Bihar is the twelfth largest state of India and also its third most populous state, with 8.07% of the country’s population. This eastern state comprises of 38 districts, and has close to 85% rural population. Eighty-five percent of this inhabits the rural areas and the state lags behind other states in human development and economic indicators.
Scheduled Castes (SCs) make up 15.4% of its population, while Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute 0.9% (Census of India, 2001). Violence against SCs is very high and Bihar accounts for 9.8% of all crimes committed against Scheduled Castes in India.
The economy of the state is largely service oriented (accounts for 55% of economy), albeit with a significant agricultural base (accounts for 35%) but a small industrial sector (accounts for 9%). The state averages a per capita income of $148 a year against India’s average of $997 and 30.6% of the state’s population lives below the poverty line against India’s average of 22.15% (Directorate of Economics & Statistics of respective State Governments and Central Statistical Organisation).
[spoiler]Bihar’s literacy rate is 47.53%, which is low compared to the national average of 65.38%, and its female literacy rate is amongst the lowest in the country (33.57%). More than 40 lakh children of Bihar are out of school (Bihar Education Project Council Report, 2004-05) and till the beginning of 2006, the total number of primary and middle schools in the state stood at 59,000 – the same as the number in 1980.
Health indicators in the state show the lack of basic medical services and infrastructure. Reproductive and child health, not surprisingly, are the hardest hit, and the state records a high Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) of 371, as against the national average of 301. Bihar is only one of the two states in India where polio cases were detected in 2006 even after various rounds of intensive immunisation campaigns. Infant Mortality Rate stands at 61 per 1000 live births.
The status of women in Bihar is abysmal. While the state’s sex ratio stands at 919 females per 1,000 males, the state accounts for nearly 5.2% of all crimes committed against women in India(National Crime Records Bureau Report, 2004). Though this number is not very high compared to the national average (14.2%), a very large number of cases of crime against women go unreported in Bihar due to the low status of women in the state. Key forms of crime against women include dowry-harassments, rapes, murders and witch-hunting. Women have limited access to even elementary education and basic health services. High MMR indicates their poor status in the household, which denies them essential hours of rest, requisite nutritional intake, antenatal care and necessary medication. Absence of adequate number of female medical practitioners in the health posts of the state further aggravates the issue, and most deliveries are conducted at home. Abject poverty has led to a high rate of trafficking of women and children to various red light areas around the country.
The status of women in Bihar is particularly low because of a lethal combination of feudal, caste and patriarchal oppression. The Dalit women especially bore the brunt of the combined effects of these three kinds of oppression and they had it hard put to secure their “izzat” or honour. Indeed a major theme of the battles fought by the ultra left parties in Central Bihar that got them tremendous support from Dalit women was the assertion of their gender rights which had been flouted at will by the upper castes for centuries (Bhatia, 2005a). Sexual harassment with frequent abductions and rape of Dalit women was a common phenomenon and most of it went unreported due to the power of the upper caste offenders. Apart from this there is a tremendous amount of domestic violence and seclusion of women within the home. Though matters have improved slightly with time the situation is still biased heavily against women. Table 1 below gives some of the current gender statistics for Bihar and they amply prove that the status of women is still very inferior to that of men. A majority of women get married below the age of 18 and 25% of them get pregnant. The total fertility rate which is a crucial indicator of the prevalence of male preference arising from patriarchy is as high as 4. Similarly another indicator of patriarchal oppression the maternal mortality rate too is unacceptably high at 451 per 100000 live births. The body mass index of 43 % of the women is below normal and a shocking 68.3 % are anaemic. Literacy is very low at 33.1 % and 59% report having suffered from domestic violence. The crimes reported against women are also quite high in number. Their representation in legislative bodies is very low and their participation in the work force is only 21%. Thus in all the major spheres of health, education, political empowerment and work participation the women of Bihar are faring extremely badly. This marginalisation of women has manifested itself in the elections in the form of gender based violence.
Bihar Panchayat elections were held in May 2006. This is technically the third year of the present election tenure. The Hunger Project has worked rigourously in the last three years to train and strengthen the leadership of 1948 elected women. In 2009, THP in India aims to build the 10 block level federations of elected women in 4 districts of Bihar. At present there are no block level federations in Bihar. An important aspect of the federation building is also to understand the structure, membership and management as it would follow a cyclical pattern of the election cycles. A critical element will be to understand the role of federations in raising issues and building supporting environments for effective leadership.
Panchayat elections were held in Bihar only for the second time since 1978. Bihar is one of the states which scores among the lowest across all human development indicators in terms of health, below Poverty Line families, literacy, per capita income, etc. It is also a State known for its deeply ingrained caste and gender divisions. Given the above, surprisingly, it was the first Indian State to provide 50% reservation for women in Panchayats. However, they were forced to step very carefully in this highly sensitive and hostile environment. Given the above scenario, it is hoped that the development agenda will positively improve with the advent of these newly elected women leaders. There are now a total number of 1, 35,805 members across all three tiers of the Panchayati Raj institutions of whom 73,204 are women. This critical mass of women leaders of whom 4535 hold the posts of Presidents in Gram Panchayats will definitely impact and change positively the trajectory of Bihar’s development.
Most women elected to village Panchayats in Bihar and the rest of the country hold public offices for the first time in their lives. Non literate, overworked, undernourished, married at a very young age with several children these women have spent the majority of their lives in their house with no voice in political decision making. In villages where subjugation of women is very high, these women face serious mobility issues and are not expected to talk to strange men. In situations like these women from the villages of Bihar show great courage in contesting elections at the Gram Panchayat level so that they can bring an end to hunger, poverty and injustice in their villages. These elected women representatives work as agricultural labourers
Some of the women are from Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes (SCs/STs) and many have been discriminated against socially, economically and politically. They are elected Presidents and Ward Members of their village councils. The target group attends capacity-building programmes and is involved in the creation and sustenance of Federations of Elected Women Representatives, which act as support structures, monitoring bodies and pressure groups which look out for their interests.