Ground Reports

Ground Report From Bihar's Saran, Where The Memories Of 'Jungle Raj' Are Still Fresh

Abhishek Kumar

May 19, 2024, 07:10 PM | Updated May 20, 2024, 02:23 PM IST

It's Rajiv Pratap Rudy versus Rohini Acharya in Saran.
It's Rajiv Pratap Rudy versus Rohini Acharya in Saran.
  • It's Rajiv Pratap Rudy versus Rohini Acharya in Saran. Acharya is Lalu Yadav's daughter.
  • The prevailing sentiment on the ground is that it is Lalu himself contesting through his daughter.
  • “When you start seeing opposite lane vehicles on the same side of the highway, you are in Chhapra,” said a friend when I told him that I was going there for constituency analysis.

    Little did I know that he was not talking about bad driving discipline. It was a hint that highways going towards Chhapra remain perennially under construction for one reason or another.

    In its political reincarnation, the Chhapra Lok Sabha Constituency gave way to Saran Lok Sabha in 2008 after delimitation.

    Now the name Chhapra is reserved for an assembly constituency. Apart from Chhapra, Marhaura, Garkha, Amnour, Parsa and Sonpur are the other five assembly segments under the Saran Lok Sabha Constituency.

    One of the earliest sign boards in Saran
    One of the earliest sign boards in Saran

    Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has two members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) from Chhapra and Amnour, while the remaining four seats are held by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

    Former Rail Minister and RJD founder Lalu Prasad Yadav himself has represented both Chhapra and Saran seats in the past. From BJP, incumbent MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy has carried the party through with some twists and turns in various campaigns.

    For anyone even remotely aware with the way identity politics shapes election outcomes in Bihar, it is not tough to understand that underneath this political slugfest lies a turf war, of Yadavs and 'forward' castes (mainly Rajputs here). Yadavs and Rajputs comprise 50 per cent of the constituency population here. Rajputs are one of the victims of Lalu's politics in its heyday.

    During his 'jungle raj' years, Lalu Yadav gave the slogan ‘Bhura Baal Saaf Karo’ — 'Bhu' is an acronym for Bhumihars while 'Ra' is an acronym for Rajput.

    “Saran’s Rajputs will die but won’t vote for Lalu Yadav or any member of his family, not even the party,” said Raghvir Singh in Maker village.

    Remembering those days, Harsh Dev, a man in his 50s recounts how travelling was akin to risking one’s life. Pointing towards lush green trees standing on both sides of the road, he says that thugs and criminals kept hiding behind or above those trees to attack passersby.

    They were so gruesome in their ways that if one would just handle their stuff in fear, it would be assumed that he/she had more and their clothes would be torn apart. Though he did not say that, it is easy to conclude that rapes and murders were seen as just another event in those days.

    Today, Marhaura has relatively clean roads, 18-20 hours of electricity, and safety to venture anywhere at any time. Add to that shopping malls, pucca houses and stable water connections.

    However, locals believe this is only a fraction of what could have been.

    Marhaura used to be the industrial hub of Saran in its glory days. Way back in 1904 itself, a chocolate factory was established here. Multinational brand Morton used to prepare their chocolates here. Morton had established a mini town-like ecosystem for itself.

    Destroyed gate of Morton factory
    Destroyed gate of Morton factory

    Inside a huge campus, it had built a factory, storage space, office complex for workers and homes for its employees.

    Everything is in ruins now. The office space is now a mini storage space for Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), whereas other storage spaces and homes have now been converted into malls and complexes.

    Within metres away from the Morton factory ruins lie the remnants of another glory of Marhaura — the first sugar mill of Bihar.

    Its sugar was known for delicate and clean finishing. If an old employee is to be believed then 900 villages spread over 100 km of radius in all directions used to supply sugarcane to this mill.

    The mill’s crushing capacity was more than 9,000 quintals per day at the time of its closure. For context, the Saraswati sugar mill of Yamunanagar, India’s largest sugar factory in 2003,  had a crushing capacity of 12,000 quintals per day (in 2003).

    Both the Morton factory and sugar mill paved the way for setting up a distillery and later Saran engineering works. All four of these in one way or another provided feeder services to each other.

