Villages falling on the Muzaffarpur-Mushahari road are buzzing with activity ahead of the fourth phase of polling. At a predominantly Muslim village, a crowd has formed around an LED screen mounted on a vehicle, showing the “seven resolutions” of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Two kilometres down the road is Budhnagara, a village dominated by Sahnis or Mallahs/Nishads (boatmen). EBCs comprise 30 per cent of the state population, and Sahnis form a large chunk of that. The Sahnis have been slowly leaving their traditional profession as the Burhi Gandak river has yielded less fish with each passing year. The government, they say, has made no effort to clean up the river, polluted with effluents from sugar mills of East and West Champaran.
Modi touched on the issue at a rally in Muzaffarpur Friday when he said, “Bihar imports fish worth Rs 4,000 crore every year. There is no dearth of rivers and water bodies here. This situation would not have come if there had been a focus on adopting scientific methods of fishing.”
Of the 8,000 Sahnis of Dumri Panchayat — under which Budhnagara falls — only about 200 are still in the fish business. Some have left for other states to catch fish. Many have taken to share-cropping and other work at Mushahari or Muzaffarpur, or have migrated to Punjab, Delhi and Haryana for other options.
Devsharan Sahni, 60, says he has been catching fish since he was 15. The last 20 years have been tough. “Years ago, I caught 20 kg of fish at Burhi Gandak. These days, getting even 2 kg is a challenge. The next generation is not interested in catching fish — they look down on it. Some of us have started selling fish brought from Andhra Pradesh,” he says, adding that successive governments made no effort to revive ponds, rivers and reservoirs.
“Most of us are forced to do labour because of the shrinking river,” says Jaygovind Sahni, another fisherman who also sells fish from Andhra Pradesh. As evening sets in, there is no activity near the river, and only two-three people can be seen selling fish at Budhnagara market.
Some Sahnis have gathered at the house of homeopathic practitioner Jamun Sahni who also prescribes allopathic medicine for a “fast cure”. Though there is a primary healthcare centre at Budhnagara, people say it is dysfunctional. Those with minor health problems usually come to Jamun. “I have no consultation fee, I accept whatever people offer. I have also learnt to give injections… For serious problems, one has to travel 20 km to Muzaffarpur,” he says.
The topic of politics gets the Sahnis animated. Budhnagara comes under Bochaha Assembly segment, from where former minister and eight-time MLA Ramai Ram of the JD(U) is seeking re-election against LJP candidate and Ram Vilas Paswan’s son-in-law Anil Sadhu.
“In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, we backed BJP. Muzaffarpur BJP MP Ajay Nishad is from our community. But this election is different. The Prime Minister has not delivered on his promises. Inflation has gone up — pulses cost Rs 200 per kg and onions Rs 60,” says Achhelal Sahni.
“Lalu gave us a voice in society. Upper caste people now eat with us and treat us as equals. Nitish gave us good roads and bicycles. There has been a lot of improvement in girls’ education during his tenure. Voters have a choice now,” says Vishwanath Sahni, a middle-income farmer.
Jamun says their village has been getting electricity for the last 15 days.”But that could be because of elections. We hope electricity stays after the new government is formed,” he says.
Pankaj Sahni, a graduate and the grandson of ex-MLC Ramkaran Sahni, is home from Delhi, where he is preparing for the UPSC and state public services examinations.
“The Centre could have formulated a policy for fishermen. The PM talks about our welfare in speeches but nothing happens,” he says.