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Now, a survey on status of Bihar’s upper castes

By Imran Khan, IANS,

Patna : In a state divided on caste lines, surveys of Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Muslims have been conducted in the past. But in a first of its kind initiative, Bihar plans to conduct a survey in rural areas to reach out to the poor among the upper castes.

“A survey of upper castes in all villages across the state would be conducted by the commission to gather information about their real socio-economic condition,” Narendra Singh, a member of the Bihar State Upper Caste Commission, told IANS.

Bihar State Upper Caste Commission or the Bihar Rajya Sawarna Ayog plans to start the survey in June. A team would also visit the divisional headquarters from May 25 to meet elected village body heads and others.

“It is for the first time that a survey of upper castes would be conducted by the commission to know their socio-economic condition. Never before has such a move been made to help reach the poor among all sections, including the upper castes,” said A.K. Jha, a senior researcher at Patna-based A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Science.

The state government had last month constituted an upper caste commission to identify poor among the upper caste and to study the problems faced by them. The commission would also examine whether the poor upper castes are benefiting by the various welfare schemes of the government.

The last caste census in Bihar was conducted in 1931 under British rule in India. According to an estimate, at present upper castes (including Brahmin, Rajput, Bhumihar and Kayasth) constitute about 13 percent of the state’s 105 million population.

In 2000, the then chief minister Rabri Devi conducted a socio-economic survey of Muslims, who constitute 16.5 percent of the state population.

After coming to power in November 2005, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar brought with him a new slogan — development with justice.

Bihar was the first state in the country to constitute a Mahadalit Commission. It was decided that the commission would study the socio-economic status of neglected subcastes among Dalits and suggest ways to uplift them.

During campaigning for the state assembly elections last year, Nitish Kumar had promised to set up a commission to study the problems faced by the upper caste poor and launch welfare schemes for them if his Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party was voted back to power.

But the move has met with some criticism.

J.P. Yadav, a backward caste activist, said the move was an appeasement of upper castes. “It is known to all that upper castes are still enjoying a strong hold over the socio-economic structure of Bihar.”

“They are dominating in all fields, be it business, bureaucracy, judiciary, media or even politics. There may be poor upper caste but their condition is far better than Dalits, backward castes and Muslims,” he said.

However, the fact that Nitish Kumar has already set up the Mahadalit commission and given 20 percent reservation to extreme backward castes in panchayat elections, works in his favour.

Political observers believe the upper caste commission was a move to send a strong message that he was committed to inclusive development for all.

In Bihar, members of the upper castes, particularly the Bhumihars and Rajputs, own large tracts of land in rural areas.

In July last year, the Bandopadhayay Commission on land reforms suggested the state government bring in a new act to protect sharecroppers. It also recommended a cap on land owning and computerising land records.

After the issue sparked a row in the state, Nitish Kumar tried to pacify angry upper caste members by promising not to enact a new law to protect farm tenants, who share crop with land-owners as rent, if voted to power for the second time.

“Months before the campaign began, Nitish Kumar had assured the upper castes that their land was safe and his government had no plans to enact a new law to protect sharecroppers,” a ruling Janata Dal-United leader said.

“After winning a historical verdict, Nitish Kumar initiated a move to provide help to the poor among the upper castes on the lines of Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. The survey is the beginning of it,” he added.

Nearly 50 percent of Bihar’s 105 million people live below the poverty line (BPL), the highest in India, according to a World Bank report.

(Imran Khan can be contacted at [email protected])