Travels through the Hindi belt: Cast out of cow trade, Bihar's Gora village plunges into despair, poverty; MGNREGA offers no relief

Parth MN

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 


When his elder daughter got married six years ago, Nabi Hussain smoothly conducted the ceremony. He had saved up for the wedding and the mood was buoyant. Four months back, when his younger daughter got married, Hussain had to sell a part of his 1.5-acre farmland.

Hussain had an operational business back then. He is unemployed now. And he has a definitive answer to what triggered the downfall. "2014," says the 50-year-old resident of Gora village in Bihar's Darbhanga district.

Prevented from continuing with his ancestral trade of buying and selling cattle Nabi Hussain has no livelihood now. Image credit Parth MN

Prevented from continuing with his ancestral trade of buying and selling cattle Nabi Hussain has no livelihood now. Image credit Parth MN

Hussain used to be a cattle trader. "I would buy milch cattle from Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and sell it to farmers here to be reared and used in farmlands," he says. "We had been in this business since the time of our forefathers."

For as long as he can remember, Hussain has been attending cattle fairs in different states to locate the most productive bovines. "I made anything between Rs 400-800 behind every calf," he says. "My monthly income would be around Rs 30-40 thousand. I could take care of the family, and also save up for emergencies. I only engaged in trade, not slaughter."

However, cow-related violence in India has exploded since 2014, with Hindutva vigilante groups lynching Muslims and Dalits over suspicions of the slaughter of cow, which is considered sacred by upper caste Hindus. According to an IndiaSpend report, 97 percent of the attacks by cow vigilantes have happened since Narendra Modi became India's Prime Minister. Victims of cow terrorism have accused the police and administration to have gone soft on the perpetrators.

In Hussain's case, the impediments did not come through the right-wing groups, but it came from the police. "Our trucks started being unnecessarily stopped, even though we had permits," he says. "The police would threaten to file cases against us and ask bribes of Rs 50,000 or 1 lakh. When we said we could not afford it, they would beat us up black and blue."

The disruption of cattle trade that began 2014 onwards compelled Hussain to downsize. "We thought it is a phase that would pass, and we could wait it out," he says. "But by 2017, we had to completely shut shop."

Hussain's story is the story of his village. Half of Gora with a population of nearly 3,000 had been engaged in the cattle trade. According to the Census 2011, more than 60 percent of its population is uneducated, which means they have been seeking odd jobs in Darbhanga. "Not just our village, there are 7-8 more in the block that had cow traders," says Hussain. "Today, we spend most of our time looking for a job as a daily wage labourer."

But finding a job in the unskilled sector is tough. According to the Centre for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE)'s report as of December 2018, Bihar's labour participation rate stood at 38 percent, almost 5 points below the national average, which reflects starkly considering Bihar is the third most populous state in India. The labour force's unemployment rate was 8.77 percent, more than 2 points above the national average. The state's overall unemployment rate is 10.9 percent, much above India's 6.9, as of 13 March.

Therefore, driving those who had been self-employed into labour work has only intensified the crisis.

Vijay Kumar Jha, director, Animal Husbandry, says there is no letter from the department that says cow trading is illegal. "Cow slaughter is banned unless the local administration grants permission," he says. "But trading is perfectly fine. Yet police harass traders by asking various questions. There is an Animal Cruelty Act, which prevents people from being cruel towards animals. If the truck carrying animals lacks enough space and the bovines are cramped for room, the trader can be charged under the Act. That is usually the pretext under which the police stops trucks carrying animals."

Mohammad Kamrul, 55, another resident of Gora, says a few years back the police seized his trucks carrying 84 calves, where he was accused of indulging in slaughter. That was the last nail in the coffin of his trade. "We would have a cattle fair merely six kilometres from here," he says. "Farmers would turn up to buy from us. They looked after the cows like their children. But police started parking barricades just ahead of the fair to hound us."

With the traditional family trade ruptured, Kamrul says he now barely gets 10 or 12 days of work at Rs 200 a day. "Darbhanga is a flood-prone district, which means the activity in farmlands is often scarce," he says. "And there are no industries or private companies here that would want labourers. Machines are doing our jobs these days. So we go to Punjab during the planting and harvesting of wheat and rice. Otherwise, we pass our time feeling worthless sitting at home."

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which promises to provide 100 days of employment in the unskilled sector in rural India has not instilled promise either. In 2017-18, 82,768 households got employment under the scheme and only 82 of them completed 100 days or more at work. The following year, 1,27,735 households were employed while merely 216 managed to complete 100 days at work.

Lack of options has forced the second generation to migrate to places like Punjab, Delhi or Mumbai to toil as labourers. "My son has done BA," says Kamrul's wife, Makina Khatun. "He is working as a labourer somewhere in Mumbai."

Khatun says when the cow trade ran smoothly, they would also pump in some money in their farmland, cultivating a bit of rice. "Now we cannot afford the input costs," she says. "Activity in our farmland has almost come to nought. Since 2014, it has been difficult to sustain a household. We taught our kids, educated them when the trade was operational. Today, we struggle to keep our kitchen functional."

First Person

While most of the cow traders lost their livelihoods in Gora, Najo Khatu lost something even more important. She shares her story.

How have the difficulties in cattle trade affected you personally?

Me, my family, my kids have all been devastated. Even though it became difficult to carry on with the trade after 2014, my husband would take the risk once in a while when we had no option and there was absolutely no money. Three months back, his truck was seized at Balliya. He was accused of slaughter, threatened with cases. He had a heart attack and died on the spot.

How old was he and what was his name?

His name was Jainuddin. He must be around 70. He had been a cattle trader all his life. Suddenly, you tell him he cannot do it. He was under a lot of stress. Where was he going to find labour work at this age? In any case, it is hard to come by.

How are you managing now?

I work as a daily wage labourer if and when I find something. As I said, there is not much I can do. I make Rs 2,000 a month at the most and run my household. Three of my kids have migrated to Mumbai and Delhi. They make their ends meet by doing whatever they can.

How old are you?

I am around 65. It is hard to indulge in labour work at this age. My back hurts, so do my joints. Also, contractors look at me and don't hire me. They want strong people who can work without taking breaks. And especially when there are so many younger men volunteering to do the job, I hardly get any work. But it is not just about money. He was the one who held the home together. He was our emotional support. We still don't know how to come to terms with that.

Also See: Travels through the Hindi belt: In dry state Bihar, youths resort to bootlegging as unemployment rises at an alarming 19.4%

With labour participation rate at 38%, daily wage workers in Bihar blame demonetisation, Nitish Kumar's policies for struggle

Travels through the Hindi belt: In Bihar's Gaya, parents forced to put kids to work in absence of solution from state

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