India: Meeting the Mukhia

Jason Motlagh, for the Pulitzer Center

Flood victims I spoke with in some of the outerlying hamlets in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district kept complaining about the thieving "mukhias," elected local big men responsible for doling out government aid. Given their reputation I thought it might be hard to pin one down for an interview, until he found me.

My awkward walk across a bamboo bridge linking a marooned hamlet to one of the state's main roads was interrupted by Nabin Kamar, who more or less demanded that I come back to his side for a cup of hot chai. He held court under an awning that overlooked a string of lower-caste laborers bearing 50 kg sacks of grain. Gold jewelry dripped from his neck and fingers, and he had a dagger for a left pinky nail.

Before I could take a sip, Kamar launched into a rant against UNICEF and NGOs in general. He jabbed his finger at me for not consulting him with my relief plans. "Before you come here and do your work, you must first talk with us," he said. "Works here should be done in the proper channels and known by the public." His speech grew louder, lapsing back and forth between Hindi and English as a crowd gathered around. "What are the agendas here…?"

This went on for a couple of minutes. I finally interrupted him, explaining that I was a foreign journalist with no NGO affiliations. My concern was simply to find out why many people claimed they were not getting their full due from the state, placing some of the blame on men like him?

At this, Kamar shifted into a defensive gear.

In the Indian state's relief distribution system, once food aid stored at district-level depots is delivered to town centers, mukhias then allocate it to households. To cope with this year's monsoon floods, the Bihar government promised 100 kg of wheat grain to every affected family in the state. But, he claimed, the state only purchases the grain and does not cover all the transportation costs, meaning mukhias had to make up the difference. In return, they take a portion to recoup their loss. This is why maybe only 70 kg are distributed in the end, or so he said. (I was later informed by the state relief commissioner that every leg of transport is now covered by the government, though he said some mukhias still try and "double-up.")

In his view, the fact that he was an elected official meant there was no way he could possibly deceive his people. I wasn't convinced.

By the end of our sit-down he concluded that NGOs "do God's works," and assured me that he had "nothing but love for them, and anyone who helps the poor." He might have added: So long as their relief deliveries also pass through me so I can take my cut.

When I pulled out my camera, he muttered something to the small crowd in Hindi with the words "big American newspaper" and told everyone to straighten up, look serious. I snapped a picture of him and his "associates" before heading back across the bamboo bridge and on to the next village.

All things considered, it was the kind of overheated performance that betrayed some degree of moral insecurity. For what reasons, I could only presume.