It was an unusually warm October in Machhariyawan market, around 40 km from Patna. Vegetable sellers were lined up as we arrived, adjacent to the railway tracks that pass through.
“Does anyone know where Jhapsi Mochi lives?” we asked.
No one seemed to have a clue.
“Does anyone know the way to the village where Nitish Kumar attended the flag-hoisting ceremony on January 26?”
Several people gestured in the direction of Machhariyawan village.
Here’s where Jhapsi, a Dalit man, on Republic Day. Nitish has made it a practice to have a person from a marginalised community hoist the Indian flag in the chief minister’s presence on August 15 and January 26 every year.
Such festivities, organised mostly in Mahadalit settlements, are also meant to show that Nitish is fulfilling his electoral promise of bringing the government to the common man’s door. Is it just tokenism, though, or does life change for people such as Jhapsi once the chief minister leaves?
An elderly man named Krishna Prasad accompanied us to the village. He’s a doctor and a “student of Jayaprakash Narayan”, in his own words, and hopes to contest the Assembly election this year.
Along the way, Prasad reminisced about the days of “total revolution” that he spent with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who were then comrades in Narayan’s 1970s movement.
What does he think of Nitish’s flag-hoisting festivities? Prasad was scornful. “All of it is an act, a display,” he said.
Ramvraksh Manjhi, from Rauniya village, had participated in a flag-hoisting function with Nitish last year, Prasad added by way of explanation. “Ramvraksh was an acquaintance of mine. He would say that government officials took good care of him before the ceremony but no one ever came afterwards. He had no children or family to take care of him. He passed away a few days ago due to lack of care. Nobody was there to even enquire about him in the end.”
“This is the reality of Nitish Kumar’s token political gesture,” Prasad concluded.
The road to Machhariyawan, constructed under the Nitish government, is in fairly good condition. A group of people clustered at the village’s community centre. They pointed towards a frail old man with a bent back nearby. It was Jhapsi Mochi, 85.
Where was his home? “I have no home,” he said. “I live in my children’s home.”
The house is a few lanes away, half-constructed with a room added on the roof for Jhapsi. An iron trunk lies in a corner of the room, containing the clothes he wore at the ceremony with Nitish.
Has life changed for Jhapsi since then?
“Nothing has changed except one thing,” Jhapsi replied. “I did not get the elderly pension before I met the chief minister but after I met him the officials made sure I started receiving it. So I can’t complain to him about it.”
He opened the trunk, pulling out a pair of shoes, a vest and a white kurta. “This is all I received,” he said.
He fell silent and removed his spectacles. “I couldn’t see clearly so the officials got these spectacles made for me.”
“The officials took care of me before I met the chief minister,” he reiterated. “In that period, I fell ill once, so they took me to the hospital. Every other day, they came to meet me. But now if I try meeting them they turn me away instantly. I am thinking of going to Patna to meet the chief minister. But people tell me this is election season so he might be busy. That’s the reason I haven’t gone yet.”
Sitting in his small room, Jhapsi’s face glowed when he spoke about meeting the chief minister. “Before I went on the stage to unfurl the flag, the officials told me I only had to speak three things,” he said. “One, ‘Nitish Kumar zindabad.’ Two, ‘Plant more trees.’ And three, ‘Bharat mata ko jai.’ I wasn’t allowed to say anything else.”
After the ceremony, Nitish held his hand and said “namaskar”. Jhapsi returned the greeting, and quickly told the chief minister that he had two grandsons, both educated but jobless. “Please give some jobs to them,” he pleaded.
“The moment I said that, the regional officer removed me, saying my work was done,” Jhapsi remembered. “It’s been nine months but my grandsons are still unemployed.”
“There are no jobs,” his grandson Badal Kumar interjected. “I work as a manual labourer. Our situation has worsened since the lockdown. We had to borrow to feed ourselves. Grandpa told the CM about it and the officials made promises. But we didn’t get a job.”
His wife had recently lost her job, Badal added, and had not received her outstanding salary. The family does not have a ration card and so has not received LPG cylinders under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana.
