After my trip to Munger I visited my home town of Mokama for a couple of days. Mokama is a small place, about 90 kilometres east of Bihar’s capital Patna. Agriculture is the biggest industry here, and the area manages three harvests a year despite regular flooding for three months a year.
When I was growing up here in the late 1970s and 80s, the place was the main centre of business for nearby districts, with both commerce and agriculture thriving off of each other. But the rise of local goons, mostly from the upper caste Bhumihar community, drove businesses away from the area.
From the mid-80s through the first half of this decade, the place turned into a den of criminals who not only derailed the whole regional economy, but also had an impact on local demographics. The victims of the upper caste criminal gangs were usually businessmen belonging to intermediary castes, or ‘Other Backward Castes’ as the Indian Constitution defines socially and economically marginalized sections of society. Different criminal gangs would levy illegal monthly charges on the shopkeepers, and those who refused to pay were beaten up or even killed.
The reign of terror unleashed by these goons reached its peak during the previous Rashtriya Janata Dal regime. About half the area’s businessmen left for somewhere safer, many shifting their base of operations as well. The local market lost its attractiveness for traders, yet shockingly no one from the predominantly Bhumihar community did anything to stop this rampant criminalization of such a productive region by their own caste members.
Today, I’m happy to say the situation is much better, and while I was there I could roam around the city freely without feeling threatened. But Mokama has lost its charm with the departure of the big traders.
Another noticeable change is the emergence of the traditionally landed class Bhumihar as a business class. Most of the major business establishments in the area are now owned by this community, yet 20 years ago it was unimaginable to see themselling clothes, jewellery, medicine andother goods. This change reflects the broader changes to caste in Bihar, though caste is still a reality here, particularly in a place like Mokama.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the rampant poverty. The landless workers are still deprived here, and with no industry to employ them many have turned to being day labourers to sustain themselves. The area also still requires basic infrastructure—the main road leading to the only hospital in the city is in a very bad shape and the electricity supply is extremely unreliable.
Things have improved in Bihar over the past 5 years, but not enough to make any substantial change to the lives of those living here. The trickle down policy isn’t working—economic and infrastructural intervention on a massive scale is needed to change Bihar.