Education for the Mushahar Community in Bihar
In Bihar, India’s poorest and least literate major state, the Mushahar are the poorest and least literate. Most are farm laborers. About one in 10 can read. So impoverished is this group that they hunt field rats to supplement a deprived diet.
But the outlook for the state’s two million Mushahar has brightened in the past year. Thanks to government aid programs, more Mushahar children are attending school.
In a sign of the times, a government proposal to promote rat farming was ridiculed by the Mushahar, the very group of untouchables, or Dalits, it was supposed to benefit. They worried it would pull their children out of school and extend a social stigma to the next generation. Some protested on the streets of Bihar’s capital, Patna, shouting: “We want to learn to use a computer mouse, not catch mice.”
In recent years, political candidates won elections with promises to empower to lower-caste voters. But education, health and infrastructure projects were often neglected, presenting opportunity for opponents. In late 2005, a former railways minister from a low-caste background, Nitish Kumar, became chief minister, the leader of Bihar state.
One of Mr. Kumar’s toughest challenges is improving the lot of the Mushahar in places like Dev Kuli village.
As the sun came up on a recent day, a group of Mushahar gathered round a water pump to wash clothes. Later in the morning a long line of Mushahar children made their way up a mud embankment and, in a profound departure from community tradition, headed to primary school.
Parents complain that their children face discrimination even at Dev Kuli’s one-room school for Mushahar children, the name of which translates as “Slum People’s Primary School.” Children from other castes attend a school nearby.Each day, a group of government-hired Mushahar, known as “motivators,” roust children from their homes and escort them to class. Motivator Phulwanti Devi, a recent and rare Mushahar college graduate, says she battles parents almost every morning to release their children from farm work.
“We tell them, ‘It will improve their future,'” says Ms. Devi, 25 years old.
“They reply, ‘We don’t see that you have such a good job.’ I tell them: ‘I have a diploma, and so I can get a better job. What about you?'”