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Socio-Economic Context of Mahila Jagriti Kendra - Gomia (Bihar)
Prepared by Renuka Ramanujam
Edited by Janet Chawla
15 June 2000
Edited by Sujata Madhok, July 15, 2000


Gomia is a small industrial town located in South Bihar. This part of Bihar is rich in mineral resources like coal, iron ore and mica therefore it is also one of the most industrialized regions of the country. In spite of industrialization and rich resources it is still considered one of the most backward regions of the country. Ranchi and Dhanbad are adjacent towns of Gomia, the nearest railway station being Gomo. Coma station is mainly for goods trains, carrying coal and iron from Bihar to other areas. Dhanbad is a big station and is well connected to Delhi. The Matrika team visited Gomia via Dhanbad. From Dhanbad station we took a taxi till Gomia. This journey by road was tiring as the roads were kacha - with potholes and ditches. It takes around an hour and a half to reach Gomia, which is barely 50 kilometers away.

An important landmark in Gomia town is the IEL (Indian Explosives Limited) gate. This is the entrance to the explosives factory. One can see many workers going in and out of this gate on their bicycles. Outside the gate there are a few dhabas that serve tea, snacks and meals. From here, Mahila Jagriti Center, the base of the NGO with whom we worked, is 5 kilometers away. In the region around Gomia one can feel the air pollution from industries and power generating stations.

Industrial Employees

Gomia is located in the coal mine belt and houses the Indian Explosives Limited (IEL) and the Central Coal India Limited (CCL). Most of the workers employed by these companies are migrants from North Bihar. The workers get several facilities – company quarters with water and electricity, medical facilities such as hospitals, doctors and medicines and a regular salary. Employees have financial security. Gomia town is a typical industrial town - the basic modern amenities for workers’ well being are available. Besides a regular salary, there are pension and retirement schemes, loan and education facilities, which are provided by the companies. A reflection of this monetarised lifestyle can be seen in the towns markets. There are huge automobile shops and shops selling confectionery, Coke and Pepsi, electronics and cosmetics.

Basti living conditions

In the midst of the township are the bastis of the traditional inhabitants of this region – Chamars (Harijans) and Dushads (Ravidas). The dais are either Ravidas or from Harijan castes. These caste groups are poor, live in mud houses with brick tiles (khapra) and own no land. Many of them survive by serving other higher caste groups as landless laborers. Women serve as dais for their respective landlord families. Both men and women work on their landlord’s fields and have a patron client bond called the jajmani system.

Caste boundaries are very strong. A relationship of separation and distance on the basis of clean and unclean caste and occupation exists. For instance, lower castes are considered to be permanently unclean and are therefore assigned low and dirty jobs. dais are not allowed to enter their landlords’ kitchens. The lower groups live in separate localities away from the upper castes -- physical distance is always maintained.

Some men earn an income by selling coal to petty contractors. They pick up coal from the mines, an illegal occupation as the mines are government property, burn coal, make it pukka (stronger) and then sell it to town dwellers or to contractors. Every day they pick up 10-15 kilos of raw coal from the mines. There is a clandestine understanding between the mine security personnel, the picker and the contractor. This illegal occupation is an accepted mode of earning a living. There is nothing hidden about it.


Only one fourth of total land is cultivable. The land is arid and barren. There is an acute shortage of water. River water is the only source of water and is used for all purposes - drinking, washing and bathing (well/water pumps dry up because of low-water levels). The town folk do not face any water shortage. It is only the poor basti people who have no water.

A large portion of cultivable land is owned by powerful middle caste groups, referred as Other Backward Classes -- powerful as they own land – Yadavs, Telis and Kumhars. These caste groups live in separate localities. They have pukka, brick houses and keep livestock - cows and buffaloes - at home. Many also manage to acquire work in the factory.

Tribal Inhabitants

There are also tribal people living in this area. The Santhalis , the largest tribal group were the original inhabitants. Amongst them there was no concept of individual ownership. The community owned Land, water, forest. Any hierarchy was based on age and sex. They had a strong “We” feeling. These tribals got displaced when factories were built, forests were destroyed and land was taken over. He factories attracted many outsiders—referred to as dikus, a tribal derogatory term for intruders. The tribals were displaced by the Government in the name of development of ‘backward’ regions. Migrant caste groups called them ‘junglee’. The tribal people lost their land, forest, water and their culture. They could not fit into the new industrialized economy and the modern way of living and became alienated. The development of the area did not benefit these original inhabitants. In fact, they are left with no land or work and are lost.

Some tribal people have started working as agricultural laborers or as beldars (construction workers). In the local language this is referred to as hajri. But employment is not available all the time. Some earn a living by petty coal business. The Santhalis always kept livestock and now too they keep a few goats, hens and pigs. They also brew rice beer. Traditionally it was brewed for personal consumption but now they also sell it.

