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Bihar Breakthrough: The turnaround of a beleaguered state

Updated: March 26, 2013, 1:37 PM IST
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Bihar Breakthrough: The turnaround of a beleaguered state
This book holds important lessons for governments, organizations and policy watchers worldwide.

Bihar Breakthrough: The Turnaround of a Beleaguered State by Rajesh Chakrabarti is published by Rupa Publications, the book captures the drama of a unique turnaround journey and it comes at a time when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is pitching Bihar as a model state for development. He said at yesterday's Adhikar Rally: "We will leave everyone behind and move ahead with our development. We will present a model before the world. This is the model under which everybody is taken along. This is the real development model for India."

Bihar Breakthrough answers many key questions: How did the Nitish Kumar administration bring about Bihar's resurgence from being an almost failed state? Was he alone responsible for the turnaround? Has Bihar bid a final goodbye to the dark days of lawlessness and underdevelopment, or can things still slip back to the bad old days?
This book holds important lessons for governments, organizations and policy watchers worldwide.
Rajesh Chakrabarti is Executive Director of Bharti Institute of Public Policy, and Clinical Associate Professor at the Indian School of Business. He has published extensively in international research journals and has five books to his credit.

Here's an excerpt fromthe book:
But it was important to hire them on yearly contract and not renew it for more than two terms, to avoid the sense of long-term hiring and associated problems setting in. It was a readymade workforce, just waiting to be tapped.

But this solution was, of course, not free of problems and the administration was ruthless in doling out dismissals. The recruits showed a greater proclivity to liquor. They also had to be reserved for special uses only. Regular policing and contact with people were a bit risky as there could be excesses. They were not used for escort parties of VIPs or for guarding the residences of SPs. They were meant to be a special force, for tackling special problems and not falling prey to corruption. This was ensured in the first three to four years at least, and it made an immense difference in improving the image of an ageing and increasingly demoralized police force.

The Overall Impact

Between January 2006 and May 2010, close to 48,500 criminals were convicted and sentenced in Bihar. This included 124 death sentences, 8,602 life sentences and 2,282 jail terms in excess of 10 years. During this period Bihar handed out the maximum number of death sentences among all states in India. Going by these numbers, it is quite clear that the Nitish Kumar government came down hard on crime. But when it comes to actual crime statistics, the story is slightly more nuanced.

If one does a back-of-the-envelope calculation on reported crime statistics in 2006 and 2010 (all available on the Bihar Police website), and factors in an 11 per cent growth of population during the period to allow for a similar rise in the expected figures, the drop in crime from the expected figures is truly remarkable. Bank robbery has seen the biggest percentage drop at 86 per cent, but these are relatively few and so the statistical analysis may be flawed. The next biggest drop is in kidnapping for ransom, the crime that had proven to be the scourge for Bihar, at 83 per cent. Bank dacoity comes next at 77 per cent (the distinction between dacoity re-establishing the rule of law-part ii: taking on the criminals and robbery lies in the number of people involved-more than four qualifies as dacoity). Dacoity comes next at an almost 58 per cent drop, followed by robbery at 47 per cent. Road robbery, rape and road dacoity have fallen by over 31 per cent, 30 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively, while murders fell by over 13 per cent. Interestingly though, kidnappings (as distinct from kidnapping for ransom) have actually risen by as much as 50 per cent during the period as have thefts, by close to 20 per cent. But then a variety of events qualify as kidnapping, such as elopements, which are believed to have become more common now. All cognizable crimes have actually risen by close to 20 per cent over the period. The latest year for which data is available is 2010 and it is not an unusual year in terms of patterns, so the foregoing simplistic analysis should not be very much off the mark.

Therefore, it is not easy to make a sweeping statement about actual reduction of crime in Bihar over the five-year period. Clearly kidnapping for ransom-the crime targeted by the governement- was brought down, but other crimes did not fall in proportion. Of course, one must keep in mind the unreliability of crime statistics, and the deliberate under-reporting or mis-categorization of crimes by the police. At the very least, the contradictory patterns of kidnapping and kidnapping for ransom raises such suspicions.

