MUZAFFARPUR/PATNA/NEW DELHI: Although tucked away into a corner of a lane, it’s not difficult to locate the den of vice and atrocities against girls. “The shelter home, it’s that way,” said a bystander, pointing to a white-coloured, two-storey building whose upper floors have been visibly demolished.
The locked building once served as a shelter home for girls, housing 42 of them aged between 7 and 17. In May 2018, an audit report revealed sexual abuse of the girls. Investigations brought out more skeletons, pointing out that at least 34 of the 42 had been raped for months, serving clients who came at night in “lal batti waali gaadi (car with red beacon lights).” Such were the horror stories that the Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance, a state minister resigned in disgrace and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s woman-friendly image took a beating.
But two years down the line, the Muzaffarpur shelter home case, as it came to be dubbed, is an issue of the distant past, a matter not even worth a debate among women of the town. “It’s been more than two years now so how does is it matter? It’s foolish to talk about it,” said Sajda Khatoon, 52, who lives two houses away from the horror home.
Khatoon also dismissed insinuations behind Nitish nominating Manju Verma, the minister who quit in the wake of the scandal, as the party’s candidate. “This is politics, what is wrong in it,” she asked.Khatoon’s sentiments are shared by other women in Muzaffarpur and beyond. Vegetable vendor Sumati Devi said the guilty were behind bars “so for me the matter is closed.” It is not just the shelter home case that is a non-issue for women in Bihar. Many of them admitted that the pace of development had slowed in the past two-three years but felt that there was no need to look beyond Nitish.
Shanti Devi of Jarang Baluaha village said there was some dissatisfaction among the women over some small issues but felt that they would not shift their loyalties from Nitish. “In politics, you cannot keep everyone satisfied. People will vote for a person who has done something good for the masses and this is the reason why women will vote for Nitish Kumar once again.” Meena Devi of Kamtaul village complained of lack of help during the Covid-induced lockdown but said the women in the state were happy and prosperous. “The interest amount on loans taken by self-help groups should have been waived for the lockdown period but that was not done,” she rued.
“But still they (women) will vote for Nitish Kumar as they want him to come to power again.” The Bihar CM’s track record on women is mixed. While he has done well on jobs and the economic front, on crime and social empowerment the statistics are negative. According to the Bihar Economic Survey 2018-19, the share of women labourers under the Mahatma Gandhi National. Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has increased from 35% in 2013-14 to 46.6% in 2017-18.
The number of women owners of PDS outlets has gone up from 3,361 in 2015 to 3,640 in 2018. So is the percentage share of women in total employment, it has risen from 40.8% in 2015-16 to 46.6% in 2017-18. But these numbers are in sharp contrast to the figures on abuse of women. Domestic violence for instance, the percentage of cases disposed was 82.3% in 2016-17, this fell to 19.9% in 2018-19.
The percentage of dowry abuse cases being disposed went down sharply from 74.6% to 15.3% in the corresponding years. The same was with sexual abuse in offices: it was 73.5% in 2016-17 and this fell to 55.9% in 2018-19. Yet, for Rani Devi, a utensils shop owner, Nitish has performed well, especially in checking the coronavirus. “It is only his government that has succeeded in defeating the coronavirus without much loss of life,” she said.
It is no wonder that Nitish has gambled on more women candidates this time. Of the 115 Janata Dal (United) candidates, 22 are women, up from 10 in the 2015 assembly elections. Out of the 7.2 crore voters in Bihar, around 3.4 crore are women. Their turnout has always been higher than men. In the 2010 assembly elections, 59.1% women cast their votes. This went up marginally, to 60.1%, in 2015.