Bihar’s income witnessed its slowest growth during the twin rules of Lalu Prasad and wife Rabri Devi spanning 15 years from 1990 and the overall economic decline earned the state the Bimaru tag, an acronym used for financially-sick states.
It was then one of the poorest states, with more than two-fifth of its population living below the poverty line. The sluggish economic growth, however, didn’t deter scamsters from siphoning off Rs 950 crore from the state’s animal husbandry department through inflated and forged bills.
The illegal withdrawal from the exchequer became infamous as the fodder scam, or chara ghotala, in which then chief minister and RJD chief Prasad has been convicted.
It was not only the GDP that tottered at a growth rate of 2.9% during 2001-05, according to Planning Commission data, but law and order had hit rock bottom too.
Such was the situation that even top officials worried about the safety of their school-going children because of rampant kidnappings, which had taken the shape of an industry.
But Lalu remained politically powerful and continued with his socio-political agenda by empowering the backwards and Dalit community. With the implementation of the Mandal commission report in 1993, aspirations of backward castes found a voice of assertion and issues of caste identity witnessed a sudden spurt.
By 2005, Prasad’s magic started to wane and the non-Yadav backward castes started to feel cheated. The upper castes were already annoyed with the Lalu-Rabri rule.
A strong wave of anti-incumbency and a calculated caste arithmetic catapulted the JD(U)-BJP combine led by Nitish Kumar to upstage the RJD regime in the November 2005 assembly polls.
Kumar’s first task was to restore people’s faith in law-enforcing agencies. To demystify the myth that crime could not be kept on a tight leash in Bihar, he focused on quick disposal of pending cases registered under the arms act.
The government adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards crime and made district magistrates and police superintendents directly accountable for maintaining law and order.
More than 80,000 criminals were convicted between January 2006 and December 2014. “Of these, more than 200 were sentenced to death while 1,522 got life terms and about 4,000 were sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. The high rate of convictions was made possible by speedy trials,” says state DGP PK Thakur.
To tame corruption in public life, the Kumar government introduced the Bihar special courts act, which enables confiscation of property of civil servants who have amassed assets disproportionate to their known sources of income. Houses of at least three IAS and IPS officers have been confiscated and turned into primary schools in the state capital.
Bihar soon made strides on various development indices and achieved a growth rate of 14.5% in 2013-14 with agriculture, healthcare, education and allied sectors making it one of toppers among the states.
The economy grew at a significant pace over the past nine years because of increased traction in construction, communication and trade, hotel and restaurant sectors.
Kumar’s contribution towards building infrastructure has been commendable as his government constructed over 1,200 bridges in nine years on rivers, including large ones such as Ganga, Kosi and Gandak, to improve road connectivity. The state had built only 375 bridges in 30 years between 1975 and 2000.
The chief minister brought a rare “can-do attitude” to his state but Bihar’s investment proposals remained discouraging for the economy, the main reason being the government’s hands-off policy on land acquisition.
The JD(U)’s position has not changed as it opposed the Narendra Modi government’s proposal to amend the law on land acquisition, saying the Centre was compromising the interests of farmers to give advantage to private companies.
The biggest challenge before the Kumar government is to jack up internal resources and arrange funds for a raft of ambitious schemes and roadmaps it has planned. The agriculture roadmap (2012-17), biggest of them, alone requires R1.50 lakh crore.
At its current growth rate, Bihar would have to wait 25-30 years to reach the national average in per capita income. It also has the lowest per capita spending on education, health, social and other economic services. Thus, it needs additional funds transfer from the Centre.
These explain why Kumar has made a strong pitch for special status to Bihar, arguing that the state cannot sustain its double-digit growth rate without private investments. “Bihar's growth is primarily driven by public investment and till we get private investment, it will be difficult to sustain our growth rate after the next five years,” he said.