    People from nearby Hajipur, Patna and Muzaffarpur used to come here for jobs. Rough estimates suggest that all four establishments combined provided jobs to 80 per cent of Saran’s population.

    Destroyed machinery of mill
    Destroyed machinery of mill

    In the late 90s, all shut down one by one. The reasons ranged from managerial failure to the 'jungle raj' phenomenon.

    The criminal elements which were being sheltered by the administration started to harass officials for their ‘cuts.’ Not obliging would result in danger to the lives of the officers and their families (Remember Sinha Sahab’s murder in Gangs of Wasseypur movie?).

    Then there was a huge risk to workers’ safety as dangerous routes were not far away from these buildings. Shankar Kumar Rai, a former employee said that the companies tried to run them on loss for years, but ultimately had to cave in to the market’s standards of profit and loss.

    Owners went away without clearing any dues of workers. “I was supposed to retire in 2022. From the time the mill closed till my retirement, my dues are Rs 36 lakhs. If and when it is reestablished I will demand it. There are many like me,” said Rai.

    But Shankar’s hope seems to be standing on thin ground. Firstly, even if the mill is opened, procuring sugarcane is going to be a headache. Most of the sugarcane fields in 900 villages are now populated. Secondly, most of the places earlier occupied by these factories have been taken up by shops and other establishments. These could be reasons why neither industries nor representatives seem keen on touching on the issue.

    Other problems in the constituency also feature in political discourses. Curiously, one of the problems is formalisation of jobs after the building of infrastructure. In the historic Chirand village, people are furious with the administration.

    Most of the villagers here used to carry people or smuggle sand — with hands, boats, four wheelers like trucks and tractors. People of this village had even bought tractors and trucks to increase their business. Those who could not do these jobs found work on the river bank nearby.

    Sand is lying there untouched
    Sand is lying there untouched

    The construction of the Arrah-Chhapra bridge or Veer Kunwar Singh Setu left most of them with negligible scope for employment.

    The need for ferrying almost disappeared. Now dozens of boats remained parked on the bank of the river with no takers.

    Parked boats
    Parked boats

    The shutdown (almost) of sand smuggling turned out to be a blow for most of these people.

    On the other hand, there are people who wanted to work but claim they were thwarted by the police.

    According to Patali Paswan the Police seized his truck due to overcapacity. A few other charges were added and he had to pay Rs 5 lakhs for his own truck. It was the last of his savings.

    Ready for sell
    Ready for sell

    “We are dying of hunger. Earlier we used to earn Rs 800 - Rs 1000 per day. Now even Rs 100 is tough. Only 5kg rice is what we survive on,” says Paswan.

    To make matters worse, a road project in his village could never see the light of the day. The narrow strip (supposed to be the road) has dirty water flowing over it. People have to cross dirty strips to take water from the handpump and carry it to their own homes. Nitish Kumar’s Nal Jal Yojana is a failure here.

    People had once gheraoed Rajiv Pratap Rudy’s convoy for this road, only to be slapped with cases. However, they do not hold grudges against him, believing it to be a hit job by someone close to him. “When he (Rudy) got to know, he told police to not take strict action against us,” explains Paswan.

    The drain which was supposed to be a road
    The drain which was supposed to be a road

    “We can’t get our children married. When they hear that we have big houses in our village, they come here. As soon as they see that instead of the road, we have a drain, they go back,” said a woman elaborating on her ordeal.

    Obviously no one would want their kids to marry here
    Obviously no one would want their kids to marry here

    Nearly 15 kilometres away from Chirand, lies Mithepur village in Garkha assembly segment. The women of this village are related to their counterparts in Chirand.

    Their men live outside, and their kids either study or are doing jobs outside the state. They use sickles and scabbards to clear off extra grass or forest cover for the meagre sum of Rs 100 - Rs 200.

    “What should I do now? My man lives outside. He sends money once every three months. I have to do something to get this going,” said Bindu Devi.

    They do get some relief from various agents like Jeevika Didi and others appointed by the government. But in most cases, they do not want to avail loans for starting any business. “Who will buy my product? You see people here do not have money to eat, how can you expect anyone to start a business here? Everything is for Babus,” said Rukmina Devi.

