Waiting for deliverance

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

Biharis from across the world gather in Patna to discuss the State's plight, hoping for a Bihari renaissance.

V. SRIDHAR in Patna

MORE than 600 non-resident Biharis from over 60 countries, representing all walks of life, gathered in Patna on January 19-21 for the Global Meet for a Resurgent Bihar. The delegates - policymakers, industrialists, academics, representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development specialists and trade, industrial and agricultural policy specialists - discussed the plight of the State, one of the most backward in the Indian Union.

The Bihar government was highly visible at the meet. Either Chief Minister Nitish Kumar or Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Mody was always there, accompanied by a bevy of senior bureaucrats representing all departments of the government. Although Nitish Kumar took pains to say repeatedly that it was neither a government-sponsored meet nor a meeting of investors, it was obvious that the government was showcasing its agenda for development.

The Nitish Kumar government, just into its second year in office, enjoys a heart-warming level of goodwill. Expectations are high. In fact, Nitish Kumar told Frontline that he was wary of the "enormous burden" of these expectations. Although it is currently trendy, especially among the elites in Patna, to blame the previous Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government - especially its leader and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad - for all that is wrong in Bihar, there is a general consensus that the State's slide has been relentless in the last two decades.

Speaking to Frontline, Alakh Sharma, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Human Development and the coordinator of the meet, provided a context to the new-found hope. He said: "Institutions had more or less collapsed in Bihar. The rule of law, the basic requirement for governance, had been completely eclipsed. Under the new government, there is hope. For the first time in decades there is no open patronage of criminals, to the point that they have been kept out of the State Cabinet. Most critically, development now figures as a key issue in the political discourse."

The Nitish Kumar government has constituted the Bihar Foundation, of which the Chief Minister is the chief patron. Although the main objective of the foundation is to facilitate the participation of the Bihari diaspora in the State's development, it is also to provide help to the large Bihari migrant population settled and working across the country, often in adverse conditions.

In his inaugural address, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam set out a 10-point "mission objective" for the transformation of the State. In particular, he emphasised the importance of the agricultural sector along with infrastructure development and tourism, and of using Bihar's "global human resource capital", represented by its diaspora. He said: "A developed Bihar is necessary for a developed India."

Bihar is perhaps India's least developed State. The third biggest in terms of population, it fares poorly on almost every scale of human development when ranged against other States. Its plight has worsened since Jharkhand was carved out of it in 2000. It is the least urbanised State in India, with just 10 per cent of the population residing in urban areas. Literacy rates are abysmal. Just over half the population is literate. More significantly, only one in three females in the State is literate. The situation among the marginalised communities such as Dalits and tribal people is far worse.

Bihar's is a predominantly agrarian society. The creation of Jharkhand robbed the State of access to minerals while transferring the dominant portion of its industrial base to the newly created State. Although the State has the best alluvial soils in the country, the blight of feudal relations in agriculture have hampered prospects of any meaningful transformation in the countryside. Indeed, the social basis of agriculture, specifically agrarian relations, is believed to lie at the root of Bihar's malaise. The pressure on the agrarian economy has become acute, indicated by the fact that the density of population in rural Bihar (880 persons per square kilometre) is about three times that of rural India as a whole. Clearly, agriculture holds the key to any kind of socio-economic transformation.

Since the process of economic liberalisation hastened in the 1990s, Bihar's relative position has worsened considerably. In the 1990s, when the Indian economy grew at the rate of about 6 per cent, Bihar's economy grew at only half this rate. While the rate of growth of the population between 1991 and 2001 slowed down in the rest of the country, in Bihar it increased. This meant a worsening of per capita incomes in the State. This has meant that income levels of an average Bihari have worsened when compared with the average Indian's. In 1961, the notional average Bihari's income was about two-thirds of an average Indian; by 2004, this had fallen to less than one-third.

These averages, like all averages, hide more than they reveal. Income inequalities are obviously high, given the unequal access to the most basic of all assets, land. About 87 per cent of all landholdings are marginal holdings. Indeed, the acute land hunger in rural Bihar lies at the heart of the violence that is latent in the State.

