Community-managed rice banks in several areas of Patna district in Bihar have released hundreds of Dalit families from the exploitative practices of powerful landlords by ensuring food during the lean season. Mohd Imran Khan takes a closer look.
A few years ago, Parbhawati Devi, Bichiya Devi, and Meena Devi were landless farm labourers, fully at the mercy of landed farmers for their survival. But things have changed since then. Today, hundreds of women in dozens of villages in Patna district of Bihar, mostly from the marginalized Mahadalit community, have turned to community farming for self-reliant livelihoods, ridding them of the fear of hunger and merciless exploitation from powerful landlords.
This remarkable turnaround has been made possible by setting up an Anaj Bank (grain bank) by these women themselves, with initial support from a local organization that encouraged and inspired them to transform their lives for better days in the true sense of the word on ground zero.
Unlike the government-supported village grain banks, which have become virtually defunct, the Anaj bank established by the women to help themselves and others is a rare success initiative by the poorest of people. The women—most of them from Mahadalit sub-castes such as Manjhi, Ravidas, and Paswan in more than 65 villages in three drought-prone administrative blocks of Bikram, Pali, and Naubatpur in Patna district—have directly benefited from the Anaj Bank freeing them to some extent from the age-old clutches of powerful landed upper-caste farmers, who force them to work as bandhua majdoor (bonded labour).
Rice on credit
The Anaj Bank provides 5 kg. of rice on credit to a man or a woman, who has to return 6 kg., so the charge is only 1 kg. per 5 kg. In cases of marriage, the bank provides 1-2 quintal of rice to the poorest of poor. The women have taken farming land on a contract that has changed their lifestyle entirely.
“The Anaj Bank has given us hope, confidence, and strength to stand on our own feet, because we realized that our family will not go hungry during the season of scarcity. It provided us a facility to borrow rice to fill our stomachs,” Prabhawati, a 50-year-old resident of Muhammadpur village in Bikram, told VillageSquare.in. “It encouraged us to take land on contract to start community farming with the help of family members to grow our own grain.”
In Muhammadpur, there are nearly 100 households belonging to Ravidas and Paswan castes, considered untouchables by Hindus. Parbhawati, a Ravidas woman, recalled that she used to work as agricultural laborer. “Today I am doing farming in two acres of land with the help of my husband and other family members.”
Bichiya, in her early 40s and a resident of Chichourha village, is proud of doing community farming on nearly three acres of land after she received help from the Anaj Bank. “We were fighting hunger as the daily wages were not enough to meet the needs of my family. When the Anaj Bank was set up, it helped us to get rid of hunger,” she told VillageSquare.in. “We have started community farming by taking land from rich farmers.”
Bichiya—the mother of seven children, including three daughters—said that before the Anaj Bank was established, she used to get rice from landed farmers on their terms and condition, locally known as deorhiya. “If I took 5 kg. rice from a farmer, I had to return 7.5 kg. under the deorhiya system. It was pure exploitation,” she says.
The story is similar in more than 50 households in Chichourha village, mostly belonging to the Musahars community that is derided for eating rats. Like Bichiya, Meena Devi of Sunderepur village said she still does not own land, but is doing community farming in two acres of land thanks to the Anaj Bank. “I have taken land on annual lease from farmers, and am happy that my drums are full of grain. There is no tension of hunger,” Meena, 36, told VillageSquare.in.
“The Anaj Bank has helped them meet the demand of rice, a staple diet, in time of scarcity and hunger, and it also encourages and inspires these poor, landless women to start community farming for self-reliance, which was a dream till a decade ago,” says Umesh Kumar, the man behind the change brought on by the Anaj Bank.
Kumar, who leads Pragati Gramin Vikas Samiti and started the Anaj Bank with support from Action Aid in 2005, said groups of women in each village have been running the Anaj Bank with their own support system. “Action Aid stopped its support in 2013,” he told VillageSquare.in. “Since then, groups of women in dozens of villages have been managing it successfully without any support from outside.”
For setting up the Anaj Bank, a group of women in each village initially received ₹5,000 cash to purchase rice and ₹2,500 to purchase big drums for storage. “Every year, during January, February, and March, people return rice that they have taken on credit as per its terms. That enables us to store enough rice for giving again on credit during the lean season,” Kumar says.
More than 500 women work with and benefit from the Anaj bank in dozens of villages. “In each village, 10 to 15 women have been doing community farming. They have taken 2-3 acres of land on lease. It is a new phenomenon in this locality.”
The women set up the Anaj Bank in 65 villages—30 in Bikram, 20 in Pali, and 15 in Naubatpur. According to Kumar, there have been no hunger deaths in these Dalit villages after the Anaj Bank started functioning.
(The author is a Patna-based journalist.)
Adapted from an article originally published on VillageSquare.in. Find out more on Pragati Gramin Vikas Samiti’s website. Subscribe to VillageSquare’s weekly update on the website for more stories from rural India.