People from Musahar Community in Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh, are also known as Vanvaasi and have traditionally been denied basic human rights. They have lost their dignity to centuries of oppression, and have recently gained some limelight with their portrayal in a movie called “Manjhi – The Mountain Man.“
Why do they have so many kids when they can’t afford to give them a good life?
Why do they drink and gamble their money away?
Why can’t they build and use toilets?
Why don’t they send their kids to school?
Why don’t they work harder and build a better life for themselves?
They are used to getting free stuff which is why they don’t work!
We judge poorest of the poor people most harshly, often without knowing their context. The “WHYs” are easy to infer when they themselves are not available or eloquent enough to justify why they live how they live. Our system seems to promote meritocracy so much, that we forget that even merits are subjective and that we have little or no say in where we get our beginnings from.
10 months into the fellowship project, I got an opportunity at my organisation Shramik Bharti, to document case stories for the ongoing Gram Samriddhi project, with HDFC Bank in the districts of Chandauli and Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh. The ensuing seven days were full of powerful stories and amazing conversations. I could interview and interact with several women in their capacity of being beneficiaries of Solar lighting, Toilets, Bathrooms, Grain Bank/Pulse Bank Program, Education Supporters.
This documentation process forced me to think deeply about how individual narratives run deeply parallel with larger issues and are themselves symptomatic. For our immediate purpose, we edit them to suit a format and reach a conclusion but it is the evolving interaction that is most interesting. Even as I was fervently fishing for detail on how the construction of raised hand-pump platform is making their lives better, I was introduced to this woman’s concern for her daughter’s dowry and how her dark skin will drive the amount they will have to pay.
Another woman, while recounting how her girls insisted on the construction of bathroom, was dismissive of the contribution of girls in generating income. When she was countered on whether they assist in making carpets (their main source of income) was when she retracted and acknowledged that girls do help in household chores.
Poverty and social backwardness tended to be the overarching constant among the women I interacted with. They all belong to Scheduled Castes and their socio-economic status was the main reason they needed these benefits.
Sunehri Devi*, the first woman I spoke to, narrated casually and with surprising alacrity, about the violence she endured in the process of obtaining solar lights. She had tried to sell some grain to get the required beneficiary contribution of Rs. 1800, without her husband’s consent. From what she said, it seemed like a valid reason for him to be violent towards her and she had made peace with it. I suppose this is how poverty and violence interact and intersect with each other, and women normalize this abusive tendency with their own limitations such as not being educated enough or having made a mistake. In Sunehri’s case, she thought since she was wrong and the eventual result was in her favor, the violence does not matter.
Continuing on, I interviewed several beneficiaries of Grain Bank Program. Most women spoke of desperate times in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, not that I expected tears and drama. They spoke of sleeping with hungry stomach, unexpected deaths and ceremonies, and sudden loss of livelihoods. We all know of these unfortunate circumstances but with poor people, we attribute these issues to their faulty traits of not saving money for bad times. This is a classic case of the fundamental attribution error which talks of the tendency people have, to over-emphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior contextually.
Beyond the narratives, I observed the condition of their homes and families. There were mud homes, makeshift bathrooms, broken furniture, bent out-of-shape vessels, large families, and complex issues. I saw vast swaths of land, their madiyas, khatiyas, plastic covered roofs, unwashed and unkempt children, dark un-ventilated spaces.
There is one question people always ask – “Why do they have so many kids?”
I think it is the variables of patriarchal society, restricted access in terms of resources and employment opportunities, lack of contraception or even knowledge of family planning may have a role to play. Maybe as a fun counter question, we should be questioning ourselves whether we were taught about sexual and reproductive rights and than ask poor and marginalized communities to know such intricate medical information.
Another memorable conversation was when I remarked on how young girls seem to get married early in villages whereas, in cities, the girls are avoiding marriage like a plague. An elderly woman quipped back saying, “The young boys and girls themselves ask to get married. They want freedom.” and I couldn’t help thinking, what a strange way to be free. Does this go on to represent the tight leash we keep on our young people?
Education is deemed a big savior and equalizer of opportunities, and thus a generic advice we offer is to educate kids. In Chandauli District, I had the opportunity to meet people from Musahar tribe who had not seen much progress in their lives from generations and only knew of the unfavorable ways in which their kids get treated by teachers in public schools. Think about the power dynamics when you consider asking them to demand equal treatment for their children. They are daily wage workers who themselves have had little or no tryst with education. How would it be for them to stand up against salaried government employees who will get paid regardless of the children’s learning outcome.
The Shiksha Sahyogis (Education staff) reported that teachers would sometimes walk out of class complaining that kids were stinking; that they don’t recognize alphabets even though they are in the fifth standard.
The bathroom and toilet case stories were also intriguing. They spoke of women’s dignity and young girls bathing out in the open as a terrible problem. Now going by the patriarchal logic, construction and usage of bathrooms & toilets should’ve been prioritized but it wasn’t. The tipping point for such construction usually comes as a pressure from the girls themselves, and of course, when the families can afford it too.
I don’t have a conclusion here. Rather, I’m in the process of learning empathy and I distinctly remember how a few years I wrote an essay that started with “Compassion doesn’t come naturally to me“. Maybe, it’s a progress or maybe I am just a fake woke person. The jury’s not yet out on that.
*Names changed to protect identity