You can hear the clatter of looms from a distance. And as you make your way through a narrow lane that cuts through concrete structures, there are no noticeable signs of affluence. But Patwa Toli is no ordinary Bihar neighbourhood.
While the din of looms is a sign of good business, the children here have been weaving a dream, too, every year: cracking the entrance exams for top engineering colleges, including IITs. Prem Narayan Patwa, who heads this weaving community of 1,400 households, says they have sent 180 students to IITs; 30 families from here now live in the US. “One family has seven IITians. If you count all our boys and girls in engineering colleges, the number will be 800,’’ he says.
Today, the chatter at the looms and street corners is all about the elections. Residents say they have traditionally supported the BJP but this time, they are not quite sure.
“The government has never done anything for us. This community has got everything through hard work. But we have been BJP supporters for long. We started supporting the BJP because of Ishwar Choudhary,’’ says Patwa, who heads Vastra Udyog Bunkar Seva Samiti, an association of weavers. He is referring to the well-known BJP MP from Gaya, who was murdered in 1991.
“There are 48 booths of Wazirgunj constituency in Patwa Toli and they used to be called ‘BJP booths’. No one from any other party would even come here,” he adds.
Patwa says there are two major reasons for a debate this time. “Our BJP legislator Virendra Singh has never come here. On the other hand, the Nitish Kumar government decided to move Bunkars (the weaver community) from OBC to EBC (extremely backward),’’ he says. “I have been involved with the BJP for a long time. I am not saying people won’t vote for the party, but there are serious questions this time.”
Patwa says they had written to BJP president Amit Shah with a request for “a good candidate, who is ready to soil his shoes, walk on these narrow lanes and understand our problems”. But in its first list, the BJP gave the Wazirganj ticket to Virendra Singh again.
“The government has done nothing for us. We are taken for granted because we are BJP supporters. We don’t want any doles. In fact, 35-40 villages nearby are dependent on us for employment. There are 1,600 units in the neighbourhood and 80 tonnes yarn is woven into cloth every day,” adds Patwa.
One factor that’s keeping voters from going with Nitish is his alliance with Lalu Prasad. “We don’t remember Lalu’s time with fondness. There was a lot of goonda gardi. We are business people and don’t like disruptions. If Nitish had gone alone this time, there was no doubt everybody here would have supported him,” adds Patwa.
It’s not as if the entire village has turned its back on Lalu. “His rule may not have been great but he has played a major role in whatever good has happened here,’’ says Arun Kumar, another resident. “Lalu gave us a voice. Before him, no one from the middle and lower castes could muster the courage to say a word,’’ he adds.
And so, the debate continues. “What has the BJP done for us? Bunkars are spread across Bihar but there is no member from our community in the BJP’s central committee on Bihar or in the state unit,” says Patwa.
Residents say the community will take a joint decision regarding their vote.
Patwa Toli’s newfound voice isn’t linked solely to the spike in business. The transformation began in 1991 when Jitendra Prasad became the first in the community to crack the IIT entrance. “He became the inspiration for our children,’’ says Patwa. “He went to the US later but by then other children had cracked the exam. Each year, the number kept growing and the seniors set up an organisation called Nav Prayas to help students. They would come during their vacation and set up coaching classes.”
Villagers recount the story of Tej Narayan Prasad. His father, an illiterate insurance agent, had sent him to school to study English so that it could help in his work. He ended up as an electrical engineer from IIT Kanpur. “Bekhraj Patwa’s household has seven children in IITs, six boys and a girl. Jitendra’s family has four in IITs. The son of a local mafia don, too, is in an IIT,” says Patwa.
Then there’s Dhanraj Kumar, son of Lalku Prasad, who declined to join IIT Kharagpur because he had “a better option”. “He was among the 54 students selected in the highly competitive SCRA (Special Class Railway Apprentice) exam,’’ says Lalku Prasad, a weaver himself. “One of my daughters is in her third year at NIT Bhopal. Another daughter will appear for her IIT entrance in 2017. I am sure she will get into an IIT.”
Prasad is sitting with a group of weavers at the home of a neighbour, Amit Kumar Patwa, whose daughter Deepa qualified for an IIT but chose an IT course at Jadavpur University instead.
Before Jitendra showed the way, there was hardly a graduate in the neighbourhood. “We would study till matric or intermediate at the most and become weavers,’’ says Prasad. “Our women were illiterate. Today, more than a dozen of our daughters are studying engineering.”
Caste or competence
Prasad says the biggest problem in Bihar is that MLAs are chosen more on the basis of caste than competence. “An illiterate person is as good as a buffalo and we get illiterate candidates,’’ he says.
Rather than helping students who crack prestigious exams, the Bihar government had even suspended the OBC scholarship scheme, claims Prasad. “They would give Rs 15,000 to a student a year which is nothing. It took me dozens of trips to Patna to convince them to release this scholarship for my daughter. I am not complaining though. We would sell everything we have to fund the education of our children,” he says.
The problem with governments in Bihar is that any scheme they announce takes 4-5 years to start, says Amit Kumar. “Around a dozen of our boys who completed their engineering course returned to their family business. But while the government announced a subsidy on electricity, they never got it,” says Amit Kumar.
One of his nephews, Chandra Kant Pateshwari, 26, is preparing for the civil services. He says there has been a lot of change during Nitish’s tenure. “He built a lot of roads. He did small things that aren’t visible unless you have lived here,’’ he says. His uncle interrupts: “But whatever Nitish did was while he was in an alliance with the BJP.”
The debate is back to square one as Amit Kumar gives credit for the community getting EBC status to the JD(U)-BJP coalition. “We like Nitish. But we loved him when he had an alliance with the BJP. The choice is very tough,” says Patwa.