A senior bureaucrat told Frontline that the dominance of criminal gangs in social life can be "traced to their ties with the landed gentry". The vested interests in land, which have thwarted any meaningful land reforms, also dominate the political structures and through them the avenues of governance. "The overpowering role of caste only reflects this feudal situation. Often, people mistake the symptom for the malaise," he remarked.

Bihar has about 425 lakh people below the thoroughly discredited measure of poverty, the poverty line. This means that more than 40 per cent of the population earn less than what it takes to access the barest essentials of life. Denied any hope for decades, the poor have done the only thing they possibly could in the face of such tremendous tribulations - migrated. The ubiquitous Bihari migrant, visible as agricultural workers in Punjab or as construction workers all over India, has literally paid with his blood to escape the tyranny of feudal ties at home.

The recent killing of Bihari migrant workers in Assam is only the latest example of the desperate Bihari's plight. However, Alakh Sharma points out that it is not only the poor Bihari who has migrated. The poor opportunities for higher education in the State have forced even sections of wealthier youth to migrate to study elsewhere. Moreover, the lack of industrialisation has forced the elite to move outside the State.

A recurring theme at the meet related to the need for improving the social sectors. Speakers emphasised the need to improve the human capital, which would lead to improved living conditions and also enable Bihar's transformation. Improvements in education and health, it was pointed out, would not only improve the quality of life but also reflect in increased productivity and skill formation. This, it was noted, would lay the basis for industrialisation.

The abysmal levels of literacy are an obvious hindrance. In 2001, the gross enrolment ratio of children in the 6-14 age group, who have the fundamental right to free education, was only 56 per cent, compared with the national average of 85 per cent. In the 1990s, under the sway of several popular movements, there was a general expansion of educational facilities in the country. While the number of elementary schools increased by 40 per cent between 1990-91 and 2003-04, the intake of teachers increased by 37 per cent in India. However, in Bihar, the number of schools fell by 10 per cent and the number of teachers by almost 30 per cent during this period.

The gravity of this decline is best illustrated by the fact that there has hardly been any accretion to the number of government-run schools (54,000) since such schools were "nationalised" in the late 1970s. According to the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, nearly one in five schools in Bihar is in "urgent need of repair". Moreover, only one in five schools has a separate toilet for girl students, hardly an incentive in a situation of abysmal rates of female literacy.

A similar situation prevails in the health sector. According to national norms, Bihar should have at least 533 primary health centres (PHCs); but there are only 398 PHCs in the State. Similarly, the State has fewer than 9,000 functional health sub-centres, compared with at least 16,500 as per national norms. There are only 70 referral hospitals, though the norms stipulate at least 619 such hospitals in the State. This is reflected in the number of government medical officers - the State has only 3,380 medical officers, whereas the norms stipulate 8,500.

In Basuhar village, about 15 km from Patna, inhabited by Musahirs, an extremely backward community of Dalits, most girls do not go to school. Most of the 42 families of the village work as labourers and live in two-room mud structures.

Ram Lakhan, an agricultural worker, said that the prevailing wage rate was about 3 kg of rice for a day's work for both men and women. However, since the last harvest (about a month ago), he has found no work. Referring to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), he said: "I have a job card but no work." He said that a few others in the village did get work but were not able to earn a reasonable wage. He pointed out that people from his community found the stipulation of lifting 110 cubic feet of earth for a wage of Rs.68 difficult. Although most boys in the village go to school, girls do not go because "they help with chores inside and outside home". There are no latrines in the village, and there are only two hand pumps for drinking water. Ram Lakhan said that about 30 men in the village migrated to Rajasthan to work in brick kilns and at construction sites. They stayed there for about three months but were only given food, no wages.

The nearest PHC is more than 3 km away, and most people in the village prefer going to a "private doctor". Ram Lakhan complained that "the government clinics work like government offices; their timings do not suit our working hours, and in any case, they are not open for emergencies, which are invariably in the night". Not a single person in the obviously poor hamlet has "passed the matric exams [high school]".

