Patna: Come October 2, Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary, and you will see Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in a new Avatar. He has announced to wage a war against dowry, child marriage and other social evils with a view that social backwardness is one of the biggest hurdles in the development of the state.
Nitish Kumar has already directed his partymen not to attend any marriage in which they suspect dowry might have exchanged hands. He will also announce a crusade against child marriage, a menace Bihar has not been able to tackle. A recent report says that about 39 percent of all marriages in the state, much higher than the national average, are child marriages.
During his tenure as chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar has successfully consolidated women population, regardless of caste and community, as his constituency. In his first term (2005-2010), he started the scheme of providing bicycles and uniforms to girl students which proved a game changer and resulted in a phenomenal increase in school enrollments.
Nitish struck a chord with women which no chief minister was able to establish before. During his Yatras in his second term as the CM (2010-15), many women complained to him for allowing liquor shops almost in every village which compelled Nitish and his party Janata Dal (United) to take a U-turn.
He made total prohibition a poll promise during 2015 assembly election, which he was fighting in alliance with RJD, and after getting elected, fulfilled that promise on April 5, 2016. This decision has further spiked his popularity among women.
Now on warpath against social evils, Nitish is all set to take legislative routes and change the constitution of the party, if required, to meet his new goals. He has decided to extend his zero tolerance against crime and corruption to a new level. Nitish's close aide and party's general secretary Sanjay Jha says, "Like total prohibition law, he may tighten dowry and anti-child marriage laws which will work as a deterrent. The government is mulling many options, including dismissing a government official found involved in taking or giving dowry, enhanced jail term for abetting child marriages and so on."
Party leaders attending lavish marriage parties or found having any participation in child marriages might be punished and ousted from the party, Sanjay Jha hinted.
While lauding initiatives taken by Nitish, Sanjay Jha said, "Many reformers tirelessly worked to eradicate social evils. Some of them joined politics also, but apart from Annadurrai, first chief minister of Tamilnadu, rarely any chief minister thought of waging a war against social traditions detrimental to half of the population. Nitish ji has decided to adopt two-pronged strategy -- giving impetus to welfare schemes and lead the social awareness movement from the front."
Bihar at the bottom of social indicators
Gender Alliance, funded by United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) and supported by Woman Development Council (WDC), the government of Bihar, came out with a surprising figure on Child Marriages which puts the state at the bottom of a nationwide list.
Prashanti Tiwari, the state manager of Gender Alliance, told News18, "Child marriages constitute almost 39 percent of total marriages in the state. We have studied the social pattern of all 354 blocks and derived a social indicator. Remarkably, blocks with higher economic indicators and low social indicators have higher numbers of child marriages. The qualitative reasoning behind the phenomenon is that the Block where social index is low, the families tend to discriminate at birth. This discrimination continues even in the adolescent stage, where the girls are inducted into the marginal workforce. This inclusion of girls in marginal workforce drives up the economic index, but in totality, it is discriminatory against female."
Block Hilsa, in Nalanda District, Nitish Kumar's hometown, has a much lower social index score of 0.909. The overall Block average (calculated for 534 Blocks) for Social Index is 0.9406. The predicted female child marriage is high at 59.78 %. This is higher than the overall average of 39.85%. Also, the Economic Index score for Hilsa Block is high at 0.591.
Bandhan Tod movement
The Bandhan Tod campaign is a comprehensive strategy to address the issue of child marriage and dowry in a holistic manner. A mobile application called 'Bandhan Tod' has also been launched by the Gender Alliance. The unique feature of this App is that it connects young girls to a peer network in the village to offer support to the potential child marriage through SOS.
The state's social welfare and women development minister Manju Verma said her department was ready to implement the vision of Nitish Kumar.“Bihar is privileged to have such a chief minister who has been relentlessly working for women empowerment. Being a nodal department, our ministry is helping to meet his targets. Come October 2 a new dawn will usher in,” the minister told to News18.
Total Prohibition, which cost Rs 5000 crore loss to the state exchequer, was one of the biggest promises Nitish had made to the women of the state. It was a challenge, but the state government overcame the financial woes by enhanced commercial tax collections.
Prohibition ensured increased household saving which not only enhanced buying capacity but also working hours resulting in the reduction of domestic violence and rising economic output. “Women always bore the brunt of domestic violence often at the hands of their inebriated husbands or someone else. Prohibition has stopped that. Now, women live the life with dignity,” Manju Verma says.
Challenge: Funds meant for women-centric schemes lying unused
She points out at four marquee programs Nitish Kumar started for women. He envisaged Mukhyamantri Kanya Vivah Yojna to discourage child marriages. The state government provides monetary help of Rs, 5000 for the marriage of daughters to those having an annual income of less than Rs, 60,000. Another scheme Mukhyamantri Kanya Suraksha Yojna and Mukhyamantri Naari Shakti Yojna. Under the Kanya Suraksha Yojna, the state government provides Rs 2000 as a bank deposit up to two girl children. Naari Shakti is a community-driven scheme and women development corporation provides financial assistance to self-help groups.
But, these schemes have not really taken off. For 2017-18 the government marked 6152 Lakh for Naari Shakti scheme but the department has only disbursed 175 lakh till September. Under Kanya Suraksha Yojna, the government has only disbursed Rs.100 lakh against 7627 Lac of budget outlay and half of the financial year has already passed. Inter-caste marriage promotion scheme has also met the same fate as the government has spent a meager 3.5 lakh against the allotted amount of 700 lakh.
Concerned over the slow pace, the state government is mulling over integrating seven programs related to women empowerment into an umbrella scheme. Confirming this development, Manju Verma says, “Slow pace this year is also due to the political uncertainty which resulted in the formation of a new government. Devastating floods also slowed down the process. But we will step up our efforts in the remaining six months.”
However, Prashanti says that government-funded schemes are just proving like financial dole outs. "Our effort should be to achieve a position where there is no need for help. To make that happen, women participation is imperative in economic output. Sadly, in Bihar, half of the population (women) only contributes just 9 percent to economic activities," She points out.