Bihar: the big picture

  • Vipul Mudgal
  • |
  • Updated: Aug 03, 2013 11:03 IST

A valuable anthology featuring essays by Amartya Sen and Arvind Panagariya, among others, presents sobering thoughts on Bihar and India’s challenges in growth and governance.

The New Bihar
Rekindling Governance and Development
By NK Singh and Nicholas Stern (Eds); HarperCollins;
Rs. 699  pp 387

It’s raining books on growth and governance. The season began with releases on the ‘Gujarat-model’ and its architect Narendra Modi. Then came two seminal works on growth-versus-welfare models, first by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Pangariya and then by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. In between came Dipankar Gupta’s Revolution from Above, and now a valuable anthology on the New Bihar edited by NK Singh and Nicholas Stern.

It features Sen, Panagariya, Meghnad Desai, M S Swaminathan, KV Kamath, Nandan Nilekani, Yoginder K Alagh, Kaushik Basu, Anjan Mukherji, Montek S Ahluwalia and 22 others.

Two things must be said about the book at the outset: first, it is not a plug job for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar; and second, it is full of insights on the transformative potential of India, and not just Bihar.

In any case, you cannot expect some of the most illustrious authors of our times to write approving articles on a theme as contentious as this. Hence, what you get is a collection of sobering thoughts on India’s most pressing challenges regarding policies and governance. For that reason alone, Singh and Stern’s book is a collectors’ item for academics, activists, practitioners and critics alike.

So how is the Bihar model different from the Gujarat model? Politics aside, look back at history and geography and you begin to see the contrast. In The Discovery of India, Nehru refers to the East India Company getting permission from Emperor Jahangir in 1639 to start a factory in Surat, a global trade destination of that time.

Chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, meets supporters. PTI Photo

Nehru also mentions Bihar, but sadly for famines, poverty and gender discrimination. Even today, one is a coastal state with deep foundations of trade, industry, enterprise, overseas remittances and a productive labour force while the other is an overpopulated, landlocked zone with perennial flooding, little investment and serious stagnation worsened by persistent poverty.

If Bihar had been a nation, it would be the 12th largest, and among the poorest in the world, and a significant improvement here, says Kaushik Basu, would show up on the global statistics. Obviously, India has a lot to gain by helping Bihar help itself.

The decline of Patliputra, where Kautilya wrote his Arthashastra, had started in the 7th century AD, adds Basu. The rot continued throughout British rule.

Today, 81% of Bihar’s population is multi-dimensionally poor as against 55 per cent of the national average, estimates Alakh N Sharma.

Given these disabilities, the book shows how dramatic Bihar’s transformation has been. The turnaround began not by chasing investments but by reversing expectations.

Perception started changing as the graph of serious crimes nosedived and roads resurfaced. Starting with a legacy of identity politics and disorder, the state pushed for inclusion, and growth followed. Kumar’s brand of gender empowerment discounted the caste and community calculus which paid him rich dividends.

Instead of floating tenders for three lakh bicycles for schoolgirls, he went for cash coupons and the money wasn’t spent on alcohol as feared. In retrospect, even the wily gambit to split maha-dalits from dalits worked for inclusion.

Economist and long-time advisor to Kumar, Singh says the Bihar model is replicable unlike those built on innate advantages over other states. (Ahluwalia shows via inter-state variations why the richer states would be even richer).

Bihar’s growth is reflected in improved education, health, infrastructure and law and order, climbing from an average 0.9% from 1991-2005 to 10.4% from 2006-12. Sen and Panagariya concur, interestingly forgetting differences over other things.

Sen even reads some “hugely encouraging signs,” while Meghnad Desai sees a “basket case” becoming one of India’s leading states. Sudipto Mundle takes you through the statistics to elicit the consequential — as against absolute — performance which makes all the difference.

The book does not gloss over the state’s slipups. Many authors point out that the high growth is yet to dent Bihar’s poverty. Singh and Stern couldn’t agree more; they call it the “unfinished agenda” and set their sights on the daunting tasks ahead.

The volume offers the big picture, the turnaround, the fiscal issues and the cultural narratives, but more importantly, it splits the euphoria and the despair in “half full” and “half empty” sections, and goes on to do some crystal gazing. Those anxious about inclusive growth will find some answers here.

The number crunchers will get some vital statistics from 80 plus tables and graphics dedicated to Planet Bihar.

Vipul Mudgal heads the Publics and Policies Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi


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