In death, 25-year-old Upendra Ravidas, a Dalit youth of Patna district, symbolises the enormity of the tragedy that as often as not links work on agricultural fields to crime on the part of a supposedly affluent landowner. He was abused and assaulted, tied to bricks in a village in Patna district, and thrown into a stream.
His fault ~ he had demanded 10 kg of rice, as promised for a day’s labour. His body was on Monday fished out of a rivulet near Bahadurpur, about 25 km away from the state capital. The victim and his brother-in-law had spent the day sowing paddy around 15 days ago.
They were asked by the landowner to come after a few days for the promised payment ~ No wages but 10 kg of rice. They received neither, which in the event is the worst of both worlds. The incident must rank as one of the deepest tragedies of rural labour, which can assume mortal proportions as it did near Patna.
“The victim’s hands and legs were tied with ropes. Bricks had been tied to the body to ensure that it remained at the bottom of the rivulet, which is now in spate. But somehow it floated to the surface,” is the substance of the police version. Reports do not indicate whether the victim had sought or obtained work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a piece of legislation that scarcely guarantees work, let alone wages in cash or kind or the right to life in the wider canvas.
But it would seem that work for a wage in kind must have been the best option on offer for the youth. Agrarian crime in Bihar, whether in the name of Mahatma Gandhi or otherwise, was long ago institutionalised. And so it happened near Patna last weekend. It is time, therefore, for the state’s law-enforcement authorities to crack down severely on the lawbreakers.
Upendra would not have perished in a rivulet had society had been kinder to him. Reports suggest that the police were ignorant about the tragedy till they were notified by the victim’s family. That it happened close to Patna has deepened the enormity of the tragedy. It is pretty obvious that the certitudes of the MGNREG Act, touted as a landmark legislation, are not being adhered to.
If they were, agricultural labourers would be ensured of the basics and across the country. The Act deserved to be followed through with far greater sincerity than has been manifest. It is hard not to wonder whether Upendra was a victim of calculated malevolence on the part of the village mahant.
Attempts to rein in their activities have achieved little or nothing. But agrarian India expects more from the government, the regulatory authority over the Rural Employment Guarantee Act. As the Bihar case shows, the poor seldom get their due.