme and the Pradhanmantri Gramodya Yojana for the welfare of the scheduled castes. The Musahars are supposed to be the beneficiaries of more than one of these programmes. But the reality is different: the community in Chajjan-Gangaram, for example, has never seen a government officer in their village except for the health officers, visiting for the pulse polio programme.
There are other schemes like yearly scholarships of Rs 300 for every Musahar child—the government is supposed to provide them with clothing; and even a Rs 20 and a 3-kg wheat incentive scheme per month for every child to go to school. But ground realities aren't so comforting: Surendra Ram, the only teacher of Chajjan-Gangaram primary school, fails to produce even a single Musahar child who has benefited under these schemes. The school is exclusively meant for Musahar children but most of the children enrolled here are from other, better-off castes. In Kurahni, where there are 16,000 Musahars, 16 schools meant for the community's children have been shut because there are no teachers. Says Chunnu Manjhi, a Musahar: "Would a poor man's child go to school or for work? We have to fill our stomachs first, education can come later."
It's the same familiar story everywhere. The state government doesn't utilise the funds it receives from the Centre under different schemes. One example: in the last two years, under the Integrated Child Development Schemes, (ICDS) the state government only spent Rs 5 crore against the total allotted fund of Rs 55 crore. About Rs 500 crore of foreign funds meant for the welfare of the Musahars has been routed through some 20 NGOs working for the community over the years, but with little or no visible results. Then there is the obvious pilferage of monies meant for development work at the official level.
No wonder, Musahars are forced to do back-breaking farm work at a pittance of
Rs 10-20 a day—or migrate in search of better paying jobs. Those left behind, sell their children and bodies, or become bonded labour with Bihar's rapacious landlords. Tuberculosis is rampant. Musahar boys also turn into cross-dressing dancers.
The sad plight of one of India's lowest castes is directly linked to sheer government apathy to improving their lot. Says Sachindra Narayan, anthropologist with the Patna-based A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Sciences: "Musahars are mainly landless agricultural labourers. They have only their physical labour to sell. They do not have any fixed economy and their annual income is less than a primary school fee." Narayan says the state of the community in north Bihar is much worse than any of the indigenous tribals of the country. "Today the Musahars of north Bihar are fighting for their survival and nobody takes any notice of it. So it's not surprising that they are selling off their children to the brokers.They are not left with any alternatives."