As the story goes, the tribal people were indentured to work in forests during the British period to restore forests that they cut.The Forest Department would allow them to carry out cultivation in patches of land where trees were recently planted. This way the trees were protected by Musahars. Once the trees grew, the department herded Musahars to another patch of land taken up for plantation. Once, the plantation work got over, the Musahars were left with no land and no work. They have remained on the forest fringe villages as landless agriculture labourers.Once the plantation activity stopped, Musahars were removed from the forests and have remained on the forest fringe villages as landless agriculture labourers. They were later classified as schedule Castes. However, within the Schedule Castes they are further marginalized.
For livelihoods, they depended on minor forest produce - collected dried wood and medicinal plants and herbs from the forest and sold to middle men, who gave them paltry amounts.Predominantly landless, now the main occupation of the community is agricultural labour. However, the labour work is not assured round the year. There are almost four months of rainy season when the community does not get any agriculture labour, and this is also the time when unskilled labour intensive work are at their minimum even in urban and semi-urban areas.During this time, many a Musahar families remain on upvas (fasting), euphuism for remaining hungry, eating just once a day.
Caste and class discrimination deprive the community of justice and rights. Politically the community remain voiceless. Their voice is not a part of Dalit voice in the region nor does it find any say and stake in local governance process. Near non-existence of homestead land ownership and agricultural land entitlements increase vulnerability condition.
Extreme poverty and the daily fight to ensure one square meal for the family especially children, does not allow the community to learn and avail services like education and use of basic entitlements.
While most of the Musahars did not have land and worked as agriculture labourers, few that had land, was captured by the dabang (powerful dominant castes) from the villages nearby. They were made to work as labourers in their own land. The education was nearly nonexistent. In a survey in 2004, among all the Musahars there were only 10 people that had studied up to 10th class.
Maharajganj district in eastern Uttar Pradesh has borders with Nepal in the north and Bihar on the east. Major rivers Gandak and Narayani pass through the area and cause recurring floods and cause great damage to the meager assets of the poor, who invariably live on the banks of these rivers (as that is the only area available for them to settle).However, the region has highly productive agricultural growing in sugarcane, rice, maize, wheat and vegetables and pulses. The distribution of land is highly uneven with the upper castes having a high land holding, while most Dalits are landless, there is a clear imbalance of wealth, power and opportunities in this part of Uttar Pradesh. Amidst all this prosperity, there remains an extremely poor and landless community named Musahar who suffer from hunger and other deprivations.
Action Aid (AA) started working directly with Musahar Community in Maharajganj district of UP since 2003-2004. AA adopted a rights-based approach to conscientize, empower, educate and handhold the Musahar community to seek their constitutional rights. It organized them in “Musahar Manch” (MM) as a membership-based organization.
Before the intervention of Action Aid, the Musahars understood their marginality in relation to local structures of power and dominance. The strategic intervention located their deprivation in the development rhetoric of the state, by positing their fight vis-à-vis the state. The work with Musahars over one and half decades has slowly moved them out of their old ties of dependence on local power structures towards gaining a new social identity in the public realm. Musahar community still faces many issues related to exclusion, landlessness, livelihoods and alcoholism to name a few but they are much more aware and assertive.
After the withdrawal of Action Aid, Musahar Manch continues to work for its members. It needs to further formalize, strengthen internal processes and support processes for emergence of women and youth leadership and become truly a democratic member-based organization working for empowerment and rights of the Musahar community.
Musahar Manch that had remained an informal organization was finally registered in October 2020. It is a first step towards formalization of the organization.