The Santhalis are a closed group, the modern interventions and exploitation by outsiders has made them suspicious. They are skeptical about any change. Mahila Jagriti health workers faced many problems interacting with Santhali women. Their men-folk were afraid that they would be converted into Christianity and modernized. They had already lost their own religion (worship of Singh Bonga – a special stone, a form of nature worship) and were now incorporated at the lowest rung of caste system. They have more faith in their traditional Ojhas, Gunis (Shamans, healers who use jari-booti) and can relate to them and not to the modern capsules of iron and injections. However there are no dais amongst them. They call dais from outside. dai work is considered low and dirty. This attitude was probably adopted as a result of the outsider caste influence.


Eating habits have changed, according to the dais. They say that the younger generation prefers to eat peas, chholey and besan ka sabji. Whereas the older generation laid more emphasis on green leafy vegetables like drumstick and mahua leaves which were easily available. The present generation prefers potatoes, lady’s finger, brinjal and tomatoes. All these vegetables are bought from the weekly market. The Matrika team visited the weekly haat or bazaar, spread over a huge field. There were petty banias selling huge heaps of potatoes and onions. This seemed to be the staple vegetable diet. The local people from the surrounding villages had small heaps of green vegetables like spinach, cabbage and bitter gourd, which were from their own fields. The other shops were selling rice and lentils, earthen pots and aluminum utensils, bamboo baskets as well as cosmetics. Both the basti people and the factory workers came to these weekly haats.

However, when we interacted with the dais, and discussed the common diets of poor pregnant women, the extent of shortage of food, hunger and malnutrition became apparent. The sister-in-law of one of the Mahila Jagriti Kendra workers had died shortly after childbirth and we learned that her diet during pregnancy consisted mainly of rice and salt. Older dais reported that they and their families used to rely on drumsticks growing either wild or in their compound and gather greens from common areas to supplement their diets. But with the increased development of the area this resource was no longer available to them.

Medical Shops

Many medical shops have sprung up and Rural Medical Practitioners and Compounders (all men) have become important players in health delivery systems. Use of sui-goli medicine has flourished. Even traditionally trained dais are being forced to use syntocin injections as families demand quick delivery. Family members, the dais say, are not prepared to wait. For giving injections the local R.M.P is called and is given 100 rupees or more. The dai who does everything is rarely paid more than 50 rupees.

dais said that in difficult cases women are mostly taken to Hazaribagh Mission Hospital which is 50-60 kilometers from Gomia. Families trust the treatment given at the Mission hospital rather than the hospital at Gomia town. Affordability and access/money for transport make this an option of last resort.


Modernization has led to many problems. The worst affected are the women from lower castes. Women walk long distances of 8 to10 km to find work as the town has spread. Buses are expensive, they charge 3-4 rupees and this they cannot afford. They do all the household chores besides working as agricultural laborers. There is no space/forest left even for defecation. The influence of modernization can be seen in the dress style. The dais wear synthetic saris as they are easier to wash and require no ironing. They are also cheap and durable. No one wears cotton saris anymore. They say, “We cannot afford it. Our mothers and grandmothers used to wear only cotton dhotis.”

dais are slowly losing their hold on traditional birth practices as the biomedical system is in vogue, although it is expensive. In this situation, dais are trying to save their work by accepting the demands of the new systems. Modernization has also given rise to a desire for education in the hope that it will give them employment. However, there are no government schools functioning. Children drop out of school after a few years. Boys who have acquired a little education are not prepared to take up labor work like selling coal or working at construction sites and there are no jobs in the factory. Many youths just sit idle and roam about. Some have become alcoholic. Families are facing problems with their unemployed youths.

jajmani System -Traditional Feudal System

Serving castes occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy. These are the Chamar, Dushad (both untouchables) Kumhar, Lohar etc. (backward castes). The patron-client relationship with upper caste neighbors to whom they provide their services is called jajmani system. It is a traditional division of labor based on caste hierarchies. The patron-client relationship is passed on from generation to generation. Neither can change allegiance. The lower castes have fixed clients (kisans). (The jajman is referred as kisan in the local language.) There is no free market. The lower castes work on their clients’ fields and also do some household work (not cooking or cleaning utensils because they belong to unclean castes). The dai fits into the jajmani contract and has fixed kisans (jajman). This relationship is obligatory and not based on her proficiency.

Within thejajmani System, there is security of work and a distribution of labour. There is no conflict or competition in the market. For instance, if Saubatia (name of a dai) is ill and cannot attend on her jajman, she can send Bhagwania (another dai) for her kisan’s delivery because she is of the same family. A jajman cannot call anyone else on his own. Payment is in cash or kind.

