In his Independence Day speech on Monday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said the state government would try to create over 20 lakh jobs within and outside the government.
Nitish’s remarks, days after he switched over from the NDA to the Mahagathbandhan camp, with his new Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Prasad in the audience, is an acknowledgment of what the CM called “youth power” and one of its long-standing grouses against the government: berozgari (unemployment).
Amid the recent political churn in the state, as the BJP and Mahagathbandhan prepare to face off in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, The Indian Express travelled across the state and found that conversations at village chaupals, and tea and paan shops are dominated by berozgari, along with that other burning issue —mehangai (price rise).
While the blame for berozgari is laid at the doors of both the Centre and the state government, the Narendra Modi regime at the Centre faces much of the heat for the rising prices. The common refrain being: “Modi ji toh aata par bhi GST laga diye hain (Modi has started taxing even wheat flour).”
Mahesh Das, 50, a Dalit daily wager at Hajipur, who until recently worked in a Punjab factory, says, “Inflation has gone through the roof. Edible oil is selling at Rs 200 a litre and my daily earning is just Rs 300-400. Even wheat flour is selling at Rs 35 a kg. How will we survive?” But what he is more worried about is the future of his 24-year-old son Jitendra, a graduate.
After having tried for years to get a government job, Jitendra now runs a customer service centre for a bank in his village. “Each time I appeared for a government exam, the paper got leaked. Then there were long delays. There is also a lot of cheating that happens in these exams. After all that, I lost hope,” he says.
Prabhu Sharma, who belongs to a tribal community, is a small farmer in Terasiya Tola in Hajipur. He sold off his land to send his only son to college. “Pet kaat ke padhaye ladka ko (I went hungry to give my son education). But he is not getting a job. He can’t even do farming… starts sweating profusely when I ask him to even operate the handpump,” he says.
A few kilometers away, at Kalyan Bigaha, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s ancestral village in Nalanda district, Shivam Pandey, 20, a BA student, pins his hopes on the new coalition government. “RJD had promised 10 lakh jobs in the last elections. Okay, they may have lost one and a half years. But then they should deliver at least 7.5 lakh jobs,” he says.
In the 2020 elections, RJD’s Tejashwi, who had made unemployment his main campaign plank, drew huge crowds as he promised that one of his first acts as CM would be to sign on his promise of 10 lakh jobs. Now, with the RJD in a position of power, the expectations are back.
Asked about the new political dispensation in the state, Raja Malik, a Dalit from the Dom sub-caste in the village, says, “Rajneeti ki baat chhodiye, hum log berozgaari se pareshan hain (Forget politics, we have the bigger problem of unemployment). Please write about that.”
Malik is a graduate who has been trying for a job for the past five years without any success. “I even applied for a safai karmachari job, but was told there is no vacancy,” he said.
Insisting that governments should do more to create jobs, even if outside of the government, Gautam Kumar, from Lalganj village in Hajipur, says, “The problem is, governments, be it Modi’s or Nitish’s, have failed to bring investments into the state. At least set up factories, have company offices… so that the youth can get employed. Or else they will just brew illicit liquor.”
The Agniveer scheme of recruitment into the armed forces, which saw widespread protests in Bihar over its short-term contractual nature of employment, is still a simmering issue. “Just getting one job is so difficult. Now you are asking me to start looking for another after four years,” says an army aspirant in Saran district.
Many acknowledge that the Modi government’s free ration scheme was a big help to landless labourers during the pandemic and even after.
Santosh Kumar, a Dalit daily wager from Baurbani village in Saran district, says, “We have no land and no house. During the pandemic, we had no work either. Had the Modi government not given us free ration, we would have been in big trouble. We hope the scheme continues.”
Yet, the scheme now appears to have precipitated a labour crisis for farmers.
“The free ration has meant that farm labourers do not want to work most of the time. They have a place to live and get free food. All they need to earn is a little extra for clothing and medicines,” says Mukesh Kumar, a farmer from Harnaut in Nalanda.
Though many BJP and JD(U) leaders that The Indian Express spoke to acknowledged that unemployment and inflation are factors that could influence how Bihar votes in 2024, few came up with solutions on how to tackle the twin problems.
“Bihar has no land bank for industrialisation. We were trying to use the shut sugar mills to set up small units, but that did not take off in a big way. And now we are out of the government,” said a BJP leader.
The leader conceded that price rise was an issue among voters but said the Modi government was taking steps to ease inflation and that the effects would be visible in a few months.
A JD(U) leader said, “Inflation is for the Centre to handle. As far as unemployment is concerned, the BJP cannot corner us on this — they were with us all this while. But the new alliance is committed to creating jobs and this matter is being discussed within the alliance.”