It is premature to speak of a ‘new Bihar’ based on the experience of a compressed time-frame
Rekindling Governance and Development: Edited by N. K. Singh, Nicholas Stern; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 699.
The editors of this book have gathered a panel of stellar luminaries to valorise their notion of ‘The New Bihar’. Learned, laudatory essays extol the sea-change wrought by the NDA government since it came to power in November 2005. Defining the events of Nitish Kumar’s seven years as Chief Minister as “magical” and holding the state up as a role model to the rest of the country, visions are evoked of resurgence of the glory of ancient Bihar. However, while the book is packed with information on Kumar’s so-called miracle, the contributors’ thrall of him over-shadows their judgment.
The essayists — all of them public policy eminences and authorities in their respective fields — diligently recount the facts and circumstances, albeit largely-known, underlying the undeniable turnaround in the fortunes of Bihar. From a situation marked by economic paralysis and low growth, non-existent governance, lawlessness and ‘jungle raj’, horrendous development indicators and withering infrastructure, Bihar is today the fastest-growing among the larger states. In Shankar Acharya’s words, “the deep-seated handicaps of semi-feudal relations, the discriminatory FPE (freight price equalisation) policy and weak governance were holding back Bihar’s development”. The fifteen-year rule of the RJD under Lalu Prasad Yadav compounded the malaise with its preoccupation with social empowerment and political consolidation of its vote bank, and focus on exclusion of traditional elites at the conscious cost of development. Over the decade 1992-2002, Bihar grew at an annual rate more than 2 per cent slower than the national economy; and between 1993-94 and 2005-06 Bihar’s per capita income relative to the national average fell from 40.7 per cent to 29.5 per cent. The average years of schooling dropped from 3.8 to 2.9 years, while the proportion of educated men in the state declined from 15.2 per cent to 6.5 per cent. Due to the separation of Jharkhand, the share of industry dropped from 22.5 per cent to 4.6 per cent of net state domestic product and 98 per cent of Bihar’s power requirement had to be imported.
Given this legacy, Nitish Kumar’s accomplishments are truly praiseworthy. As pointed out by more than one contributor, Kumar put into effect the precepts of that famous son of Bihar, Kautilya, to provide a secure and peaceful environment as a key precondition for robust development. Shifting from identity-based politics to development-centric policies, the hallmark of his government, in the words of Arnab Mukherji and Anjan Mukherji, came to be “governance, governance and governance”. Giving the highest priority to establishment of law and order and ensuring security of life and property, Kumar galvanised the demoralised police force, judges and administrators to jail thousands of bad characters through imaginative application of the law. Once that was under way, he addressed the core of Nitishnomics: strengthening connectivity, especially roads; enlarging access to education, especially for girls; improving service delivery, especially health services; and putting agriculture at the centre of the development process.
The results continue to surprise even the sceptics. From being the laggard in the growth scenario, Bihar’s growth rate reached 1.7 times the national average. During the period 2006-07 to 2011-12, the state’s economy grew at an incredible average annual rate of 13.5 per cent. Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar observes that “Kumar created a completely new, home-grown model of using public order and roads to create record GDP growth. All other states, indeed countries across the world, have much to learn from this experience.”
His ‘inclusion agenda’ saw all children in the 6-10 age group enrolled in school by 2011, and increase of almost 20 percentage points in the overall literacy rate. The growth in female literacy was even more impressive. The budgeted outlay for agriculture was reportedly enhanced a hundred-fold between 2005-06 and 2012-13, bringing a doubling of foodgrain production and record productivity levels. The state, says Mangla Rai, aims not just at a second green revolution or an evergreen revolution, but at a ‘rainbow revolution’ of multi-faceted growth to bring rural prosperity on a sustainable long-term basis.
Where do these remarkable achievements place Bihar today? With the lowest HDI score of all states, the highest proportion of population below the poverty line, the highest fertility rate and huge deficits in infrastructure, hapless Bihar is still at the bottom of the heap. Even during the period of high growth, Bihar’s poverty ratio declined only marginally, in contrast to what happened at the national level. Indeed, even if Nitishnomics were to remain in operation indefinitely, it would take decades for Bihar’s living standards to converge on the national average. Kaushik Basu observes: “we cannot sit back and rely on some grand law that backward regions will catch up”.
Despite its legacy of deprivation, its relatively low developmental spending in spite of its best efforts and its comparatively sound fiscal management, Bihar receives much less than its prorated share of Central finances based on its population. Sudipto Mundle argues strongly for “a special assistance package for Bihar to compensate the state for the shortfall in warranted Central transfers and other disadvantages that Bihar faces”. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, however, does not hold out much hope for this, pointing out that divergences in development are inevitable in a country like ours and stressing a holistic approach. In an interesting essay on regional aspirations, Shaibal Gupta, the only Patna-based contributor in the book, refers to the near-absence of civil society and market in Bihar, for which too the state must compensate.
It seems, therefore, somewhat premature to speak of a ‘new Bihar’ based on the experience of so compressed a time-frame. Undeniably, Nitish Kumar’s performance has been phenomenal. But the unravelling of the NDA coalition in Bihar, which happened after this book was compiled, and the outcome of the next general election could drastically alter the trajectory of the state.
The editors’ “half full-half empty” analogy over-states the impact of Nitishnomics, which should perhaps more aptly be likened to a silver lining.
In the virtual absence of alternative voices, ‘The New Bihar’ sounds like a thinly-veiled, though stylish, public relations offering of the state government.
(Govindan Nair is a former civil servant now based in Chennai)