The Bihar experience

New grammar of governance

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Schoolgirls in Patna. There has been remarkable growth in female literacy in Bihar in the past decade. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar releasing the government's performance report on completion of the eighth consecutive year of his governance, in Patna on November 25, 2013. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

During Nitish Kumar’s tenure, Bihar has recorded substantial gains in education, health and other social indicators. Now that his “coalition of extremes” has collapsed, it is to be seen whether his “counter-coalition” of non-powerful social categories will work.

ANY development path which can be referred to as exemplary or has the element of replicability in other parts of the country or the world takes years to be christened a “model”. Against this backdrop, whether the pattern of governance that has unfolded in the last eight years in Bihar can be referred to as a stand-alone “model” is a matter of conjecture and brainstorming. However, there is no doubt that in the post-Independence period, Bihar is possibly the first State in the Hindi heartland to create its own benchmark in the realm of governance. The southern, western and northern Indian States may have a better track record of governance, but they were front-ranking States in terms of economy.

The pattern of industrialisation followed a nearly identical path for most of the coastal States, all of which had a heritage characterised by the less iniquitous ryotwari land tenurial system, the absence of intermediaries who siphoned off agricultural resources, and industries and trade that produced a staggering surplus to keep the growth momentum unabated. This growth momentum got a further fillip, first, from the carefully crafted “import substitution” strategy of the then national government and, secondly, from the “freight equalisation” policy in coal, iron ore and cement, to the detriment of eastern India. Punjab was possibly the only State that was outside the coastal trajectory; massive public investment, huge agricultural surplus and substantial income from the Army contributed to its massive growth.

After liberalisation and the opening up of the protected market, the national growth rate leapfrogged almost to double digits, making India a “poster country” for development. But one of the tragic consequences of this growth was the increasing duality of the economy. Before the 1990s, the duality between rural and urban areas was certainly there, but in the wake of liberalisation, that duality got widened to an alarming level. In the process, at one end, poverty and underdevelopment abounded in some States; at the other end, some States recorded massive development. Even then, none of these States which benefited from this duality bragged about its distinctive “model” of development because that development was critically dependent on the national strategy apart from the historical advantage the State enjoyed.

The first distinctive “model” in the provincial context, away from the economic benchmark, was probably that of Kerala, which displayed high social sector achievements in literacy, health, decentralisation, and so on. Later, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra also innovated some social agendas, which were replicated at the national level. Even though Gujarat was one of the front-ranking States in terms of industrialisation even before Independence, it was never known for social sector innovation. Gujarat did create a benchmark in the realm of equity and equity culture by popularising capitalism to the extent of taking it to the level of folklore, but that was far from social development. Thus, Gujarat’s path of development could never be christened a “model”, as is bandied about now.

Massive turnaround

The pattern of governance in Bihar in the last eight years, on the other hand, has been catapulted unintendedly as a “model” because of a massive turnaround in the “techno-managerial” component of governance. In the absence of an institutional memory of governance and because of the State’s position on the last pedestal of all economic indicators, even a modest turnaround in Bihar has a seductive appeal. The institution of “state” had the weakest authority in Bihar among the Hindi heartland States. Most other States of the Hindi heartland, such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, did have some semblance of governance because the elected ruling elite in these States in the post-Independence period had to compete with the institutional memory of some of the erstwhile princely states there. The record of governance of many princely states in the Hindi heartland was better than that of British India. Indeed, the hegemony and aura of the ruling families continued long after Independence, as is evident in their considerable electoral successes.

The Permanent Settlement, introduced by Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1793, in Bengal Presidency (which included Bihar) not only resulted in “limited governance” but also practically aborted any incentive structure for production and productivity in the region. The “tax farmers”, euphemistically called “zamindars”, appointed by the East India Company, created annals of loot, brigandage and mayhem. Unlike the princely states, the “zamindars” did not have a sense of ownership of their estates. It is a part of our enduring memory that some of the princes in the Hindi heartland had fought with the peasants against the moneylenders.

Even when the Permanent Settlement was unsettled in Bihar after 1947, land records in the possession of the intermediaries were not confiscated by the State government. In the absence of proper land records, most of the “civil” strife got converted into diabolic criminal conflagrations and massacres. In the absence of the state’s capacity to mediate those conflicts, several criminals/criminal gangs and radical organisations emerged and filled the space of governance. Over and above this, during the one-and-a-half-decade tenure of Lalu Prasad/ Rabri Devi, while the “social justice” movement reached a decisive stage, the State’s governance structure practically collapsed.

When Nitish Kumar assumed office in 2005 as the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the State, he had not just won the electoral mandate, but had woven a “coalition of extremes” on the social front to ensure a multi-caste/class social support to his governance. Even though he could not introduce institutional reforms in the absence of a radical mandate, he at least changed the basic complexion of governance by establishing the authority of the state, which was almost non-existent earlier. The challenge before him was to convert the “pulp” state into a “functioning” one. A well-oiled state structure was needed to enforce the “rule of the law”, without which neither social justice nor economic development was possible. Nitish Kumar accomplished this important task in the last eight years by providing a new grammar of governance in Bihar. For example, the rate of convictions has been very high in Bihar in recent years thanks to speedy trials in courts. It is reported that between January 2006 and June 2013, no less than 83,000 criminals were convicted. In the last eight years, the State has recorded the largest number of convictions in the country.

The relative social tranquillity has led to huge public investment, resulting in a medium-term growth of 12 per cent in gross State domestic product (GSDP) between 2008-09 and 2012-13. Even though public investment was construction-centric, mainly in roads and bridges, the State appeared to be a happening State, as some private investment too followed public investment on expected lines. Secondly, the growth momentum was not limited to construction; many of the social sector departments were streamlined and their budget increased manifold to cause visible improvement in health and education.

Inclusive growth

Thus, Bihar’s growth is also demonstratively more inclusive, with the State recording substantial gains in education, health and other social indicators. Between 2001 and 2011, the literacy rate increased by 16.8 percentage points and female literacy by 20 percentage points. There has been a dramatic decline in the infant mortality rate, which now equals the national average. This can be explained by the fact that there was a dramatic decline in the poverty ratio by 21 percentage points between 2004-05 and 2011-12. This indeed makes Bihar’s strategy a new model of governance. This trajectory follows the future models of development, which will be essentially human development-centric, where growth and equity command equal attention.

In order to retain the “coalition of extremes”, Nitish Kumar all along avoided class issues, particularly the agenda of land reform. However, the assiduously built coalition was subjected to strain when, during the first term of Nitish Kumar, he introduced positive discrimination for lower backwards, Dalits and women in representation in panchayati raj institutions (PRI). With the “social justice” movement reaching a decisive stage in the previous regime itself, this new reservation could break the hegemony of the traditional elite in the lower centres of power.

The positive discrimination in PRI was the first substantive policy that altered the class-caste neutrality of the government of Nitish Kumar. But the spectre of “Lalu” muted the resentment in the first term. In the second term, the consequences of the positive discrimination were visible, and the traditional elite lording over rural power centres were really in retreat. Over and above these, the emergence of women’s constituency in the PRIs further encroached on the lower power centres. With the break-up of the NDA, the “coalition of extremes” completely collapsed in the second term: now the powerful upper social groups are ranged against the subaltern. Nitish Kumar has essentially worked out a “counter-coalition”, an agglomeration of non-powerful social categories. It is to be seen whether this “counter-coalition” will survive or capitulate before the powerful upper social groups’ backlash in the ensuing electoral battle and concomitant path of governance.

Shaibal Gupta is Member Secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna.

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