Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh: A lot has happened since last year. The novel Coronavirus sent countries, including India, in lockdown in March 2020. The cases of COVID-19 infections surged, jobs were lost, migrant workers walked to their homes, new strains of virus surfaced, and finally, the vaccination drives kicked off.
As for 16-year-old Manoj Banbasi from Uttar Pradesh's Chandauli district, the pandemic has changed the course of his life. He had just completed Class 5 when the COVID-19 crisis hit. He hasn't attended online classes since because his family doesn't own a phone, let alone a smartphone.
"My elder brother Chotu and I are [now] looking for work. Koi bhi kaam mil jaaye toh chalega [Any kind of work will do]," says Manoj, who's decided to drop out of the school that he had joined quite late in life – because of social exclusion.
The pandemic has only aggravated the socio-economic gap that Manoj's community has been enduring for decades. He belongs to the Musahar community, whose members were traditionally skilled in catching rats that would destroy the agricultural fields. Some Musahars elsewhere used to subsist on a meal of rats because they could not afford other food. This gave rise to the name Musahar, which translates to 'rat eaters' in Hindi, but also a stigma that the community hasn't been able to shrug off.
Thirty-two years since the Indian government passed the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the Musahars continue to face the vice of untouchability when they venture out to seek employment, education, or healthcare facilities, even though a majority of them don't catch rats anymore. They are a Dalit community (Scheduled Caste) spread across eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Nepal, and also go by the names of Banbasi, Bhuiya and Manjhi. But even the Dalits consider them inferior.
Sociologists documenting the plight of India's Musahars blame social exclusion as the primary cause for their economic and educational backwardness. As per the Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics 2018, Uttar Pradesh has a population of 2,57,135 Musahars but only 24.4 per cent of them are literate.
Pandemic hit our 'only job' It was around 50 years ago when some Musahars migrated to Chandauli from the forests of Mirzapur, which is over 80 kilometres away. They settled down in what is now known as Banbasi Basti, an unregistered slum at Hanumanpur, Ward 15, Niyamatabad block area of Chandauli. They stay in mud hutments with doors made of tarpaulin sheets or wooden planks. Some households have an electricity supply, fewer have a TV set or a toilet. There's no hospital nearby but only an anganwadi centre.
They had come out of the forest in search of a livelihood. But their hope for a new life dashed as people "denied [them] jobs that involve human contact, like that of a barber," alleges Manoj's father Bablu Banbasi. Eventually, a few found work as daily-wage labourers at construction sites while the majority took to stitching and selling leaf plates (dona pattals).
The latter required them to travel to Mirzapur's jungles twice a week to collect leaves. But the lockdown hit their primary occupation hard. That's because the trains to Mirzapur were halted and the alternative road transport became too expensive, the slum-dwellers recall the reason to 101Reporters.
As their income dried up, they subsisted on the ration supplied by the government for four months and later, by a local NGO, Chetna Sangh. However, they rebuffed the claim by ward councillor Nayab Ahmad Rinku that the anganwadi centre provided "nutritious food" to the women and children on a regular basis.
Lockdown is over, not suffering Life has returned to normalcy in most parts of the country but these Musahars, hit harder due to the absence of a security net, struggle to start over.
Though their dona pattal business has resumed, it's fetching them measly income. Bablu's wife Urmila tells us, "Once the Covid-19 restrictions were eased, we began using road transport. It cost us over Rs100 to go to the jungle. As the markets didn't open in full capacity until December, most of our dona pattals would lie unsold. We barely made Rs50-100 at the end of the day." In the pre-COVID-19 times, the couple used to make Rs200 a day.
While most women like Urmila assist their husbands in the dona pattal business, a few work as housemaids nearby to supplement the household income.
Anita Banbasi is one of them. The mother of three recounts her struggle, "I had got a job as a housemaid after great difficulties as everybody looked down upon us. [But the pandemic struck] and my employers thought I would infect them with the virus. [So] I had to sit idle for around nine months." She resumed her work in January.
The situation of Musahars is dire everywhere, not just in Banbasi Basti. The Musahars in Chandauli's adjoining district and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, Varanasi, share the same pain of a widening socio-economic gap with the upper castes, made worse by Covid-19.
'Need work, respect comes later' The pandemic has given rise to new problems but the old — and pressing — issues of discrimination remain. The Musahars at Banbasi Basti have been waiting for years to move into concrete houses. They had applied for housing facilities under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojna (PMAY) in 2016 and re-applied this year after they didn't hear back from the authorities. The government apathy is keeping Urmila's family awake all night.
She tells 101Reporters, "Our house collapsed [last month]. The children were sleeping inside. It is by mere luck that the kids are alive today." Her family has since set up a makeshift structure nearby. It's made of tarpaulin sheets and tattered cloth, and is supported by thick sticks on four sides. In the absence of walls, the winter breeze creeping in through the rags keeps her family of six awake all night and through the dawn.
Her husband Bablu pitches in, "All our savings dried up when we had to sit idle due to Covid-19. Now I don't have money to mend the house."
Facing the low-lying shelters of the slum, at hardly 10 feet apart, is a huge dump yard brimming with stagnant water. Fellow resident Dhiraj Banbasi said the dump yard overflows during heavy rains and dirty water often enters their home. He knows it's unhygienic to stay here and is even willing to move out, given the government builds him a pucca makaan (concrete house).
When 101Reporters approached Sanjay Maurya, the project officer in the District Urban Development Agency, to understand why their housing demands haven't been sanctioned, he said, "I have no information on the PMAY applications filed by the residents in 2016. But we are processing the applications that a few of the slum dwellers submitted this January and we hope help will reach them soon."
Not just housing, the residents claim they face discrimination while accessing healthcare too. "They [the hospital staff] turn us away as soon as they see us. When we ask for medicines, they give us medicines that are either expired or not suitable for our ailments. We have fallen ill many times after taking those medicines," Anita accuses the medical staff of the Parahupur health centre, which the slum-dwellers visit and which is roughly 1.7 kilometres from here.
"We are forced to visit private hospitals even though it's difficult for us to afford the doctors' fees and medicines," she adds.
But Pushpa Pathak, who works as an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife at the Parahupur primary health centre, refutes these allegations and says instead, "The residents often curse us using foul language. As they are unhappy with the government's inaction to address their issues of housing, sanitation and other basic amenities, they vent out their anger at us.”
She informed 101Reporters that ASHA workers visit the Banbasi Basti regularly to sensitise them about good nutrition, pre-and post-natal care and now, the COVID-19 vaccination, but the residents hardly turn up. "They [the residents] believe the scare around the novel coronavirus is fake. They say they don't want to be vaccinated," Salma Begum, a member of Chetna Sangh NGO, says.
That speaks something about the lack of education in this slum, which is pervasive. Only five or six children go to the school, which is located nearby, while the rest depend on the lessons conducted by the said NGO.
Bablu explains why the children from the community haven't enrolled in school in big numbers, besides the fact that their parents can't afford their education. He says, "Not only upper castes, but students from other backward castes also refuse to sit on the same bench as our kids. Every child born here [in this community] is ill-fated. Neither we nor our kids have ever caught a rat and eaten it. But people still look down upon us.”
That is also the reason non-Musahars refuse to marry girls from this slum, Begum adds.
Seeking respect and equality from the society are quite tall asks, the Musahars of Banbasi Basti feel. "Respect in society comes much later. Pet chal jaaye utna bahut hai [It is just enough if we get at least one square meal a day]," says Urmila.
"We want to work but there are never any takers, be it due to our caste or the pandemic," Bablu signs off.
(The author is Chandauli-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)