Yes. The Bihar polls matter.
The Bihar polls matter for those invested in the idea of the Modi era, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to preserve his unipolar status, for Amit Shah to regain pride lost in Delhi, for the BJP because the polls that follow matter, for Nitish Kumar as it is a question of political survival, for Lalu Prasad to leave a legacy for the dynasty, and for those who link electoral results with economic reforms.
More importantly, the polls matter because Bihar matters. The polls matter because Bihar shows why demography is not destiny, because the state of Bihar spells why the feel-good thesis of demographic dividend could easily turn into a demographic disaster. The polls matter because Bihar symbolises the potential of a spectre that must haunt those attempting to re-write the future.
Admittedly, Bihar must wrestle with the burden of history—it was also robbed of the chance of being an industrialised state after resource-rich regions were carved into Jharkhand. Historic politicisation of the state apparatus exacerbated deprivation and poverty. In my 2002 study of India’s socio-economic fault-line, I had looked at 100 worst districts—a shocking 26 of 38 districts from Bihar were on the list. A decade and more later—after many programmes, ranging from MGNREGS to backward regions grant funds—the districts of Bihar continue to star in the list of worst districts.
To appreciate the state of disrepair, one only needs to look at the data points. Spread across 94,163 square kilometres, as of 2015, Bihar hosts a population of 114 million persons (Census projection) —that is, larger than Hungary in area with a population less than Mexico and more than the Philippines. At Rs 36,143, its per capita income is the lowest among all states—less than half the national average. On a global list, at a per capita income of roughly $550, Bihar would rank at 179, above Liberia and lower than Guinea —about 36 places below India and much worse than its peers in area or population. If you think about it, roughly 10 per cent of India’s population is surviving on a per capita income of less than half the national average. The data on monthly per capita expenditure—again nearly 40 per cent less than national average—makes the picture worse. Unsurprisingly, 36 million persons (or every third person in Bihar) lives below the poverty line.
Deprivation and poverty stem from the circumstances. Once the centre of scholarship and home to the iconic university of Nalanda, Bihar has the lowest literacy rate—at 61.80 per cent, it is lower than India’s average literacy in 2001 and worse than that of Mauritania. The gender split makes it worse at 71.2 per cent for males and 51.5 per cent for females– effectively three of 10 males, and every second woman in the state is not literate. What about the younger ones? A 2015 Parliamentary Standing Committee Report reveals that every fifth “out of school child” in India is in Bihar. And the consequences show up across health indices. Life expectancy at birth, malnutrition and maternal mortality in Bihar is as bad if not worse than nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
One index often used to estimate development is the rate of urbanisation. Bihar has the most appalling record—only 11.29 per cent of the population lives in what is described as urban and 88.71 per cent live in rural areas. How are they doing? The recent Socio Economic Census reveals that 65 per cent of rural households own no land, every second landless person earns a living from casual labour, nearly six of 10 live in kuchcha houses, barely 6 per cent of households has a person with a salaried job, 71 per cent have a household income of less than Rs 5,000 per month and only two of 100 pays any tax. On almost every parameter, Bihar seems to set the benchmark for deprivation.
The cliché about governance in India is that everything that can go wrong will frequently go wrong. In Bihar, everything that can go wrong does go wrong—and the textbook case for this would be a study of floods in the Kosi River dating back to the Nehru era and the relief works that followed. For four decades, it was the Congress. In 1990, the Janata Dal ousted the Congress in a poll where 103 Congress candidates forfeited their deposits. Bihar has been Congress-mukt for 25 years. The past quarter of a century has seen regimes led by Lalu and family and then Nitish Kumar—with the BJP and then without the BJP. The fact is, every party has contributed to the mess that is Bihar.
Yes, Bihar, given the structure and state of its economy, is resource-starved and does need stimulus to break out of the trough. The issue is about money, but more importantly, it is how the money is deployed. The state of education or health, —where Central funding has grown exponentially, but where Bihar lags behind almost every state on every parameter—proves the point.
The crux of the matter is the template of governance. The problem is, law has been decoupled from order systematically. Order is designed to suit sectoral interests and the rule of law depends on the law of who is ruling. This insured and ensured the redistribution of resources to the politically convenient—essentially, enrichment has been presented as empowerment and entitlement.
The debate in Bihar, therefore, must move past rhetoric. It needs to be and must be about a blueprint for reviving the politically emaciated institutions of the state. The harsh truth is without a Bihar Story, the India Story is scarcely sustainable.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change