Behind Ram Pukar Thakur, there is what appears to be a pond, with a few shoots of green poking out. All around, as far as the eye can see, are similar pools, interspersed with culverts used by villagers as walking paths. This water has been here for four months, Thakur says, since the floods, with the district of Muzaffarpur one of the worst hit. “It’s not a pond, it is my field.”
In the immediate aftermath of the floods, that left close to 17 lakh people affected in 16 districts, with rivers like Gandak and Budhi Gandak, and canals overflowing and inundating fields and homes, the Nitish Kumar government had said it had disbursed Rs 1,000 crore to bank accounts of 20 lakh people across the state — Rs 6,000 was given per family to help them tide over the crisis.
With the polls near, the government would have hoped this would also help it tide over public anger. Only, not everyone got the money.
Standing next to his field in Siswan village in Korigama block, Thakur says that in May, he had spent money on hybrid seeds, fertiliser and a tractor. “Sab nasht ho gaya (I lost everything). Water entered the fields and has not receded so I can’t even plant anything new.”
Officers came, he said, a “vikas mitra” as village representatives are called, and photos were taken. “But they didn’t declare the area flood-hit, unlike other villages,” Thakur says.
While the Nitish government had held up the money transfer directly into accounts as a corruption-free delivery mechanism, that cut out middlemen, the seemingly arbitrary nature of selection of flood-hit areas, villagers say, is because of “afsarshahi (officialdom) — a word being repeated across Bihar to describe Nitish Kumar’s third term. “What is it if not officialdom? They declared one part flood-hit, and not these. Can they not see our fields? They must have taken some money,” Thakur said.
But even those who received the money ask how Rs 6,000 is enough. Narayan Sah says that in any case, nobody in the area gets fair price for their paddy. “The rate should be Rs 1,500 per quintal, but because nobody buys at MSP, we only get Rs 1,100. That doesn’t even cover the input cost, even when there is no flood. A farmer has to pay for seeds, fertilisers, tractor, labour, one cycle on an acre can mean Rs 20,000,” Sah says.
While floods are not new to Muzaffarpur or Bihar, with images of submerged villages now a yearly occurrence, what is different this year is the additional distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Usually, young Ramesh Sah would travel to nearby areas to find work as a labourer. But this year, that work too hasn’t been available. “There is no work in Muzaffarpur. In our families, there were many people who lived in the cities and sent money home. But in the lockdown, that stopped. So many have taken loans, we do not know how we will repay,” Ramesh says.
On the ground, the disenchantment might not yet mean a vote for the Mahagathbandhan — though villagers say they are now considering that option when it was unthinkable for them not to vote for Nitish again. The CM also seems to be bearing the most of the anger, though the lockdown was imposed by the Centre. Siswan falls under the Baruraj Assembly seat, where the RJD faces the BJP.
Ram Pukar Thakur, who is over 60 years old, says, “Sochenge abhi (We are weighing our options still). Earlier, I gave my vote to Nitish Kumar, when the RJD and JD(U) were together (the RJD candidate had won in 2015). Modi should not have locked the country down, but we don’t want Nitish. I do not like Lalu Prasad either,” he said.
Chandan Kumar, 19, is clearer in his choice for change. “I do not like this Chief Minister. Now we want a young leader. They will understand the problems of unemployment that make even these situations of floods worse,” he says.
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