Bihar’s rebid for glory is within the realm of possibility

News of Shubham Kumar from Bihar topping the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) civil services examination 2020 has been welcomed with enthusiasm. But contrast this with a recent report by the Reserve Bank of India which published economic statistics including GDP for the States from 1997 onwards, which makes sombre reading.

A widening gap

Bihar had the lowest per capita income of ₹4,014 at current prices in 1997-98 (31.58% of the country’s average); in 2019-20, it remains at the lowest at ₹45,071( 33.58% of the country’s average), moving only two percentage points in the last 22 years. Significantly, the gap between Bihar and the better-off States has increased over the years. Goa’s per capita income, in 1997-98, was around eight times more than Bihar’s; 22 years later, it is 10 times more. Sikkim, the second richest State in per capita terms, had three times more per capita income than Bihar’s in 1997-98; currently it is over nine times more. The gap from Kerala has gone up from 3.62 to 5 times during this period. Similar is the case vis-à-vis Maharashtra and other better-off States.

In terms of progress towards Sustainable Development Goals, as in a NITI Aayog report released this year, Bihar scored 52 out of 100 against the average of 66 and is ranked last among the States of India. Its ranking was the same even last year. Kerala, the topper, secured 75 out of 100.

Once the centre of attention

The relative decline is a post-Independence phenomenon. It is clearly a fall from grace for Bihar which used to be the centre of glory, grandeur, knowledge, wealth and power in ancient India of the Maurya and Gupta Ages. Even during periods of occupation by the Moghuls and the British, Bihar was among the better-off provinces. In the period immediately following India’s Independence, Bihar’s per capita income was around 80% of India’s average. Today, it has slid to one third. And the irony is that the relative deterioration happened post-Independence when the government is of and by the people.

MLAs and MPs are the guides of the people. The better they are in terms of character, calibre and commitment, the better will be the course of prosperity. So, what is the score in this regard? Bihar is much ahead in matters of criminality among elected ‘rulers’ and the criminality is on the increase of late. An analysis of the reports of the Association for Democratic Reforms would indicate that 68% of the newly elected MLAs in Bihar had pending criminal charges, and 51% had serious charges which including rape and murder. In the country as a whole, out of 3,980 MLAs, 40% had criminal cases and 26% had serious criminal cases. In the previous Bihar Assembly in 2015, 58% MLAs had criminal cases against them and 40% had serious criminal charges; 50% of MPs from Bihar elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 faced serious criminal charges.

Liberalisation era

Some of the key issues where commitment to the cause of Bihar by the elected representatives would have made a difference merit attention. While liberalisation of the 1990s spurred domestic and external investment which accelerated India’s growth, States such as Bihar remained left out. In the case of Bihar, its landlocked geography, poor infrastructure and poor governance environment were obvious handicaps. In view of its poor fiscal base and overwhelming dependence on Centre for its budgetary needs, Bihar demanded Special Category Status from the Centre, even through unanimous resolutions in the State Assembly. This would incentivise investment. But the Centre has not found it possible as Bihar does not fulfil the criteria of having hilly terrain, low population density and sizeable tribal population to qualify for such a status. Bihar may not fulfil these criteria, yet it is poorer than the hill States. The stated national objective of ‘balanced regional development’ remains largely on paper. If all the 40 MPs from Bihar are determined on this issue irrespective of party affiliations, the Government of India will have to find a way to incentivise investment by way of Special Category status or otherwise.

On infrastructure

Bihar has the highest population density of 1,102 people per square kilometres (in 2019) which is around three times the average India’s density. And its rate of population growth is highest in the country, at 18.16% during 2011-21 as against India’s 12.56%. Therefore, human resource development sectors of education, health and skills ought to be the highest priority. While there has been good progress in matters of roads (third position in India after Kerala and West Bengal) and electricity (almost universal like many other States), provisioning for health such as beds and medical professionals per lakh of population is among the worst in India. While infrastructure for education has improved, quality improvement measures cry for attention. Institutions such as Patna College, Patna Science College, Patna Medical College Hospital which were among the best in India during the British Raj, have suffered decadence. Bihar faces substantial migration of students and patients along with labour.

Development and investment would also be deterred by adverse governance environments. Bihar witnesses, on average, nine murders a day and the criminal justice administration would take years, at times decades, to bring culprits to book if at all.

Therefore, political reforms to elect the right representatives will lead to the right policy priorities and implementation environment. It would make a tremendous difference if political parties, voluntarily or compelled by law, avoid fielding candidates with criminal antecedents.

But in a democracy, the behaviour of the MLA or MP will be influenced by expectations of reward or punishment from the voters. If voter behaviour is not determined by ‘development’ but other issues such as caste, religion or emotional subjects, growth will take a back seat. It will again be a chicken and egg story.

But as the Bhagavad Gita says: “Whatever a leader does, so do other people. Whatever standard he sets, others follow.”

Obviously, the quality score of elected leaders has to improve if development and income grades of Bihar are to improve.

R.S. Pandey is a politician (Member of the Bihar Legislative Assembly, 2015-20) and a former IAS officer (1972 batch). After retirement, he was appointed as the Interlocutor and Government of India Representative for the Naga Peace talks (2010-13)

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 6:22:13 PM |

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