Maner, Hajipur, Nalanda: When Samati Sinha, 44, a resident of Mahatwar village in Nalanda district, needed money for her daughter’s wedding, she found a ready lender in a self-help group under Jeevika, a Bihar government initiative aimed at the empowerment of impoverished rural women.
Loans under Jeevika are driven by member savings, and the conditions in place allowed Sinha to avail of a Rs 1 lakh loan at 1 per cent interest, and the freedom to return it in whatever instalments she could afford.
“For my daughter’s marriage, I took a loan of Rs 1 lakh and I had the freedom to keep depositing whatever little I could,” Sinha, a primary school teacher, told ThePrint sitting at a grocery shop.
Sheela Devi, 45, of Parew is also all praise for Jeevika, as well as the power situation, water and roads in the area. But she feels the Nitish government needs to do more, citing the “poor implementation” of prohibition and the state’s employment situation as major concerns.
“We had raised our voice for banning liquor, and it was done, but even today it is openly available, rather it is home-delivered,” she said, walking down the narrow lanes of the village, which falls in the Maner assembly constituency.
“The administration should work on this. At the block level itself, there is rampant corruption, even to pay our tax to the government, we have to pay bribes. As far as jobs are concerned, the government has not been taking out vacancies for government jobs and this is really hurting the youth. They are busy getting involved in the illegal trade of supplying liquor. It is important for young and educated Biharis to get a job in their own state,” she added.
Sheela Devi is not alone. Concerns about the prohibition and employment appear to hold a strong sway among women in Bihar even as they laud the many initiatives taken by the Nitish Kumar government to empower them.
Apart from ensuring reservation for women in panchayat and government jobs during his second tenure, CM Nitish Kumar launched the Jeevika scheme in 2007, two years after he first assumed office.
Under Jeevika, women are allowed access to easy loans, including grants to start businesses. Other welfare measures aimed at women include free cycles for girl students, doubling of the government’s grant for unmarried Class 12 students to Rs 25,000 from Rs 12,000, and for graduates (including married ones) to Rs 50,000 from Rs 25,000.
The 2016 decision of the state government to impose prohibition was also underpinned by grievances of women whose drunk husbands would beat them up and squander their pay on alcohol.
Women constitute around 47 per cent of the votes in Bihar. In the 2010 assembly polls, 54.85 per cent of the women cast their votes, and over 59 per cent exercised their franchise in 2015. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, almost 60 per cent of the state’s registered women voters cast their votes, outnumbering men in 25 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats.
Women and are believed to have played a significant role in Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s ascension to the CM’s chair since 2005. They are often termed the “silent force” in his party’s victories, whether in alliance with the BJP or the RJD and the Congress in 2015.
However, with the Covid-19 lockdown — which left lakhs of migrants from Bihar jobless and forced them to return home — aggravating local concerns about unemployment in the state, analysts say Nitish might find his sheen worn off among this key voter base this election.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Kiran Devi, a resident of Bihta in Patna district, finds herself increasingly worried about the rising prices. “Onion, tomatoes, all vegetables are becoming so expensive every day. If things don’t improve, we will die of hunger. Due to the lockdown, everyone is back in the village and there is no work. Why can’t he (Nitish) provide jobs to our husband and children? That should be the priority,” she said.
Sinha of Mahatwar village said she is happy with the way Nitish Kumar has worked for the welfare of women but also questions the lack of job opportunities for her husband as well as their son.
“There is no doubt that Nitish ji has done a lot of work for women, but the main earning member of my household — my husband — is unemployed,” she added.
“We have a cow and try to earn whatever little we can from that. Unemployment is a major issue… what will the youngsters do? My son is in college. Once he completes that, I wonder what he will do as there are no government jobs. Due to Covid, migration is not an option. This is something the government should concentrate on,” she said.
For Sheela Devi, Jeevika has been a big help. “I am much more confident and am able to fight for my rights. Banks don’t even entertain people like us and, with Jeevika, we never felt the need to approach them. As far as work in our villages is concerned, whether it is power supply, water or roads, I am satisfied but we need to move beyond that too,” she added. “Nitish ji bahut badhiya kaam kiye hai, mahilao ke liye khaaskar (Nitish ji has done very good work, especially for women).”
Babita Kumari, a resident of Hajipur, said there are “some issues that need to be looked into”, but wants Nitish to be given another chance.
“Kamal chhaap aur Nitish ji hee aurato aur gareeb ke liye kaam kar rahein hai. Humein gas connection mila, rations mila, Rs 500 bhi mila (It is only the BJP and Nitish Kumar who are working for women and the poor. We got a gas connection, rations, and even Rs 500 per month,” she added.
Nisha Parveen, a 19-year-old student at Patna College, however, called for “badlaav (change)”.
“Employment is the only main agenda today. If a government can’t provide jobs, what else can it do? Nitish Kumar worked well in the first five years, but he can’t continue the next terms based on his previous performance. If other states can get developed in the past few years, why can’t Bihar? Once I graduate, why should I head to other states looking for a job? This needs to change,” she added.
‘Women have always voted for Nitish’
According to D.M. Diwakar, former director of the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, CM Nitish Kumar may not get the same support from the lower and lower middle class women this time, although he said the middle-class is likely to support him.
“There is no doubt that the prohibition scheme has helped bring down cases of domestic violence in villages. Due to prohibition, their husbands and sons… now come and contribute to their family rather than spending it on liquor,” he added.
“But due to the Covid-19 lockdown and the overall unemployment situation in Bihar, not only is money not coming in, many people without jobs are getting involved in the illegal trade of liquor. How can the women be happy in such a scenario, even if they are getting help on other fronts from the government?” he said. “The women were only contributing in a supplementary manner, they are not the main earning members of the family.”
He claimed many women in the state are extremely upset with the government over the lack of jobs in Bihar, especially since migration is not seen as an option right now as the entire economy has slowed down due to Covid-19.
“Jeevika as a programme has been a success. There is no doubt about it. But, at the same time, the women want jobs for their husbands and children. The unemployed youth are spending their time sitting idle,” he added.
The Janata Dal (United), however, is hopeful that the women will come out en masse and support CM Nitish Kumar.
“Nitish ji has done a lot for the welfare of women and we are quite sure that it will reflect in the elections too. Women have always voted for Nitish ji and, even this time, we are confident that they will not pay heed to the negative campaign that is being run to divert attention from the real work that has been done by this government,” said JD(U) spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan.
“Whether it is prohibition, Jeevika, providing scholarship to girl students or introducing reservation, women voters have been the centre of Nitish Kumar’s scheme of things,” he added.