Nitish Kumar told Frontline that the government had initiated "a massive enrolment of teachers". The government is recruiting doctors but as a "short-term measure" is also hiring doctors on contract to serve in government hospitals. On January 26, the government launched a "coupon system" to deliver essential rations to the poor through the public distribution system (PDS).

Munna Paswan, a resident of Madhuban, a village about 20 km from Patna, complained that there were only 42 ration cards for the 77 families in the village. A member of the gram samiti, Munna Paswan also runs a PDS outlet. He explained that he "adjusts the limited supplies of foodgrains to ensure that every family gets at least some grain". Nitish Kumar said the coupon system would ensure that people knew what they were entitled to. However, Munna Paswan said that unless the coupon system was backed by actual delivery of grains to PDS dealers, "it would not mean much to poor households".

Although the State government repeatedly emphasised that this was not an "investor meet", the abiding impression one got was that it was an event to woo private investment. The Nitish Kumar government showcased its "incentives" for investors, while advocating policy initiatives that are recognisable features of the neoliberal mantra in the rest of the country.

The role of private-public partnerships, for instance, has been advocated in fields as varied as health care and road building. The government has already initiated such partnerships in government-run hospitals where X-ray services, for instance, have been "outsourced" to private parties. One delegate told Frontline that such outsourcing was "unsustainable" because these partnerships were likely to be eventually more expensive for the public exchequer. "The government would be better off running such services on its own because private operators of such services will definitely price the service much higher." More ominously, there is a danger that such services will drive the poor away from health care, whether private or public.

It is obvious that a sustained effort at poverty reduction requires a significant increase in public investment. This is required not only for the expansion of the social sectors such as health and education but also for programmes such as the NREGS and the delivery of essentials to the poor through the PDS. Since agriculture represents Bihar's "core competence", any effort at industrialisation would also require a significant scaling up of investment in agriculture. Such a strategy would recognise that Bihar's fundamental problem is conditioned by a demand constraint. It would recognise public investment as a means of expanding incomes, which can lay the basis for sustained industrialisation.

In contrast, most participants highlighted the supply side issues. Typically, these address the problems of development as a matter of getting the technique right. For instance, land reforms is only regarded as a problem of fragmented landholdings, not as a means of solving the acute problem of land hunger, which would increase demand. This attitude was best typified by the notion that Bihar's problem is just a matter of building better roads, "improving connectivity", improving the availability of electricity and increasing agricultural productivity.

The Bihar Government's Approach Paper to the Eleventh Five Year Plan, prepared by the State Planning and Development Department, provides some clues about what to expect in the years ahead. The Eleventh Plan targets a growth rate of 8.5 per cent per annum, from less than 4 per cent in 2003-04. The targeted investment, corresponding to the targeted rate of growth of 8.5 per cent of Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP), is about 24 per cent of the State's income, up from about 18.5 per cent in 2003-04.

The most striking feature of the Plan is the sharp shift to emphasis on private investment as the prime mover of the economy. In 2003-04, private investment accounted for about 54 per cent of overall investment; this is projected to increase to 65 per cent during the Eleventh Plan period. In effect, the strategy adopted by the Bihar government appears to be to "withdraw" the State to facilitate private investment. Whether private investment will respond is, of course, another matter.

This has important consequences for Bihar's economy and society - indeed, for the direction that the Nitish Kumar government will take in the years ahead. For one, the relative squeeze on pubic investment may well jeopardise the welfare schemes that the government has embarked upon. Moreover, the government's enthusiastic acceptance of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budgetary Management (FRBM) ceilings is likely to impose a severe constraint on the revenue deficits that the State can run, generally, the first to face the burden of expenditure cuts. If the situation worsens, the first targets of such expenditure cuts may well be the commitments made for the expanded coverage of the PDS and the NREGS and allocations for health, education and welfare. The Nitish Kumar government thus appears to be taking a risk-laden strategy. If the strategy of wooing private investment fails, the goodwill that it now enjoys could quickly evaporate.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment