“If you dare to speak back to me then find another job”, “Babu, I am only trying to say that my child is hungry therefore she is crying….”, “what, how dare you?”. Feeble voice of Niranjana drowned under the booming voice of her master. I use the word master. How else do I describe this whisky gurgling Bengali Bhodrolok from the city? He surely behaves like one as he lords it over his servants who look after his sprawling bunglow and manicured gardens in a small town in rural Bengal. The day before the master arrived, the place was hectic with activity. The gardeners were planting and re-planting the saplings, weeding and pruning, every corner of the house, the terrace and the garden all swept clean and washed, including the fallen leaves that otherwise blend with the top soil turning it into a rich food for the plants. Nothing can be spared, everything has to be cleaned explained young Niranjana, Nobo’s wife. Nobo is the caretaker of the Biswas property. But by default his wife Niranjana has also become part of the informal employment in the Biswas household and most likely in a few years his child will also join the ‘Biswas work force’.
It’s not an uncommon practice that alongwith the caretaker (usually a man), his whole family ends up working for the Bhadrolok families in these parts. For the wage of one, you buy the ‘labour’ of two adults and a child if not more. For their round the clock work, Nobo and Niranajana are paid Rs 2600 per month, barely enough to buy their monthly ration and some milk for the child. Nirajana’s malnourished body never produced enough milk to feed the child. “My husband is the care taker, but I do all their house work, cleaning, washing and when they come to visit, it’s a nightmare, we don’t even get time to eat”. When Nirajana was nine months pregnant with her first child, she had to work non-stop, “didimoni asked me to work, said it will be good for you.” Now Niranjana’s child is a year old. The little girl tails her mother as she busily cleans up the front porch before the master and his family arrives. That late afternoon, as I sat reading a book in the outhouse of Biswas property, I heard the child crying. She was hungry, but Nirajana was yet to finish cleaning up after the Biswas household had eaten their lunch. How could she pick up the child and feed her? So the master scolded the child, “be quiet if you want to be in this house”, the mother tried to reason but was asked to quit if she dared to talk back.
I squirmed as I sat hearing the exchange. Wondering if I had travelled back in time to colonial Bengal. A white master reprimanding his brown skinned servant because his afternoon siesta has been disturbed by the cry of a hungry child. Vestiges of colonial and feudal past still deeply entrenched in parochial Bengal, often glimpsed through these relations of masters and servants. There are many Nirajanas, Nobos and Bhadroloks in this little town. The heart of Bengal’s cultural capital-Santiniketan. A little island of culture and modernity that the famous bard of Bengal Rabindranath Tagore had once created a century ago. Prime land around this world famous center of learning and culture was leased out to the faculty members of Vishwa Bharati, the university that emerged from Tagore’s work on education. The property has passed on to their heirs, mostly from upper caste or Bhadrolok background. Many of them don’t even live here anymore and use the homes as weekend farmhouses, driving down from Kolkata. Most of the properties have a typical layout—huge empty bunglows, manicured lawns and tiny matchbox sized rooms in the back for the caretaker and his family.
What is also typical is the pitiable wages and an army of cheap or free labour. “When you give a person a job and a place to stay, then the landlords feels it’s their right to get the labour of rest of the family for free, including of their children”, informed a friend, a teacher in a local government school. But why should people agree to work for such low wages or work for free? And why should they tolerate such indignity and humiliation at the hands of upper caste landlords? Why hasn’t the peasant rebellions or the labour struggles of the past translated into real changes in Bengal? It seems incredible that 3% of the Bengali upper caste elite still wields such power and authority over a large population of the dalits, adivasis, backward castes and Muslims in Bengal?
Some of the answers might lie in the rural landholding patterns and wage rates in Bengal. While the much celebrated ‘operation Barga’ has given share/entitlements to the tillers, and thereby access to institutional mechanisms to small or marginal farmers to support farming, there has since been a steady decline in agricultural productivity in the state. Critiques have blamed it on increased fragmentation of the landholdings and increase in marginal landholdings, alongwith diminishing village level agri-based livelihood options. Data shows that 46.5% of households do not own any land other than homesteads in West Bengal, with 48.8% of dalits and 54.1% of adivasis not owning any land other than homesteads (Bakshi). There has also been an increase in the landlessness in the state (Bhowmik) and the benefits of the land reforms haven’t been uniform across the state. Moreover, Muslims, adivasis backward and scheduled castes, who form a substantial proportion of the state’s population, do not have any significant political representation.
MNREGS data for Bengal shows that only 25 days of work per household, as against 100 days, was provided in 2012-13, and that the state has provided 45 days of employment at best since the scheme started. And with payments delayed by over 3-6 months and only about 1.5% of total number of households (in 2012-13) receiving full entitlement for 100 days of work, the scheme doesn’t hold much attraction for the rural poor. The nominal wage rate is also much lower at Rs 136 than what is mandated to be paid under the scheme, which is Rs 300 and above. (Bera, 2013)
All these factors lead to the migration of rural poor from farms to other occupations in towns and cities. People like Nobo and Nirajana, already on the margins, do not have much to fall back on for support when they fight the wrath of a bhadrolok whose afternoon siesta gets disturbed by the cries of their hungry child.
Bakshi, A. Social Inequality on land ownership in India: A study with particular reference to West Bengal. http://www.networkideas.org/featart/jan2008/Land_Ownership.pdf
Bera, S. 2103. West Bengal fares poorly in MNREGS. Down To Earth (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/west-bengal-fares-poorly-mnregs)
Bhowmik, S. Agrarian Transition in West Bengal. (http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/2970/18/18_chapter%2014.pdf)