Jhapsi once ran a small business renting live music bands for weddings and festivals. “I ran my band for as long as my body could take it,” he said. “Now my age doesn’t allow it. I depend on my children. Whatever little they have, they share with me. I don’t have any land either.”
Jhapsi and his family are not alone in their struggles. Most of the Mahadalits in Machhariyawan own no land other than the plots their houses stand on. Some don’t have even that; they live in huts erected on government land. They are forever worried that government officials would land up and raze their homes.
Nitish once promised the Mahadalits three decimals of land per family, Newslaundry was told, but he never fulfilled it. A decimal of land is about 435.56 sq ft.
In Machhariyawan the villagers are most concerned about the absence of formal jobs. Most of them work as farm labourers.
Raju Mochi said he had no means of earning a living. It was a common refrain in the village. Electricity might have come to the village but most of them don’t have the money to pay the bills.
As Sushila Devu said, “We have been living here for a long time but we have never got anything. Everyone had toilets built in their homes but we didn’t. We have to go outside to relieve ourselves. Nitish Kumar didn’t come to see us. He went back from the station.”
‘No salary for six months’
A garbage collection system was set up after Nitish visited the village. Six people were handpicked for the job and given a cart to ferry the garbage. The cart now sits abandoned in a corner.
Surendra Mochi, who pushed the cart, explained, “We picked up garbage from each home in the village for six months but we didn’t receive any remuneration. So we stopped working. Our payment wasn't decided, the village chief said he would speak with the district magistrate but that never happened. We are forced to work temporary jobs.”
Asked about Mochi’s predicament, the village chief, Prabhat Kumar, said, “The work has been done in the village but the desires of these people never end. We’re still talking to the DM about garbage collection in the village. The service would start again soon and the pending salaries would be paid, too.”
Nitish has a Mahadalit elder unfurl the Indian flag every Republic Day and Independence Day. In 2018 he went to Zahdipur, Looki, and Faridpur, where he also visited the home of a Dainik Bhaskar reporter, Vikas Kumar. A report published in Bhaskar states that Nitish made several announcements, but only a few were actually implemented. The problem of open drains, for one, persists.
In 2016, Nitish held a flag-hoisting ceremony in Chilbili panchayat of Patna’s Phulwari Sharif. He made several promises to the people about developing their village.
Four years later, not much has changed, according to Seetu Tiwari of BBC Hindi: “Chilbil’s Mahadalit settlement is just about a kilometre from the main road. The road is bumpy, broken, unfinished. Before the CM arrived in 2016, the road was ‘temporarily repaired’. There has been no maintenance since. For the people of the village, the nearest medical care facility is in Phulwari Sharif, which is about 8 km away.”
Visibly, none of the villages where Nitish has presided over the flag-hoisting ceremonies over the years has seen major developmental work despite his promises. Why then does he organise the festivities year after year?
Pushyamitra, a seasoned journalist, offers an explanation. “Two leaders posed a threat to Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. Nitish made two moves to weaken them as soon as he took power. First, he carved out the ‘ati pichda’, or the backward of the backward community. Then he did the same with the Dalit community, forming the Mahadalit caregory. Lalu is a leader of the backward communities. To separate the Yadavs from the other backward communities, Nitish claimed that all the benefits for backward communities were being used by the Yadavs alone. Similarly, Paswan was considered a leader of the Dalits, so to weaken him Nitish used the flag-hoisting ceremonies. He wants to assure people that he is with them, but no real development work has been undertaken at these places.”
He added, “He honoured Manjhi by making him sit in the chief minister’s chair for sometime. But if you go to Manjhi’s village, the situation hasn't changed much. The policies are made in Patna, they never materialise on the ground in villages. The Mahadalits have been battling malnourishment. Their children are trafficked and forced to work from a young age. The living conditions of the Mahadalits have not improved. They are still living marginalised lives.”
As we prepared to leave Machhariyawan, Jhapsi Mochi came and said, “I want a staircase built to the roof of the community centre so our daughters and sisters don’t have to sit along the road. Then they can sit on the roof. We don’t have much, but I would be happy if this is done. Our daughters would get some relief.”
A version of this story was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.