This is my third visit to Bihar in the last four months. From Bettiah to Darbhanga, Madhubani to Saharsa, Purnea to Katihar, across the arc of North Bihar, there is a common complaint one hears against the otherwise well regarded Nitish sarkar. It represents both the success and failure of his regime, and how aspirations he has unleashed may come to haunt him.
Earlier this week, at a rally on the outskirts of Patna, Nitish Kumar pointed to his contribution in education. Girls were given bicycles early in his tenure, which shot up enrolment, and triggered a demand from the boys--the sarkar obliged. Both were given uniforms and scholarships; mid-day meals were provided. The incentives were created, the demand for education surged. Today, Bihar has 815,000 girls studying in Class 9, only marginally less than the number of boys.
But as Panchanand Paswan, a Dalit villager in Pantengna in Araria, said, “Our children go to school but they don’t study. A class 5 child does not know how to read and write. Teachers spend all their time in Araria bazaar and barely come to the school.” A lady who cooked the mid-day meals at school concurred. “Kids only come to eat. It is more a canteen, less a school.”
In a Purnea village, Tarkeshwar Mehta says his children are enrolled in the government school, but study in a private school. He has three kids and pays Rs 600 each as fees every month, another Rs 600 for tuition at home, and spends about Rs 400 a month on miscellaneous educational expenses. “That’s 3000 rupees every month, and I have to do this because if I leave my children in the Sarkari school, they will know even less than I do. The teachers know nothing. They can barely write their own names.”
During an earlier visit to Purnea, at a school near Srinagar village, I had come across a district education official who was on his rounds to supervise the distribution of scholarships. He candidly admitted that the quality of education had dipped drastically from the time he was a student.
The official blamed it on arbitrary teacher appointments that happened early in Nitish’s term at the village and district level, rather than through a centralised rigorous system. “They produced fake certificates, bribed their way through, became teachers, earn well and know nothing. What will they teach others?” The government recognises that quality is an issue and the CM has spoken about it. Whether he can change it, given the existing decay in the system, is a big question.
The silver lining: till a decade or two ago, it was inconceivable almost a million girls would be in high school in Bihar and every child, irrespective of caste, would be sitting together in the same classroom. The paradox - it is precisely this success that has exposed the hollowness of the system inside, and need to focus on quality, not just quantity.
A poor season, amidst a dynamic rural Bihar
This has been a poor agricultural season. The rains have not been good, and irrigation is still limited.
In the outskirts of Araria, I met Abdul Wahab. He owned 3 acres of land and had invested in cultivating paddy. Wahab spent Rs 27,000 - and does not expect a return of more than Rs 18,000. “At most, I will get 20 quintals, and the rate is about 900 per quintal. This is a season of loss.”
He did not really blame the government. “Paani nahin pada, kya Nitish ya Modi ko dosh dein, it did not rain, why blame Nitish or Modi?” But he had a grudge. For diesel subsidy, the government had, according to Wahab, sent money to the prakhand, asked farmers to submit a receipt, and then it would get transferred to their bank account. Wahab was not too impressed. “The subsidy amount is about 500. Getting a receipt made and going to the prakhand itself costs 200.”
I was not sure what the exact system was and why it cost him 200 for a receipt - but it seemed that the old system of subsidy had probably given way to the direct benefits transfer model and the transition had not been smooth for many like Wahab.
But rural Bihar, which constitutes 90 percent of the state according to the latest Socio economic caste census, is not all doom and gloom. I spent Vijaya Dashmi in Champanagar village, where a local trust run by family members of an old and big landed estate manages temple and organises a puja for ten days.
The trust also owns half the Champanagar market, which is the hub for about 15 villages in the vicinity. The money earned from the rent is used for festivals and pujas.
The market has a range of eating joints, mobile and downloading shops, clothes stores, and kiranas. During Dashmi, it hosted a mela, and there was barely any space to walk across the village. Authorities estimated that over a hundred thousand people, across castes, participated in the immersion of the Durga statue; thousands were in the market, buying clothes for children, sweets for the house, electronic goods and more.
A member of the trust later told me this was an exceptionally fertile area for agriculture. Farmers have diversified into other crops like maize. Despite being in the Kosi belt, it is elevated and has been insulated from fury of floods. Like everywhere else in Bihar, many from the region have also migrated outside - and support families back home, giving rise to the money order economy which helps drive the consumption boom of the region. This is of course not to paint an image of a blissful, prosperous Bihar. But there is something changing in how people live and spend.
The ray of hope - rural Bihar is today more connected to the market than it ever was and its residents have a degree of access to the comforts urban residents have enjoyed. The paradox - agriculture is still dependent on the whims of rain god; and the surge in consumption is not driven by a corresponding increase in local productivity and wealth creation.
And a business idea
Ijaz Khan had driven me around the state, from Patna to Seemanchal. He had, as soon as I landed on Day 1, predicted a victory for the Grand Alliance. After each stop on the reporting journey, he and I would share notes on the big takeaways from what someone had told us. We became friends.
Khan was only 24 but had been driving for Firoze, a well known car operator in Patna’s Phulwari Sharif, for seven years now. Before that, he cheekily told me he was a driver with the Hindustan Press in Delhi, while being underage. He was from Samastipur, had studied till the 8th, and branched off to earn a livelihood.
Ijaj was impressed with the enterprise of his boss, Firoze, who had started off as a driver, bought an ambassador car with a loan, worked hard, added an Indica to his fleet, and now owned seven cars. His clients included the Bihar government, CBI, and big media houses. He avoided politicians ‘since they did not make payments’ and weddings ‘since people crowded into the car beyond its capacity and damaged it’.
Khan wanted to do something on his own and had picked an idea from a Gujarati trader he had once driven. “I am planning to buy a motorbike. I will go to Gujarat, buy bed covers and mattresses and sheets, bring it to Patna, and on my bike, go across villages and sell it. I will only keep a margin of 100 rupees for each product and earn more through higher sales.” He earned Rs 6000 per month, but felt he would be able to surpass it.
Won’t it be exhausting, given that he was now used to driving around in comfortable air conditioned cars? “We are from the majdoor class Sir, we will get used to it.” His brother was in Kuwait, and earned Rs 35000 as a lorry driver. But Khan wasn’t interested. “We have 50-70 years to live. I want to be near my family. Imagine if I am out and my papa or mummy die and I can’t see them, I will never be able to forget it.”
I asked Ijaj what he wanted from the government - and he said nothing. “It is my business idea. I have to do it. What can the sarkar do? How can it support all poor people in business.” But then he paused and thoughtfully said, “But there is one thing. At the local level, there is a lot of corruption, especially in thanas. Under Laluji, if the police harassed the poor, he supported the poor and corruption was less. But Nitishji doesn’t interfere and so corruption has increased. Can’t a government stop this?”
And so here is the final bit of good news of the day. A generation of men like Ijaj Khan do not look to the government and are willing to take risks to earn more for themselves and their families. Bihari enterprise is alive and kicking.
But here is the paradox. Political pressures may have distorted rule of law under Lalu, but it seemed to have also led to some check on bureaucratic arbitrariness. In the quest to ensure law and order - unarguably a good thing - Nitish stayed away, in the process also allowing the arbitrariness to return. Ensuring law and order, while also keeping a strict political eye, was necessary for small businesses like the one Khan had in mind to flourish.