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A tale of two Champarans

May 25, 2024 10:50 AM IST

In British Raj, farmers suffered at the hands of the colonial rulers who forced them to cultivate indigo. Today’s Champaran faces an exodus of young workforce

Motihari/Bettiah: The string of shabby eateries in this rugged, dusty patch of Motihari, where the highway hits the city, fail to induce visitors’ appetite. But these run-down restaurants buzzing with customers offer the best item of the Champaran’s culinary palate - Ahuna meat.

 (Representative Photo) PREMIUM
(Representative Photo)

Cooked over charcoal for hours in a closed earthen pot and packed with heavy doses of mustard oil, masala and whole garlic, this Ahuna style has been rechristened as Champaran meat for the rest of India. “Here, everyone calls it Ahuna meat. But in the rest of India, it is Champaran meat,” laughs Santosh Kumar, a local.

A few kilometres down the highway, where the new-found fame of Champaran cuisine fades and the old glory of this region beacons, one finds the train station named after Mahatma Gandhi. Along the road, monuments of many leaders—from Gandhi to Atal Behari Vajpayee dons the cityscape in this historic, sleepy town of Bihar.

Land of Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in India

Two years after Gandhi returned to India, he came to Motihari to participate in a farmers’ uprising. Gandhi’s first Satyagraha, against the indigo cultivation imposed by the British Raj, was a landmark success. The ashram at Bhitiharwa where Gandhi stayed during his Champaran agitation in 1917, is now a famous landmark of India’s freedom struggle.

Built over a small plot 54 km from Bettiah in Pashchim Champaran, the Bhitiharwa ashram is possibly not as frequented as the Sabarmati ashram, but for scores of Bihar leaders, it is the starting point of their political movement.

For Bihar chief minister (CM) Nitish Kumar, Bhitiharwa ashram has been the favourite spot to start his yatras ever since he launched the Nyay Yatra in 2005. Last year in January, the CM picked the same starting block for his last yatra before the polls. Former Prime Minister Chandra Sekhar and former CM Lalu Prasad are among the string of VIP visitors who have come to this place. The latest in the list, Prashant Kishor, kickstarted his Jan Suraj yatra two years ago on October 2 from Bhitiharwa.

“Between 2011 and 2021, I fought 11 elections. Except for Uttar Pradesh, I won all polls. People think Prashant Kishor can make anyone win. But I am launching the yatra not to seek votes but to find the right people. I will make the person fight so well that others will fail. If I have come to win, I will ensure victory,” Kishor said.

But the neglected ashram, a painful reminder of the iconic peasant’s movement possibly reflects the state of affairs in the two Champaran districts.

In the British Raj, farmers suffered at the hands of the colonial rulers who forced them to cultivate indigo—which was used as a dye. Today’s Champaran faces a rampant exodus of young workforce and limited scope of employment. On the western side, lies one of the richest agrarian belts of the state and a key Indo-Nepal trade hub. The eastern part is labeled as one of the poorest districts of Bihar where central schemes come as lifelines for a vast section of the population.

The sugar belt and the poverty-hit hinterlands

As the road wanders into the northern tip of Bihar, the landscape turns greener. This is the sugar belt of Bihar, with more than seven sugar mills operating in this region. The economic and social impact of these mills can be gauged from the fact that the RJD candidate in Valmiki Nagar is Deepak Yadav, the CMD of Tirupati Sugar.

“This is the first time a sugar mill CMD is fighting a Lok Sabha election. It shows the political clout of the mills in the district,” said Amritanshu Rai, a resident of Narkatiyaganj. Rai is a former journalist in Delhi.

“My nomination is not just my nomination. It is on behalf of 18 lakh voters. Previous MPs had disappeared from the constituency after winning the vote. People didn’t even remember them. The biggest issue is how to keep myself available for the local people and not deceit them,” said Yadav.

Three Lok Sabha seats span two Champaran districts - Valmiki Nagar, Paschim Champaran and the Purvi Champaran constituencies. While Valmiki Nagar is a JDU stronghold, Sanjay Jaiswal of the BJP has been the sitting MP in Paschim Champaran since 2009. Similarly, former Union minister Radha Mohan Singh has represented Purvi Champaran since 2009.

A journey from Narkatiaganj to Bettiah to Motihari takes visitors through several poverty-stricken areas of the two districts. Niti Ayog’s Multidimensional Poverty Index report of 2023 pegs nearly 37% of the people in both districts as multidimensionally poor. Araria, with 52% poverty, tops the chart in Bihar.

