Bihar ranks first among the states in terms of rural housing shortage (42.10 lakhs), says census data. Back in 1947, Bihar was probably the first state in the country to enact a separate law, namely the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act, for providing security of tenure to landless rural households.
Since then the Bihar Government has also made provisions for regularisation of homestead of the landless on gairmazarua khas and gairmazarua aam lands.
Two years ago, the Revenue and land reforms department (Bihar government) had identified over 2.10 lakh homeless Mahadalit families for the allotment of homestead land. Each family was to be given 3 ‘dismil’ or 1305 square feet of homestead land under Mahadalit Vikas Yojana.
Consistent with this pattern, Nitish Kumar’s government quietly extended its vision, and asked, what about the acutely disadvantaged populations in Bihar’s cities?
The landless Dalits in urban Bihar faced acute problems because there was no policy to provide them with homestead lands or homes. (Homestead Land is land that people live on (including their house, livestock quarters and kitchen gardens).
The Bihar government has quietly worked behind the scenes to address social and gender disparities in the state. Almost a year ago, on December 31, the Bihar State Urban Areas Homestead Land Policy (For Homesteadless Families Of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/) 2014 came into being.
A survey conducted under the supervision of the district Magistrate, will identify eligible families. These are: SC/ST families residing in the city for at least 10 years; no member should possess house or homestead land anywhere inside or outside the state; they should be on the BPL list. The concerned families would have to provide an affidavit stating that they do not have any house or homestead land, and if this affidavit is found to be false in any case, such a family would face criminal charges and seizure of the land or home given to them.
What’s unique about the policy is that the term ‘family’ has gone beyond ‘Husband-wife, minor children and old-aged parents’ to also include ‘destitute widow’, ‘grass widow’ (this is the term for a woman deserted by her husband), and ‘unmarried single woman’ in the definition of ‘family’.
“Bihar is probably the first state in the country to recognize the status of single working women in a state policy. And to provide protection and a home to such poor single women, struggling in the city. We know these women. They are working as domestic help, as hawkers and street vendors, as low-paid workers in the small scale and unorganized sectors. Many of these single women have to cope with looking after their kids as well. The most progressive part of this policy is that it recognizes the housing rights of single, unmarried women. This is a break from the traditional patriarchal attitude that it is ‘immoral’ for single women to live on their own,” said Keerti, state director of Bihar Mahila Samakhya Society.
Keerti, echoing the views of several other organizations working on women and land rights, hopes that the policy will be implemented in letter and spirit when Bihar gets a new state government next month.
“Nitish Kumar gave women reservation in Panchayats, he encouraged women farmers, and now he’s also recognized the status of single working women. He’s progressive, no doubt. But it’s a tough call to distribute urban land to the homeless, because in the city, land is very costly. These fellows may just sell their land to a developer! Maybe the government should start building ‘ city projects’ like housing apartment blocks with the basic amenities such as water and sanitation, and then set up rules for their self-administration and cleanliness. Just giving homeless people land would never do,” says Surojit Das, a young entrepreneur who dropped in while I was writing on this topic.
Makes sense. Rights and privileges come with responsibilities. The real issue is how to provide viable homes to the homeless and stick to the urban development plan at the same time!