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Life in Bettiah: The dynamics of new urban Bihar

But go beyond the image, and you will find a bustling urban centre. I was struck by the skyline from my hotel terrace – of construction and chaos all around.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2015 23:11 IST
Prashant Jha
Lalu Prasad addressing an election rally at Chiraiya in East Champaran district of Bihar.
Lalu Prasad addressing an election rally at Chiraiya in East Champaran district of Bihar.(PTI)

Bettiah votes on Sunday. The hub of western Champaran, a few hours’ drive from the Nepal border, has been portrayed in the national imagination as a den of kidnapping and crime –- largely through the movies of Prakash Jha, who is from the belt and has contested elections in the past from here.

But go beyond the image, and you will find a bustling urban centre. I was struck by the skyline from my hotel terrace – of construction and chaos all around. The towns hosts a few malls with branded clothes stores, and eight to ten hotels with AC rooms. In the evening, roadside kebab joints flourish. I saw hardware, steel, and paints shops, confirming the building boom.

Shankar Dhir is the president of the Bettiah Chamber of Commerce. I asked him about the growth in Bettiah, and the drivers of consumption. Dhir said there had been a surge in migration to the town from adjacent rural areas in the past two decades. “There are 30-32 colonies where people have settled from different rural pockets.”

He then explained the broad economy of the place. Agriculture remains the mainstay of the local economy. There are a few sugar industries but employment is limited. “People sell land they have in the village. There is also out-migration in large numbers. So, remittances play a big role in driving the consumption. From auto drivers in Delhi to laborers in Punjab and Haryana, just ask people and you will find many are from Champaran. People have also begun taking bank loans,” explained Dhir.

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Then there is the economy spawned by government expenditure. All government schemes result in money being pumped into the local setting – from politicians to bureaucrats to village mukhiyas to contractors to school teachers, the increase in expenditure over the past decade has created a class which has higher disposable income than they ever did in the past. There is also a parallel crime economy. Many who made money during Lalu Prasad’s years channeled money into ‘white’ by investing in houses and cleaner businesses during Nitish’s years.

This seemed logical but it left me thinking about the dilemma that seems to be at the heart of Bihar’s political economy. The market has penetrated both urban and rural areas; there is, of course, deep poverty but there is also money; there is circulation of wealth in the local setting. But this wealth is not being generated locally on a big scale. Can this be sustained? How will this pattern break? This is what Bihar’s next government will have to grapple with.

The Bania consolidation

Marwaris constitute a big community in the town, and number around 15,000-20,000. This is the traditional base of the BJP, and this is a region where the BJP is supposed to score and make up for perceived losses in the early phases.

I went to meet a clothes trader in Bettiah’s Lal Bazaar, who also dabbles in real estate. He said the current rate was Rs 5-10 lakh per dhur, which would measure to about 68 square feet. During the “dark years” of RJD’s rule, there were more sellers, and few buyers. Under Nitish’s rule, real estate prices shot up by 100%. But he attributed this to the presence of BJP, rather than Nitish.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at a public meeting in West Champaran district of Bihar. (PTI)

“We are doing what we can to help the BJP. We cannot afford to have Lalu back,” he said. I asked him if this meant donations. He responded, “No not really. They don’t ask for money. Everyone seeks support and we give a few thousands to keep people happy.” Political support for BJP entailed using the network across the family and profession, and providing logistical support when needed. “Bania vote to 100% wahin jayega” (100% of the Bania votes will go to the BJP).

BJP has worked hard to break its image of a Brahman-Bania party – and it has even succeeded in doing so, if the 2014 elections are anything to go by. But it is also not in doubt that the Banias – counted as backward community in the state – will remain their most loyal constituency.

The young collide

Pratik Edwin grew up in Bettiah, studied in Patna and Kolkata and returned home to help his family run a well-reputed school, the St Michael’s Academy right outside the town. A tall, burly chap, I met Pratik while he was shopping on one of Bettiah’s main streets. We got chatting and stepped into the Champaran Sports Shop, run by Vishal Jaiswal. The two young men knew each other.

Edwin’s school employs 115 people. Most students came from agricultural families. He explained that the government schools in Bihar had been a big failure because the quantitative surge in admissions had been accompanied by a big qualitative dip in education. Many private schools in the area now charge up to Rs 1100 per month; a class often has close to 60 students; and each batch has different sections – all of which indicates a growing demand for private education. Edwin says almost 100 students from his school go to Kota for private coaching for entrance exams every year.

Jaiswal had recently upgraded his shop and now sells personalised fitness equipment. His monthly sales are close to Rs 10 lakh a month – and his customers include housewives, young men who are health conscious and bank executives.

I asked Edwin and Jaiswal about their voting preferences. Edwin was more vocal and said he wanted Nitish Kumar back as the CM. “You compare Bihar now and ten years ago. There is no better CM candidate than Nitish Kumar. He has a clean image, he is the face of the state, and he has changed mindsets. Modi is not going to run the state, will he?” What did he think of Nitish’s ally, Lalu Prasad? “I think Lalu must have learnt his lesson from his earlier rule. He has lost four elections after that. Bihar has changed. He cannot do what he did last time. Biharis and Nitish Kumar will not allow mafia rule again. Lalu will not dominate the alliance.”

Jaiswal had been listening quietly and then said, “We feel proud of Nitish, but somewhere he has become proud.” BJP has accused the CM of arrogance and the message seemed to have hit home. Jaiswal explained, “Why did he need to break the alliance with the BJP? BJP was also necessary for governance”

I went back to Edwin and asked him how he felt as a Christian, or whether his religious identity, had played a role in the way he thought about current affairs. “Before Modi took over, did you hear so much about religion and RSS in the news? Being a minority, it makes you wonder whether you will be comfortable, what may happen to you. We run an institution. It is a minority institution and we are in the limelight.” When there are incidents in other parts, he added, one could relate to it.

Bihar remains the most rural of India’s big states. According to the latest socio-economic caste census, 90% of the state is rural. But the neat urban-rural breakdown is a thing of the past, with greater movement and connectivity. Bettiah’s vote on Sunday will be a result of the political conversations playing out in the state, the changes in the economic structure, caste and religion, and the battle between the different brands – Nitish and Modi – in Bihar 2015.

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