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.
By Mohd Imran Khan*, Patna, Bihar
A few years ago, Parbhawati Devi, Bichiya Devi and Meena Devi were landless farm labourers who were 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 marginalised 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 the setting up of an anaj (grain) bank by these women themselves with initial support from a local organization that encouraged and inspired them to transform their lives.
The anaj bank has given us hope, confidence and strength to stand on our own feet. Now we know our families will not go hungry during the season of scarcity.Prabhawati, Muhammadpur village
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 successful initiative by the poorest of people. The women (most of them from Mahadalit sub-castes such as Manjhi, Ravidas and Paswan) from 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, and freed 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 5kg of rice on credit to an individual, who has to return 6 kg— so the "charge" is only 1 kg per 5 kg. For weddings, the bank provides 1 to 2 quintals of rice to the poorest of the poor. The women have also 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. Now we know our families will not go hungry during the season of scarcity," 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 the Ravidas and Paswan castes, considered "untouchables" by some Hindus. Parbhawati, a Ravidas woman, recalled that she used to work as agricultural labourer. "Today I am doing farming in 2 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 3 acres of land after she received help from the anaj bank. "We were fighting hunger as our daily wages were not enough to meet the family needs. 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."
Action Aid stopped its support in 2013. Since then, groups of women have been managing [the anaj bank] successfully without any support from outside. Umesh Kumar, Pargati Gramin Vikas Samiti
Bichiya, the mother of seven children, including three daughters, said before the Anaj Bank was established, she would get rice from landed farmers on their terms and conditions. "If I took 5 kg rice from a farmer, I had to return 7.5 kg under this system. It was pure exploitation," she says.
The story is similar in more than 50 households in Chichourha village, mostly belonging to the Musahar community. Like Bichiya, Meena Devi of Sunderepur village said she still does not own land but is doing community farming in 2 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 not only helps them to meet the demand for rice in times of scarcity and hunger, but it also encourages and inspires these poor, landless women to do community farming for self-reliance—a decade ago they wouldn't even have dreamed of such a thing," says Umesh Kumar, the man behind change brought on by the anaj bank.
Kumar, who leads Pargati 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 initiative 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."
The anaj bank also encourages and inspires these poor, landless women to do community farming for self-reliance—a decade ago they wouldn't even have dreamed of it. Umesh Kumar, Pargati Gramin Vikas Samiti
For setting up the anaj bank, a group of women in each village were initially given ₹5000 cash to purchase rice and ₹2500 to purchase big drums for storage. "Every year during January, February, and March, people return rice that they took on credit, enabling us to store enough rice to give on credit during the lean season," Kumar says.
More than 500 women are associated with 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 anaj bank was set up in 65 villages — 30 in Bikram, 20 in Pali and 15 in Naubatpur. According to Kumar, no hunger deaths have been reported in these Dalit villages after the anaj bank started functioning.
Mohd Imran Khan is a Patna-based journalist.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.