Bihar : An Overview


With a total area of 1,74,000 sq. kms. and a population of 6,99,14,734 Bihar accounts for 5.3 per cent of the total geographical area of India and 10.3 per cent of the total Indian population.

To consider population first, the ratio of urban popula­tion according to 1981 census is only 12.5 per cent in Bihar as against the all-India figure of 23.3 per cent. The literacy rate in Bihar is 26.20 per cent (38.11 per cent for men and 13.62 per cent for women) while that for the country as a whole is 36.23 per cent (46.89 per cent for men and 24.82 per cent for women). Then, in sharp contrast to the national average of 40 per cent, as much as 59 per cent of the population in Bihar live below the poverty line (defined in terms of a monthly per capita income of Rs. 60 and a daily intake of 2,000 calories).

Coming to the social structure in Bihar, both rural as well as urban, the first thing that strikes an observer is perhaps the age-old, rigid caste system. Among themselves the four upper castes (Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas) constitute about 15 per cent of Bihar’s popula­tion; backward castes, numbering about hundred (the Yadavas, Kurmis and Koiris being the most numerous), account for more than 50 per cent; while the scheduled castes (harijans) and adivasis (93 per cent of the adivasis are concentrated in the Chhotanagpur region with the remaining 3.5 lakh being scattered over the districts of Purnea, Bhagalpur, Munger and West Champaran) make up 14.51 and 8.31 per cents respectively. Nearly 12 per cent of the population are Muslims.

There is a significant correspondence between caste and class hierarchies. The upper-castes are generally to be found among the landlords and rich and upper-middle peasants, while the scheduled castes only swell the ranks of agricultural labourers as well as poor and lower-middle peasants. The backward or middle castes, who are all agriculturists by their caste occupation, are, however, subject to a considerable degree of internal differentiation. Contrary to the popular belief that the middle castes are all middle peasants, they have in their ranks elements from almost all the rural classes—in fact, they account for more than 50 per cent of total agricultural labourers in Bihar.

Geographically speaking, Bihar is half plain and half plateau. The plains are further classified into North Bihar and South Bihar, depending on whether one is on the northern or southern bank of the river Ganges. The land is very fertile in both North and South Bihar and the population density is also quite high, often exceeding 500 persons per sq. km. In fact, the plains of Bihar account for more than 75 per cent of the entire population of the State*.

The southernmost half of Bihar, known as the Chhotanagpur region, is covered with hills and forests and as such, this region is not quite suitable for agricultural purposes. But it occupies an extremely important position on the mining and industrial map of India.

South Bihar is a semi-arid region where rice cultivation is not possible without irrigation. In the pre-independence days the South Bihar districts of Patna, Gaya, Munger and Bhagalpur were the storm centres of peasant struggles.

North Bihar is full of big rivers and is rather flood-prone. Almost every year new stretches of fertile land-mass (diara) emerge on the river beds and naturally there are constant disputes concerning the ownership of such land. This geographical phenomenon was most common in the eastern

* Throughout this book, “State”, as distinct from “state”, has been used to mean provinces.

parts of Bihar over which flow the river Kosi and its numerous tributaries. However, with the construction of dams on the river this phenomenon has now been consider­ably checked.

Let us now take a look at the agrarian scene of Bihar-First in enacting land reform acts but last in enforcing them, Bihar still has a good number of giant landlords, each controlling thousands of acres of land. The Katihar-Purnea-Bhagalpur belt is the meeting point of the enormous illegal estates of three of the notoriously largest landowners in today’s India. Similar estates are also to be found under the control of the Mahants in Bihar’s numerous religious maths.

Bihar has the distinction of having the highest proportion of agricultural population among all States of India. According to 1981 Census, cultivators (cultivation, for the purpose of Census, includes “supervision or direction of cultivation” as well) and agricultural labourers account for 79.07 per cent of main workers (including, apart from cultivators and agricultural labourers, workers/employees and, of course, employers engaged in household industries, plantations and all factories and offices) in Bihar as against 66.52 per cent for India as a whole (looked at separately, the figures are 43.57 and 35.50 per cent for Bihar and 41.58 and 24.94 per cent for India). Considered as proportions of total population we have the following pictures for Bihar and India respectively — Main Workers : 29.7 and 33.5 per cent; Cultivators : 12.9 and 13.9 per cent; Agricultural Labourers: 10.6 and 8.4 per cent. But the rate of female participation is much lower in Bihar compared to the national average. Following are the sex ratios (females per 1,000 males) among the above three categories of workers for Bihar and India respectively—Main Workers : 174 and 253; Cultivators : 95 and 192 ; Agricultural Labourers : 360 and 598.

Agriculturally, Bihar still figures among the backward States of India. 34.7 per cent of the net cropped area in Bihar is irrigated as against 78.1 per cent in Punjab, 52.5 per cent in Haryana and 50.9 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. Fertiliser consumption per hectare of cropped area is 18.5 kgs. in Bihar while the corresponding figures for Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and all-India are 127.8 kgs., 60.6 kgs., 58.6 kgs., 53.0 kgs. and 36.6 kgs. respectively. 43.2 per cent of Bihar villages are electrified as against 100 per cent in Punjab, Haryana and Kerala, 99.4 per cent in Tamil Nadu and 55.7 per cent in India as a whole. As far as production of foodgrains is concerend» Bihar accounts for 9.0 per cent of rice and 6.4 per cent of wheat produced in the whole of India**. Among cash crops, sugarcane is the foremost and its cultivation is concentrated in the district of West Champaran where the old estates have all been transformed into big farms. Of the 22 sugar mills in Bihar most are located in this district.

Coming to various political currents in Bihar, mention must be made of the movement that flares up occasionally in North Bihar on the demand of recognition of Maithili language and development of Mithila region and the move­ment for a separate Jharkhand State that has been going on in the Chhotanagpur region for years together. The official politics of Bihar, however, goes on along caste lines. Caste considerations dominate the minds of intellectuals and peasants alike.

** To have a real understanding of the extent of agricultural back­wardness in Bihar one should further place Indian agriculture as a Whole in the global perspective. Agricultural productivity per hectare in India is 1/3 of that in the advanced countries and 2/3 of the world average. During the period 1971-1981 the growth of farm production in India has been the slowest in the entire South-East Asia, except only Bangladesh and Nepal. In 1981-82, the production of foodgrains in India, a record till then in our history, accounted for only 8.82 per cent of the world production, though our shares in the world’s total arable land and population are 11.76 and 15.46 per cent respectively. Our per capita consumption of foadgrain is no more than 57 per cent of the world average.

However the caste matrix is not fixed once and for all—certain lower castes have fought their way to higher rungs of the social ladder. Wayback in the 1920s, the Yadavas and the Kurmis, the two castes most numerous and relatively more affluent among the backwards, raised the banner of protest against social oppression by upper-caste landlords. They were soon joined in by the Koiris and what began as a social movement quickly developed into an economic conflict between upper-caste landlords and lower-caste tenants. The Bhumihars, a caste with greater internal differentiation than the Kurmis or the Yadavas, had also to fight their way into the enclave of upper-castes.

However, unlike some other parts of the country, caste organisations in Bihar, whether of backward castes or un­touchables, could never gain prominence on the political plane during the entire phase of freedom struggle. Much of this was due to the deeprooted class outlook of the Kisan Sabha.

Caste apart, another major feature of social as well as political life in Bihar is the prevalence of the language of force, arms in particular. Bihar is perhaps the State which can boast of the maximum number of licensed and unlicen­sed firearms, landlords of every village are armed to the teeth and control some private gang of lumpens or other. In fact, nowhere in India is the nexus between landlords, police and government officials as naked as in Bihar. In the face of extreme oppression, there have also emerged several roving rebel gangs of erstwhile peasants in different parts ot Bihar— particularly where there is suitable terrain, e.g., the diara area of Bhagalpur-Munger, hills and forests of Kaimur Range and the Himalayan terrain of West Champaran—often degenerating into criminals engaging in gang warfare. These apart, there are also numerous smaller gangs of dacoits operating throughout the State.

All these salient features of Bihar’s socio-economic and political life find concentrated expression in the village-level power structure of today’s Bihar, a brilliant demonstration of the Gandhian mode of decentralization of power :

… the big landlord …. is virtually the ‘raja’ of his area. He possesses one-fourth or more of the total land of his village. He lives like an aristocrat in a large brick house. He employs the largest number of both slave and free labourers for domestic and farm work. He maintains a small private army equipped with guns, spears, lathis and other weapons and him­self owns a licensed gun ….

The big landlord-raja … (belongs) to the caste of the dominant section of landlords in the village. To the social, economic and military power of the raja, ‘democracy’—added political power. He has captured the instruments of local government. He now commands the panchayat and thus the various executive bodies at the block level. He has the services of an obsequious police force in the local thana.

(Class War, Not ‘Atrocities Against Harijans’, article by Arun Sinha in Agrarian Movements in India : Studies on 20th Century Bihar, hereafter mentioned as Agrari­an Movements, p. 151).