The politics of aspirations

At the poll office of Sanjay Jaiswal, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Paschim Champaran district in-charge Vinod Kumar Singh gives a long list of the major achievements of the incumbent MP. “Construction of Piprakothi to Raxual highway and Raxaul bypass, tender is out for Kushinagar to Manuapul highway, Sugauli, Bettiah and Raxual would be world-class stations. HPCL’s ethanol factory has started functioning…” he goes on and on. Most of the projects are related to infrastructure: better roads, doubling of railway lines and new rail links.

Sanjay Pande, former state in charge sips tea from a kulhar, “We are seeking votes on the development of the country under PM Narendra Modi. Our biggest achievement is that the NDA government has turned Bihar into a crime-free state.”

Barely 200 meters away at the election office of Congress candidate Madan Mohan Tiwari, five party workers are fast asleep—possibly a sign of the state of the Congress in Bihar. Of the six assembly seats in this Lok Sabha constituency, four belong to the BJP and two are with the RJD.

Niraj Kumar Tiwari, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) district president flaunts his tilak and questions the rival’s claims. “Not a single project is completed. You can only see foundation stones. The only benefit to this district is a Vande Bharat train, but Jaiswal made zero contribution to it,” he said.

As more RJD enthusiasts join the conversation, Tiwari says, “We are telling people that you have given Sanjay Jaiswal and his father (Madan Prasad Jaiswal) 30 years. Now, please give us five years.”

On the walls of the dimly-lit office, the photo of Madan Mohan Tiwari’s father hangs on the wall. It’s clear that in this part of Bihar, the battle is between two dynasts.

But both sides claim the focus on the development plank (of course caste and other factors are equally relevant). But in the poorest state of India, which is marred with rampant migration and limited industrialization, a large number of voters look forward to a better source of income and welfare measures.

The welfare measures

Two men carry Sangeeta Devi’s latest possession—a meter-long drone—to a small field in Jiwdhara village for a brief demonstration. A crowd of children and adults alike quickly gather around her as Sangeeta, one of the two “drone didi”s of the Purba Champaran district, fidgets with the controls to fly the ‘Namo Drone’ for the wonderstruck villagers.

Government-run welfare schemes are lifelines for thousands of families in this part of Bihar.

At a Mahadalit (poorest social group of Dalits) ‘tola’ (village) in Naurangia, signs of multidimensional poverty are everywhere. Most young men and women have migrated to bigger cities. Older men and women have stayed back.

The home of Bihar’s poorest section has few pucca houses and even fewer toilets. Indu Devi, a farm labourer turned into a cosmetics trader, lives in one of the many thatched-roof huts in this area. She doesn’t have a toilet but got an LED lamp under the Saubhagya scheme—the only source of light in her dark home.

“I earn a few thousand Rupees. I didn’t get PM Aawas (house). But I do get 5 kg of rice,” she said. But the villagers don’t know who to vote for. “Our samaj will decide. Wherever our samaj leaders will tell us, we will vote.”

40 km away from Jiwdhara, Kiran Devi was a housewife busy with daily chores, whose world was confined to the four walls of her house in Madhuban. In 2019, she managed a government credit of 10 lakhs to set up her tiny food processing unit. “Now, I earn 30,000-40,000 every month. I even employ 5-6 women of my village,” she said at her “factory”—a pucca house right in front of her home.

Her husband, Mohan Prasad, left her job of supplying cakes and patties in Delhi and helps her wife sell the products—various pickles, multigrain atta, Bengal gram flour and other things—in the local markets and across the state.

Similar beneficiaries and their success stories can be found all across East Champaran, one of the poorest districts of Bihar. The livelihood schemes, coupled with the free foodgrain programme that started after Covid19, have set a parallel narrative of welfare in this election season in Bihar where caste lines are deeply drawn in the political landscape.

The signs of change are encouraging too. At Kauriya village, Ragini Kumar, a graduate student, manages a multi-purpose service centre of the Central Bank of India. With no bank ranches nearby, the service centre is a one-stop shop for making bank deposits, and withdrawals, and subscribing to PM insurance schemes or Atal Pension schemes. “I am educated. I took a short training and started this job. In this far-flung area, monthly transactions amount to 30-35 lakhs (HT cross-checked the entries),” Ragini says as his husband, an electrician looks on.

For Bihar, two back-to-back elections for the Lok Sabha and the assembly brings hope for a better future. Under Nitish Kumar, the road network has drastically improved. Even remote villages are connected with smooth roads.

The tale of two Champaran needs a further push from mere infrastructure or cross-border trade between India and Nepal. Champaran, just like many other districts, need jobs, better income and a new, aspirational Bihar.

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