The dais get money from their jajman during festivals or on special occasions. In fact whenever they visit the jajman’s house they get something -- food or grains or gifts. For example Bhagwania went to Khamra Basti to meet her jajman and she was given corn which the jajmans had got from their farm.

Today men are breaking away from jajmani bonds. But women are still working for jajmans, in fact they have also taken over some of the men’s work. Income from jajmani is not sufficient and families have to look for additional work in the open market. Farm work is available only for two months in a year. For each day they get 6 paila of paddy, equivalent to one and a half kilos of rice which amounts to 15-16 rupees. For construction work they get Rs.25 -30 per day and by selling coal they earn Rs.50 -100 per day.


Festivals give some respite to women from their drudgery. Karma is a major festival for celebrating the brother-sister bond. A karam tree is worshipped. Women sing and dance. Both tribals and lower caste groups celebrate Karma. Jitya is observed for the well being of sons and Teej for the husband. Women fast on these days. All caste groups celebrate these.


Mahila Jagriti Kendra has worked with women for eight years and is affiliated with the Bihar Mahila Samakhya program (state-funded) for women’s education and empowerment. MJK have decided to extend the scope of their activities to include women’s health. Their initiatives include training in herbal medicine for their workers, reproductive health workshops and our Matrika workshops. The organizers have relied on our workshops to reach out to the local dais and are planning to open small health facilities in remote areas. Our interactions with their grassroots workers have oriented them on pregnancy and birth and enabled them to establish working relationships with the dais.

The health workers got inputs from Shodhini on the usage of herbs, like treating white discharge by using garlic or neem leaf. They make tonics out of amla, hibiscus flowers, mahua and drumstick leaves. They also go for special training to learn to recognize some herbs that are found in forests.

Mahila Jagriti originally organized on the issue of violence against women. This violence is very high and is often related to demands for dowry or second marriages for dowry. MJK workers visit the women’s families and the panchayat and try to sort out the situations in which women are experiencing violence. In serious cases they even go to the police station and the courts. In many cases they have managed to get compensation for the aggrieved woman. They also participate in dharnas or procession on social issues. We heard of an instance when the colliery hospital at Gomia sent a woman to Bokaro Steel City hospital. The woman died there and the Bokaro hospital said that the drip being used in Gomia was just plain water. A huge dharna was organized against the colliery hospital authorities. Mahila Jagriti women participated in it. They are daring and forthright and are often leaders of the community struggles for justice for women.

Framework of the NGO

There is no clear division of function between Mahila Jagriti and Mahila Samakhya. Both groups are involved in each other’s work. Each division is funded by separate sources.
Health workers (Sahayoginis) work very hard and walk to their area which is very far and takes minimum one hour. They visit their areas five days a week and once a week they have a joint meeting. They work diligently under difficult circumstances. Each worker has a lot of responsibility. However, the health workers do not seem to express personal opinions on the running of the organization, for instance, on the method/system of working and the positive/ negative points of the organization. It seems that the organization has not developed this kind of participatory decision making work ethic. The work probably is dictated or directed from above.

The Sahayoginis share a cordial working relationship with their colleagues. They never criticize their co-workers’ performance or pass negative comments. They respect Pilar for her work and therefore never question her decisions.

The Sahayoginis however do voice the opinion that their salaries should be hiked because of increasing price rises. However they have no option but to carry on as there are no other jobs available and for many this is the only source of income. They had problems with Pilar being strict regarding extra expenses on food or lodging. But their opinion changed after reviewing the books along with the auditor. He praised the NGO for running such an extensive project on such a low budget. They realized that money was being spent wisely and economically.

The overwhelming problem of running an NGO in such an impoverished area, where legal livelihood sources are virtually non-existent, is that money and other resources are always issues of contention and possible divisiveness. Matrika wanted to recompense the dais for transport to our workshops but Pilar resisted this as the last time she had tried it women fought with each other for weeks over who came from how far and how much they got for it. Matrika had to respect the NGO decision on this matter because solidarity for the NGO is an important consideration—and this means avoiding potential conflict situations.

Samooh Meetings

The Sahayoginis conduct samooh meetings every week in their specified villages. Women are somehow reluctant to talk about birth practices and are interested only in family planning. Elderly women say that, “We cannot talk about it in front of our bahus.” People call the Sahayoginis randis (prostitutes) as they discuss their bodies and the birth process in public. It is a major challenge for the Sahayoginis.

Besides women, men folk are a major obstacle. Women always say that if men hear that we talk of birth they would not allow us to attend these meetings. Some educated men of the bastis questioned the Sahayoginis, and asked for their identity cards and their organization’s cards. These men do petty politics in the bastis. Basti men listen to these small time politicians and stop their women from attending meetings.



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