ADMCF recently spent time in Patna, in India’s Bihar state where we were looking at how we might work effectively with the Musahar community, which ranks at the bottom of the dalit or untouchable caste.
We found that there is apparently relatively little concrete information about or assistance given to the Musahar, whose name translates quite literally as the “rat-eaters.” Estimates of their numbers in Bihar and other states range from 2 million to as high as 5 million.
The Musahar fall so far down the well of the Indian caste system that by all accounts its people live in modern India much as they did 2,000 years ago. In an initiative that was perhaps telling about the regard in which the community is held, in 2008 the Indian government acted to help the Musahar by allowing the commercialization of rat meat.
A brief portrait of their situation gleaned from what is available online and through conversations in Bihar: In the villages around Patna in Bihar state, India, child marriage at 13 or 14 is still common, although illegal in India.
In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year. Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily.
The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent for the women. Yet it is cast discrimination rather than parents that keep Musahari children away from schools. That said, the schools to which they have access apparently offer so little in the way of education that perception among the community is that schooling doesn’t offer them anything. And it is certainly true that even if they do manage an education certificate, discrimination means few manage to find jobs anyway.
By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar, the most severe form of Leishmaniasis, are prevalent.
Besides eating rats, the Musahars are known for producing a good and cheap alcohol so not surprisingly alcoholism is rampant among the community, particularly the men.
Government development programs provide very little support to the Musahars. They are not recipients of housing schemes because generally they do not possess title deeds for their land. They are also the lowest number of recipients of loans from revolving funds within government schemes. Thus the social support system bypasses them, as do private donations since so little is known about them.
The Dalit community in Bihar as a whole suffers frequent and often unpunished human rights violations. In the ten years before 2003, for example, 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in police stations, including 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse.
Into this picture walked Sudha Varghese 26 years ago, a nun who wanted to give voice to India’s dalits. The Musahars were the least advantaged of the dalits she could find and she moved into their community to truly understand their needs and way of thinking.
her organization, Nari Gunjan, was born to give voice to the Musahar women in particular. The organization now runs 72 primary education centres and a residential hostel/school for girls. Nari Gunjan promotes social, political, and economic empowerment for the women and girls. Beyond education, some of the centers provide vocational training and assist with micro-credit for Musahar women.
A decade ago, recognizing the need also to represent Musahar women in the courts, Sudha sent herself to law school and returned armed with a new skill set she has used to pursue the prosecution of ten rape cases that without her would have gone unpunished. In each case, she lead a column of Musahar women to the police stations to persuade officers to make the right arrest and in each case she has succeeded in putting the perpetrators behind bars, she says.
Known as the “bicycle nun” Sudha visits the various communities on her bicycle, and her fragile appearance belies a ferocious determination to provide Musahar children with education, self-esteem and purpose, its women with hope. For her courage, India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri.
During a visit, the difference between children who attend her education centers and those who don’t was immediately apparent. Still, like any organization working in difficult circumstances that has been around for some time, achieving a constant flow of funding, even at the modest scale Nari Gunjan requires, is extremely hard. Some of the education centers have gone unfunded for 10 months although the teachers continue to work and the children appear.
2 posts in a day! And both really illuminating. It will be interesting to watch if the model that ADMCF has developed in the likes of Deonar in Mumbai, in Jodhpur, Jaipur and Lucknow translates to Bihar. Thank you.
Thanks Paddy – Two drop-in centres already functioning in Patna developed by PCVC – thanks to J. Leon for the patient support to build an excellent model!