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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6

Should Bihar be Developed on a Gandhian Model?

Saturday 26 January 2008, by Shree Shankar Sharan


Bihar has been through too much glory and too much ignominy not to be a sociologist’s or a political thinker’s puzzle. It proves a simple point that glory or prosperity is never permanent and can be lost by negligence or complacency. Does it also prove the opposite that a glory lost can be regained? It is difficult but not unachieveable.

History does not offer too much hope. If we look at Greece and Rome, both at the pinnacle of the European civilisation (best described as Greco Roman) before the Christian era, their glory has been irretrievably lost. Other European nations have generously helped themselves to elements of Greek thought on democracy, good governance and rationality or Roman art of empire building, warfare or jurisprudence. But Greece and Rome have been left far behind England or France or Germany or the Scandinavian countries , the then barbarians, which have marched ahead in both knowledge and wealth based on science, technology and higher productivity or with the wealth amassed from their past empires or the new world (north or south America).

But niether Greece nor Rome (Italy) have sunk to such depths of misery, deprivation or indignity as Bihar (old Magadh) has.

It is worth recalling that Bihar at its peak went through a degree of intense self-examination through her sons, for example Gautam’s Nyay Shastra or Aryabhatt’s brilliant study of Astronomy, or migrants, for example, Kautilya’s Arthshastra. Greece was as good in her arts as in the art of warfare. Likewise Magadh extended its boundaries to almost the whole of India upto Kandahar, now in Afghanistan. The Magadh Army was as feared as the Roman Army. Alexander, who crossed into the north west India decided, to turn back from the Jhelum on hearing the size and prowess of the Magadh Army whom his soldiers were most reluctant to fight.

History is seldom cyclical. It is not linear either. But history waits for something to trigger off a cycle of regeneration like Buddha did in north India (Bihar included) and several other countries of Asia or like Mahatma Gandhi did in Champaran or Gujarat, the rest of India, and among all the deprived people of the world or like Jayaprakash Narayan did to Bihar’s youth in his total revolution movement in 1974-75.

Unfortunately there was a mismatch between Gandhi and the government of Bihar led by Sri Babu. There was a simillar mismatch between JP and the governments of the Janata Party both at the Centre and in Bihar though both had won power at the crest of his highly popular movement for deepening democracy.

Had Gandhi been alive, Bihar would not have gone the way it did. Gandhi’s idea of self-reliance or self-sufficiency ideally suited Bihar, because the people of Bihar, including the elite, idolised simple living and high thinking.

Had Gandhi been alive he in tandem with Dr Rajendra Prasad, his ideological disciple, would have prevailed upon the Central Government to allow some States to develop as agrarian States because the people of Bihar, including the elite, enthusiastically idolised simple living and high thinking.

But Bihar then had the Chhotanagpur plateau (now Jharkhand) full of minerals like coal, iron ore, even uranium, and dangled before Bihar the tempting prospect of becoming an industrial State. What with Tata’s Tisco, Telco, Tinplate Bokaro in the public sector, Bihar was lost in a day-dream of perpetual growth without actively pursuing it. Its locational advantage was neutralised by a freight equalisation policy and industries found more congenial hosts in other States, mainly maritime States or those with a large managerial or technical pool. Coalmining in Jharia and Dhanbad and ironore mines, mica and bauxite created some Bihari enterpreneurs and employed Biharis as unskilled labour. But Biharis neither managed the industries except in the coal sector nor were inspired to become industrial entrepre-neurs. The industrial transformation of Bihar failed to take off.

The bulk of Bihar’s population lived in the north or central Bihar who, for lack of training facilities, did not learn any industrial or managerial skills. Progressive impoverishment of the State shut down whatever facilities were created. The only skill that Biharis were left with was their traditional skill in farming, masonry etc. which they have now put at the service of the Green Revolution States of Punjab, western UP etc.

After Jharkhand broke away from Bihar there were no mineral or major industry left in Bihar except some cement factories in the red and sugar factories mostly closed. The only industry for which she has a natural advantage is agro-based and it is yet to develop to its full potential.

Bihar has fertile soil and good irrigation facilities in north Bihar thanks to the construction of Kosi barrage and Gandak dams. Efforts to have a high level dam in Nepal, to prevent excessive silting in the Kosi and Gandak rivers, is still languishing. Besides, due to some design defect or bad construction sufficient water outlets have not been provided in these irrigation networks which cause waterlogging in a large area resulting in crop losses. The problem is far from being insoluble with sufficient will and funds with the joint efforts of the State and the Centre. The two have to rise above politics to address this human problem which contributes to the State’s poverty. The irrigation network is not properly maintained, short term soutions being preferred to long term partly due to paucity of funds. Due to absence of dredging the problem of silting of north Bihar rivers has assumed serious proportions. The bunds have to be raised ever higher as the river bed keeps rising sometimes higher than the adjoining ground level compounding the risk of serious floods should the bunds breach or burst. North Bihar thus lives in a crisis like condition for three-to-four months every year and this costs the government a great deal of money and effort to provide relief. South Bihar is frequently a victim of drought.

