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Once Nitish bastion, women ask tough questions: govt distanced from poor

Women loyalists of the CM are turning away, battered by lockdown, angry at prohibition’s failed promise.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Phulwari |
Updated: October 24, 2020 8:13:54 pm
Bihar elections 2020, bihar polls 2020, Nitish Kumar, women voters bihar 2020, women voters Nitish Kumar, nitish kumar bihar 2020, bihar elections latest updates, indian express newsDina, Mamta, An ita and Rekha at their Dalit basti in Phulwari Sharif. (Dipankar Ghose)

“Look,” she says angrily. Mamta Devi’s right arm is outstretched, her fingers balled into a fist. Just above the two bangles on her wrist are two bruises — left by her drunk husband as she came between him and their two young children. “Show these wounds to anyone who claims there is prohibition in Bihar,” says the 32-year-old.

Over 15 years and three electoral victories, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has counted on women voters, who have stood by him for his schemes, including cycles for girl students, the expansion of women self-help groups under the Jeevika programme, reservation of 50% of seats for women at the panchayat level, and of course, the prohibition law, introduced in April 2016.

Come 2020, this support is showing signs of fracture, under the blows of a parallel alcohol economy and the economic distress left by the lockdown.

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Mamta Devi’s opinion of her husband is unequivocal: “He is a useless drunk… He is a daily wage earner but did very little work even earlier.” The house runs on the money she makes selling onions and garlic at the Mithapur mandi, around Rs 100 a day.

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Out of that, her husband spends some on his daily drink. “Despite prohibition, alcohol is available everywhere. When I tell him to stop, he beats me,” Mamta says. “Alcohol is sold not just in shops now. What sold for Rs 20 sells for Rs 50… the middlemen have bought cars. Aur ab toh home delivery hota hai (Now liquor is even supplied at home).” Follow Bihar Election 2020 Live Updates

She and the three other women sitting with her at the Dalit basti in Parsa bazaar, on the outskirts of Patna, say they voted for Nitish in 2015. Shyam Rajak, the JD(U) candidate who won from the Phulwari reserved seat under which their basti falls, has since crossed over to the RJD.

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Rekha Devi, a mother of four, says her husband used to earn Rs 400 a day taking up house painting jobs before the lockdown — working for about half the month, spending the rest of the days passed out. For six months, from March to August, he had no work. Now, they are facing “bhukhmari (starvation)”, Rekha says, as the others nod.

Fuming at the government for “killing the poor with the lockdown”, Rekha adds, “I went begging but was mostly turned away. The children slept hungry many nights.” Her biggest worry is a marriageable daughter.

Anita Devi, who has two daughters, 11 and 10, tears up recalling the lockdown. “When there is no money in the house, sabse zyaada dard maan ko hota hai (a mother feels the most pain). I would feed them one time, the next meal they would sleep hungry.”

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The 33-year-old says they got no support bar 5 kg of ration, asking how is it enough. Her children’s school in Nathupur didn’t give ration either in lieu of mid-day meals, though an order to this effect was issued in July, Anita says. “Kuchch nahin mila (We didn’t get anything). Everything is eaten up by middlemen. This government has stopped working for the poor.”

Butts in Rekha, “Lalu ke samay mein gareeb ka izzat toh hota tha (In Lalu’s time, at least there was respect for the poor).” She says everything is “private” now, there are threats to cut off their electricity supply over non-payment of bills, while a promise of 3-decimal plots for the landless was never kept.

Dina Kumari says she has not been able to even access her PDS supply as someone else has been picking up the quota on her ration card, though it is linked to her Aadhaar number. “I went to meet block-level officials but they told me they couldn’t do anything just now as elections were on.”

One of the people Dina reached out to is Pratima Kumari Paswan, who has been working in the area on women and children’s rights for many years and is fighting as an Independent from Phulwari. Paswan says she knows she has slim chances of winning, but contesting was important. “Only women understand the pain of women and children, their issues like security and self-dependence. The lockdown has made things worse. A child doesn’t ask the father for food.”

Which is why Mamta Devi has taken matters into her own hands. She took a loan recently at 10% interest per month — she won’t say how much — to ensure that her children can continue their tuitions. “I will go hungry, will take loans, sell my jewellery,” she says. “So that they can study.”

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