A journalist friend from Patna was recently transferred to Mumbai. During his many years in Bihar, I often wondered how he coped with a daily dose of murder, kidnapping, death, disease (and, of course, Lalu). “This is Bihar, my friend, not your Maharashtra!” he would remind me. A few days ago, soon after the Malegaon blasts, he smsed: “Your Maharashtra has become like my Bihar!” Even allowing for a little exaggeration, the ‘Biharisation’ of Maharashtra is no longer a flight of fancy. Sure, Maharashtra is not a basket case, but cut through the legacy of social progressiveness and rapid industrialisation, and the bright lights of the Mumbai-Pune-Nasik golden triangle rapidly begin to dim. The glitter of corporate India cannot mask the fact that many parts of the Western Ghats increasingly resemble the violent chaos and deprivation that characterises large swathes of the Gangetic plains.
Poverty? Bihar’s poverty figures are undoubtedly much higher, but several districts in Maharashtra can be statistically compared to the Bimaru belt. Maharashtra is India’s most industrialised state, contributing almost 14 per cent of the national industrial output. More than 50 per cent of the state’s gross domestic product is accounted for by the Mumbai-Thane-Pune industrial belt. But the much higher per capita income of Maharashtra cannot mask the ever-sharpening intra-regional inequalities. Just step a 100 km outside Mumbai into Thane’s Jawahar taluka and you will encounter tribal children who are dying of starvation. An affidavit filed in the Bombay High Court last year claimed that as many as 35,000 children in Melghat in Amravati district were severely malnourished, and more than 5,000 had died in the last decade.
Unemployment? Yes, in absolute terms, unemployment is much higher in Bihar, but the rate of growth of unemployment in Maharashtra has steadily crept up. It is now officially 7 per cent, with five lakh unemployed persons being added to the list every year. The employment guarantee scheme, which was once celebrated as a model for the rest of the country, is now a classic case of how State-sponsored schemes can go horribly wrong. And, while the service sector grows, the noisy malls cannot mask the fact that Mumbai’s textile mills have fallen silent, as indeed have the looms of Malegaon and Bhiwandi.
Agrarian distress? Even given the plight of the marginal farmer in Bihar, fewer farmers commit suicide in Bihar than in Maharashtra. This, in a state where almost 65 per cent of the population is still dependent on agriculture and allied activities. The figures given by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti are truly staggering. Since June last year, more than 800 cotton farmers have reportedly committed suicide, with nearly 200 doing so in the last eight weeks alone, since the Prime Minister visited Vidarbha and announced a relief package. Take away the rural prosperity of the sugarcane farmers of western Maharashtra, and the incomes of the state’s agrarian sector show a sharp decline in every other region. Not surprising when even now, more than 60 per cent of the irrigated area is the monopoly of the politically-influential sugar belt.
Economic mismanagement? Bihar’s treasury may be empty, but Maharashtra, too, has little to be proud of. The state’s debt has now reached a staggering Rs 1.15 lakh crore and its fiscal deficit has risen sharply from 2.8 per cent of the GDP in the early Nineties to 5.8 per cent at the turn of the century. While revenue expenditure grew at an average of 15 per cent per annum during the last decade, capital outlays increased by just 4 per cent. You have heard of teachers not being paid salaries for years in Bihar? Well, in Maharashtra too, the state government is finding it difficult to pay their professors on time.
Collapsing infrastructure? Maharashtra’s roads are closer to resembling Hema Malini’s cheeks than Bihar’s ever will be. But again, the shining Mumbai-Pune highway does not quite tell the story of the remote corners of the state or, for that matter, Mumbai city itself, whose potholed roads have now become not just the matter of a public interest litigation, but a national joke. Mumbai’s crumbling infrastructure, in fact, is symbolic of a State machinery that has simply been unable to meet the challenges of the time. While it is unlikely that you will ever confront the power cuts in Maharashtra that are taken for granted across Bihar, the fact is that in a once power-surplus state, the state electricity board has had to resort to widespread load-shedding. Travel across Marathwada or Vidarbha, and six- to 10-hour power cuts are routine. Even in urban pockets, two hours of power cuts are now par for the course.
Crime? Okay, so doctors are not kidnapped everyday in Maharashtra, but while Bihar’s goons operate in a more primitive environment of capital accumulation, Mumbai’s underworld has developed far more sophisticated means of running mafia-like operations, be it in managing real estate or in controlling extortion rackets. Worse, while Bihar’s criminals might still use the old-fashioned gupti, Mumbai’s dons have brought in the AK-47 culture into the heart of the state. From Haji Mastan to Dawood Ibrahim to the terror gangs of today, the criminalisation of the state has moved from smuggling gold to smuggling RDX with ridiculous ease. That no other city in the world has seen as many terror attacks as Mumbai in the last decade is further proof that the state’s coastline is now an arms-friendly destination.
Naxalism? We have not had a Jehanabad-like audacious strike in Maharashtra, but the geography of Naxalism does have the state’s border districts of Gadchiroli and Chandrapur as important centres. The base may be small, but the fact is that there is a corner of Maharashtra where Naxal groups have a persistent influence.
Social harmony? While Maharashtra prides itself on the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar legacy as having defeated the forces of casteism, the state has unleashed a Frankenstein’s monster in the shape of communalism. Caste may be the dominant divide in Bihar, but Maharashtra is now increasingly community consciousness. The rise of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance through the Nineties is testimony that Maharashtra’s polity has been susceptible to communal agendas. The subsequent rise of local Muslim extremist groups — many of them linked to terror outfits — is proof of how a vicious cycle of hatred and revenge can rapidly spiral out of control. If there has not been communal violence after the Mumbai and Malegaon blasts, it is not because of the state’s secular spirit, but simply because a mix of fear and fatigue has left the average citizen feeling helpless.
Declining political culture? Bihar’s politicians may be stigmatised as populist and corrupt, but Maharashtra’s new breed are not very different. From the disastrous handling of the Dabhol project to the idiotic campaign against dance bars, the state’s ruling elite has shown a knack of getting their priorities misplaced. As for corruption, let us get it straight: the Rs 30,000 crore Telgi stamp scam that flourished under successive state governments makes Lalu’s fodder scam seem like loose change. Most top Maharashtra politicians today are either real estate sharks or cooperative chieftains, often both. In no other state have the means of rural and urban capital been so effectively linked, manipulated and monopolised by a handful of leaders as in contemporary Maharashtra. Is it any wonder that some of the country’s wealthiest politicians come from the state?
Indeed, islands of prosperity amidst a growing sea of despair is how one must see Maharashtra. It is ironical that in this age, when state governments have become more competitive, the one state that was ideally placed to exploit the opening up of the economy should be losing out. My journalist friend from Bihar often used to contrast the present crisis of Patna with the glories of the Pataliputra empire. Maybe, Maharashtra, too, is now caught in a time warp, surviving on past splendour and not on present accomplishments.