The State Government has an ambitious scheme of linking Bihar’s rivers and a more modest one of reviving the old minor irrigation scheme.

While the larger scheme undergoes technical and feasibility studies and finds a sponsor, the smaller holds promise of water conservation in the dry areas.

Bihar, it would be evident, is immersed in monumental problems unlike other States and has not been able to cope with them. Natural calamities have been compouded by a stagnant economy, an illiterate people, resignation to fate, petty squabbles and excessive harshness in social and economic dealings. There has been rising unemployment, rising crime and unbelieveable spread of corruption after the first generation of freedom fighters passed away. An anaemic situation has prevailed in Bihar in the 20 years. No wonder in Gandhi’s Bihar a Naxalite movement has sprung up after being driven out of Bengal. Mainstream politics has come to be dominated caste and the OBC, numerically the largest caste, holds the sway. But the OBC did not throw up a Karpoori Thakur or a Birchand Patel, some of the finest leaders that Bihar has had. It threw up Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife, his proxy, when jailed in the fodder scam.

There was no end of scams in the 15 years of these leaders. A scam really means mis-appropriation of most of the project money covered up by false data and differs from old instances of misappropriations. But Laloo Prasad or his style of functioning is no aberration but a natural outcome and a normal phenomenon of a declining economy and polity. His lack of political ethics was more than made up by the sense of dignity he gave the OBC.

THE burden of reconstructing Bihar has fallen on Nitish Kumar, the new Chief Minister with an exposure and reputation as a Central Minister and an engineer by training. He has begun a marathon attempt to get Bihar’s infrastructure, like roads, bridges, minor irrigation built up and attract both foreign amd domestic investment in industries for which Bihar may be suitable.

So far he has had limited success on the last count. The memories of darker days still continue to haunt investors. Niether NRIs nor other major industries have shown interest in Bihar except for agro-industries like sugar or making ethanol from maize, an innovative idea for Bihar. Apart from old memories crime as a political tool has also been used to shake the investors’ confidence each time they have been hosted by the State Government.

Happily Nitish Kumar is also trying to make Bihar a knowledge capital by reviving the Nalanda University of ancient fame reoriented to modern times. An international faculty is being set up with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, as the chief guide and consultant. Singapore and many other countries on the one hand and the the former President and the Prime Minister on the other have shown strong interest in the project. It will add a laurel to Bihar and the CM. Besides he is trying to bring an IIT and an IIM to Bihar to fit them for knowledge-based industries. The Centre’s early approval of these institutions of excellence and higher learning in Bihar is overdue.

Primary education and health, which had been derailed in Bihar, have been brought on rails. Crime has been brought down though not eliminated. Nitish Kumar is doing everything that is within the means of the State Government to do to make Bihar a safe and attractive destination for investors in and outside the country.

Yet the bulk of of Bihar’s work force makes its living mostly in agriculture, masonry etc. farming being the only skill they know. It is unlikely that that the present state of agriculture and land ownership can give them enough jobs in Bihar to match outside income. But there is great scope for providing large scale employment in a modernised, multicrop farming in Bihar free from the ravages of flood and drought well supported by a credible credit and insurance facility.

There has to be a strategic shift in the State and Central governments’ strategy to develop agriculture in an essentially rural economy like Bihar after losing Jharkhand, for whatever it takes. Rather than each State following a common strategy of developing both industry and agriculture, with the latter relegated to a secondary role, certain States should be marked for intensive development of agriculture as Bihar. There is a lot of prosperity in agriculture as shown by countries like Denmark or New Zealand, agriculture embracing dairy, poultry and fishery and cottage or small agro-industry.

Bihar is waiting to be developed on the Gandhian model, a granary of India and an exporter of foodgrains closer to its genius. The Central Government needs to support flood protection and irrigation projects that do not involve too much displacement of population.The project should be reasonable sized of intermeduate technology.

The Chief Minister of Bihar should not lose heart if major industrial investments do not come to Bihar. He should treat it as a disguised blessing and a challenge to develop Bihar according to an alternative and Gandhian model of development. It will gladden Gandhi’s heart as well of enviromentalists throughout the world to see Bihar tread this course. A prosperous agriculture will necessarily bring in its train large consumer industries that can sell to Bihar. Only the cause and effect will stand reversed.

As a knowledge-based capital, Bihar with its rich and serious human material cannot be stopped from creating knowledge-based wealth.

The author is the Convener of Lok Paksh, Patna/Delhi.

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