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Awaiting a harvest of hope

Author: Parvinder Singh
Posted on: Saturday, 15th October 2011

Standing on the edge of a paddy field covered in water which reflected the grey sky above, creating a single frame, Geeta completed the picture story for my assignment to get success stories of women landowners from Dalit communities in Bihar’s Patna district.

But that would be too simple an ending for a struggle which has just began, with ownership of land tipping odds in a caste ridden society where over 90 percent Dalits are landless workers.

The state is not alien to me and ActionAid partners here have often helped me go beyond the reports to drop the paper analysis to see what is apparent. In this case Geeta, a mother of two and married to a man who doesn’t do much work, belongs to a Dalit village where several families gathered courage and took possession of land earmarked to them but was under control of the dominant caste.

I heard this story in many of the areas our partners have been campaigning to get land meant for Dalit families, which never changed hand due to apathetic local administration and a bloody record of violence against the Dalits.

I also met Meena, a young single mother, who looked nervous as we set the camera and shot questions at her asking what it means to be a landowner and someone in control of her crops and food.

She was at a loss and kept looking at a large earthen pot which is similar to your fridge, but in this case holds grains that will see her through a few months. Soon the gap between where we were and where these women crusaders were in terms of narrative became clear.

“We have courage now and that comes from land we have papers for. It is for the first time that we do not run for cover like animals on seeing dominant caste men walk in to our village. Now we know that the blood and sweat we put in these fields will one day give a future to our children” Meena rattled these words in a state of daze. I have a feeling these are words that warm her heart in the one room hut she lives in with her child. I did not get an answer to where her husband was. Like many he simply disappeared one day and could be in the city as an urban poor, like many in her village.

Meena has land, a few cents, for the past three years now. But the reason why she keeps referring to independence and dignity as thing of the future as much as present is because she, and hundreds others, has not been able to do what they have done for generations in the fields of dominant castes here. Which is become successful farners. So while they have a sense of dignity and rights that comes with land in this society, but are yet to reap the crops for a better and sustainable future.

For many years the rains have been deficient or erratic. It just does not rain when it should and the seeds fail to become plants. Because they do not have any capital to invest they do not have access to diesel pumping sets to get water when needed. The local economy is still in control of those who catered to caste-based agrarian economy and are just waiting for these dreams to die an early death.

But that is not the impression you get when you walk with these women landowners, they have been the force of survival in these Dalit families and are ready to take on the challenge of scripting a new future.

As I sipped tea under a Banyan tree, with a mix Dalit men and women the partner showed press clipping and photographs of advocacy and campaigns by these women demanding support for their villages and land. They also looked keen on some early experiments that will make their agriculture sustainable.

To me the best visual depiction of where future lies in this collective struggle against hunger is of three generation of women in a paddy filed under rain fed sky levelling the ground with huge wooden planks, a tool that you see less and less in use with mechanisation, while men sit and watch for this rare photo-shoot to get over.  

Post script:

Bihar leaves one exhausted. Before poverty kills, millions brave hopelessness. And yes, that depends on where you are placed in the complex web of caste and exclusion that can be so numbing that one can even forget that one exists in any other form than feeding a parasitical system that runs deep. It is a place where logic collapses and theories get contradicted in each Dalit village that you spend time in. People are fighting and struggling from one day to another, but if you are not in that fight you can get disoriented very fast with a linear approach.

The Dalit and Mushar communities have been fighting for homestead and agricultural land. Some have gone and even occupied land that should have been allocated to them. But the struggle has just begun. With scores of children displaying varying degrees of malnutrition and several generations living in small cramped huts, these daring mobilisations seem larger than life. So from being farm workers to some becoming share croppers, or as they refer to here as collective farming, and from landless workers to marginal landholders, the change is promising for some. But this is far from euphoria, when you talk to the communities there is visible frustration from not being able to translate the promise of land, as the basic tools and conditions needed for growing their own crop are missing. When you ask what if this does not work, the answer is what you would expect in this state of frustration. Things can’t go back where it were at least in terms of struggle for land and dignity.