    Women getting their documentation done
    Women getting their documentation done

    When enquired further, Swarajya found that their trust in the system was shaken by the Sahara scam. Some had deposited their sum for children’s education while others had done it for marriage. All in vain. “When we went to the agent, he said that the owner (Subrata Roy) himself died. How would he give your money,” said Savita Devi. Savita Devi lost Rs 85,000 saved for her daughter’s marriage.

    Disheartened, a lot of them did not even apply for Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, confusing it to be just another scam. Most of them still live in a corner of the village, where road coverage is less.

    The houses in background
    The houses in background

    These women refuse to talk about political affiliations in their groups. While showing Swarajya the dilapidated state of the road, women said that they would vote for lotus (BJP’s symbol). 

    The rationale is simple, “I would vote for someone who gives me food on my plate. Yes, the road is bad but if the lantern (RJD’s symbol) comes, the light will also disappear along with food on my plate. I still remember the 90s,” said Nain Dulari Devi.

    Road to her house
    Road to her house

    She and her community members are ignoring the appeal given by Mukesh Sahani, who claims to be the leader of the Mallah community and is siding with RJD in this election.

    When asked why she did not confess it in a group, Nain Dulari Devi said that most of the women were Ahirs (Yadavs). “We do not speak in front of them,” added Devi.

    In the Amnour assembly constituency, where Rudy’s residence is situated, roads are on par with global standards.

    As our GPS signalled we had arrived at Amnour, a medicine shop was buzzing with loud discussions by nearly a dozen people. Turned out they were BJP workers. Believing it to be a discussion of relevance to the 2024 general elections, we participated, only to find that they were discussing seat arrangements for 2025 assembly elections.

    Such is the level of surety in the Amnour constituency. A few kilometres from his residence, one of the persons named Vakil Sahu recalls Rudy’s first election campaign for a member of the legislative assembly (MLA). “He is so down to earth. In those days he used to roam around with bicycle in the constituency. Even when he became a member of Parliament (MP), Rudy Ji did not build wealth for himself.” said Sahu.

    When asked whether Lalu Prasad Yadav or Rudy did more for Saran, an old man in his 80s responds that Lalu only gave Rail Wheel Plant, the rest all have been done by Rudy.

    However, this perception is not uniform all across Saran. People often complain that Rudy is not visible and lives in a league of his own. In other words, people want him to be present at every other function and help people whenever needed.

    Mantosh, one of the people handling campaign says that it is tough to be available 24x7 for a person with a massive workload. “However, he has helped everyone who asked for help. It is just that Rudy Ji does not believe in advertising his good deeds, that is why this perception,” added Mantosh.

    On the developmental front, Rudy is seen associated with the building of roads and bridges.

    His challenger is Rohini Acharya, one of Lalu Yadav’s daughters.

    She came to the limelight after donating a kidney to her father and has been actively attacking the opposition on social media. The sentiment on the ground is that through Rohini, it is Lalu who is contesting and Rohini will fly back to Singapore after elections.

    “Despite that, if Lalu had fielded his sons or wife or even daughter-in-law, they would have won. Rohini is from Singapore. She will go back even if she wins,” said Janardhan Mishr in Maker village.

    Rohini’s appeal is mainly centered around her sacrifice for father and being daughter of Lalu Yadav. She has also tried to bank on Rudy’s perceived absence among the general public. Yet, ultimately it has boiled down to the caste combination for the RJD.

    “Only M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) will vote for her. Even among them, educated Yadavs and Muslim women will vote for Modi,” said Ram Parvesh Rai of Gauri Tola.

    On his part, Rudy’s campaign has also faced some challenges from people. However, the fear of 'jungle raj' is still fresh in Saran's mind. Tej Pratap Yadav pushing party workers on stage has reinvigorated the memory.

    A group of disenchanted people told us that they did not like Rudy. “They are saying it today. On 20 May (election day), all differences will be set aside and they will vote in favour of Rudy. What is the option?“ said a person standing near them.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked or looked down. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999/-. Click here for more details.

    Abhishek is Staff Writer at Swarajya.

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