Patna: “When we first went by flight to meet Sushma Swaraj, everyone told us that at the airport your blood pressure will be checked. I was so worried that I ate chhena (sweets) at Danapur before reaching the airport to keep my blood pressure in order,” says Pancham Devi of the Nari Gunjan Sargam Band.
The 10-member all-women band from Dhibra village in Danapur sub-division of Patna had shot to fame in the year 2018 when the 10 Mahadalit women had given a performance on the famous show Kaun Banega Crorepati hosted by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bacchan.
The lives of these 10 women, who have fought against the stereotype of the society and made a name for themselves by proving that they too can be in a profession dominated by men, were touching new heights and sailing smoothly until they were hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly Bihar floods together.
The band members, who used to earn about Rs 1500 per performance, would manage to earn about Rs 35000-40000 per year from the band but now the income for all the members looks to have nosedived.
“Pet itna chaandal hai, ye koi maanega! (This stomach doesn’t understand, this needs food),” rues Pancham Devi.
Can’t repay farm loans
“Coronavirus wasn’t our only problem as we have a small farm but the lockdown coupled with floods did put us in a deeper financial stress,” says Dumni Devi. She had taken a loan of Rs 10,000 to cultivate one beegha of land but most of her hard work was first hit by the lockdown as she couldn’t finish the harvesting and then the floods washed off all her efforts and hopes.
“We had thought that we would pay the loan back with the money we would make from the harvest and the earnings from our band but all of a sudden both the things stopped,” Dumni Devi concludes.
Pancham Devi finds herself in a similar situation as her husband too is out of job and the family is also under the pressure of repaying the loan they had taken for sowing.
Members of Sargam Band in their village. Pic: Shailesh Shrivastava
“We had paid Rs 10,000 in advance for the land, now that money will not be returned whether we undertake the sowing or not. The floods have also destroyed our crop and both the harvesting seasons -- be it for paddy or gram -- are destroyed,” she adds.
Govt benefits didn’t reach us
Baijanti Devi has four children and they used to contribute to the family’s finances in a great capacity since the start of the band. However, the situation has suddenly changed after the pandemic.
“My husband is a daily wage labourer and has got no job right now. There is no income for the family and whenever some job comes, we buy ration and store it for the rainy day,” says Baijanti Devi.
She says that for the earlier two months, there was support from the government as free ration was distributed to needy families but now she has to buy the ration. Talking about the Bihar government’s scheme of direct money transfer during the Covid19 lockdown, she says, “We got no money in my account. I am the only account holder in my family and since my account is not a zero balance account [under Jan Dhan Yojna] I didn’t get the money. There are people in the village who got the money in their accounts but I didn’t get any. I asked the Sarpanch but he said only people with zero balance accounts got the money.”
Talking about the government’s support in terms of band and during the pandemic, Pancham Devi says, “There is no support from the government for us. If the government had supported us during the floods then also something would have happened for us, but we didn’t get anything. The government didn’t do anything for the band also, there was once a government programme for which we were invited and for that Nitish Kumar had given us a white saree as the uniform, that’s all we have received from the government so far.”
Place where the band members started practicing initially in Dhibra village of Bihar. Pic: Shailesh Shrivastava.
Education of children affected
“Our lives were getting better as we could afford sending our children to school and taking care of other needs of the family. But now all our savings have depleted and the bills like school fees remain pending,” says Pancham Devi.
Sona Devi, mother of four sons, was looking forward to her children getting a good education, but this year has derailed their learning as well.
“The education of my children had to be put on hold. My husband is a daily wage labourer and he has just started his work from yesterday. There was not much money left at home for survival and that had put us in deep trouble. We survived on whatever little savings we had but now that is also gone,” says Sona Devi.
“Our lives were getting better as we could afford sending our children to school and taking care of other needs of the family. But now all our savings have depleted and the bills like school fees remain pending,” she adds.
Sona Devi expects that once the Coronavirus pandemic is over, things might get better for her and her family. However, she doesn’t know for how long the pandemic will continue.
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