Misery and the mobile phone go hand in hand in Bihar’s Kishanganj district — especially for the women. Almost 8,000 villagers under Kishanganj’s Sunderbari panchayat attended a meeting recently in Tupamari village, at which a “social consultative committee” was formed that would adjudicate matters of conduct in the area. This committee has ordered a complete ban and fine of Rs 10,000 on the use of mobile phones for unmarried women, restricted use and a two-thousand-rupee fine within the confines of the home for married women, and a ban on women bathing in the open. According to the head of the committee, Manwar Alam, mobile phones “hugely erode the moral fabric of the society” by promoting “pre-marital and extra-marital affairs and the breakdown of the institution of marriage”. He claims that six girls have eloped from the village in the last few months aided by the strategic use of their phones.
They seem to have good reasons to do so. The ministry of minority affairs has identified Kishanganj as one of the most backward districts of Bihar and at the bottom of 90 “minority concentration” districts. More than 90 per cent of the population live in villages and the literacy rate (especially of females) is lower than the state and national average; 93 per cent of the households live below poverty level, with a third of them heavily in debt. A 2008 survey found the district lagging woefully behind the national average in the percentage of female work participation and of fully vaccinated children, of households with pucca walls, safe drinking water, electricity, and in-house latrines. Only 0.4 per cent have access to tap water, and most people have to make do with tube-wells and hand-pumps, which brings to mind the ban on women bathing outdoors. Opportunities for self-employment in non-agricultural economic pursuits are limited, healthcare facilities scarce and sub-standard, and the district — sharing its borders with Nepal and Bangladesh — is shadowed by HIV/AIDS, aggravated by human trafficking and the migration of labourers. Hence, there is a direct and layered relationship between backwardness and the oppression of women, working through semi-formal systems of local self-government. So, the women of Kishanganj have a different story to tell about Bihar’s much-lauded transition into good governance.