Others have claimed that crime against women, Dalits and adivasis have actually risen significantly during these years, with double-digit annual trend rates, as high as 25 per cent in some categories. The detractors, therefore, claim that only the social character of crime has changed-the victims are not the urban opinion-makers, but rather the traditionally oppressed and the voiceless. The only problem here is that the pre-2005 data is missing. So a before-after comparison is impossible. If these high rates were actually even higher before-certainly not an inconceivable idea-then they would still mark an improvement rather than deterioration. Some point to aggressive media management by the new regime, claiming that while kidnappings made page one headlines in the Lalu era, now they make page four news. There is also a widespread feeling that the rate at which law and order improved in the first three years of the Nitish regime has perhaps come down a bit. There could, of course, be a stable-cleaning effect here-even a minor clean-up of a dirty stable makes a huge difference that is impossible to replicate in a cleaner setting.

Law and order has also come under pressure in recent times. The murder of the Ranvir Sena chief, Brahmeshwar Singh alias Mukhiyaji, in Ara town on 1 June 2012, is an example. The followers of the chief of the infamous upper-caste militia group, charged in several massacres, went on a rampage during his funeral procession and indulged in widespread vandalism. The relatively muted response from the police drew criticism from the media and in an unprecedented move the governor, no friend of the administration, summoned the CM over the matter. The police approach was unconventional. Instead of the normal action of retaliating to vandalism with violence, which could provoke an even worse showdown, the police had actually recorded footage of the violence, leading to nine people being chargesheeted. The long-term aim of the approach was to instill fear of the law rather than the police baton in the minds of prospective criminals.

While the debate about the efficacy of the new approach is not likely to be settled easily, what is beyond doubt is the 'feel good' factor that the government's approach to crime has created in the state. While it is possible to quibble about the statistics, it is undeniable that the new dispensation has accomplished a regime shift in terms of public perception of law and order in Bihar. This improvement in law and order-in reality as well as in perception-has served as the foundation of all development that the state has seen in the years since 2005. Of all the changes that the Nitish Kumar government has brought about, this restoration of people's faith in law and order has doubtless been its most notable accomplishment.

Against this background, Nitish Kumar's developmental strategy had to focus on removing the bottlenecks to agricultural productivity and supporting agricultural transactions, imparting skills to its people and working on the heritage areas to boost tourism. In early 2006, when the average minimum wages were around `60 a day for the state, a typical unskilled worker in Patna took home about `72 when he found work, while a mason's earnings hovered around `175 (about two and half times) and that of an electrician touched `300 (over four times as much). Skilling the people of Bihar-especially in view of the stark difference even a slight addition in skills made to a person's earning abilities- was the most direct and the best way to increase their standard of living, suspending briefly other concerns such as whether they would then find jobs in Bihar-which was definitely preferable-or in other states.

Given the socialist background of Nitish and the JD(U), the thrust on the poor was unsurprising. 'Development with justice' was the motto. But based on this broad vision, the government quickly chalked out a simple, four-fold, clearly measurable mission:

- Every Indian plate must have one edible item from Bihar
- Bihar should produce at least thirty lakh litres of milk per year
- People should be able to travel from anywhere in Bihar to Patna in less than six hours
- A Bihari should earn no less than `300 per day

This broad mission would guide the overall development approach of the government. It also demanded a zero-tolerance approach for three things: lawlessness, communal violence and corruption. In fact, this was a prerequisite for anything else to happen, and this would be the most visible part of governance as well.

The Most Important Steps are Often the First Ones

The beginning was far from easy. It seemed that the newly elected government had inherited a completely defunct state. The secretariat, a British-era stately building from the outside, was a dingy mess inside. It was hard to find a functioning computer around. Even the furniture and the lighting in many of the offices were not suited to working conditions. The task of fixing the state entailed the government starting with renovating office buildings!

Consequently, the start was not free of hiccups and misteps. Within hours of his swearing-in, Nitish Kumar had to call in a new minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, and ask for his resignation since there was a vigilance case against him. Barely a month and-a-half later, as he prepared to make the best of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 9 to make the case of a new and promising Bihar to NRI investors, the abduction of Prashant Jain-the son of a prominent Patna businessman-made headlines. Although massive police pressure led to his release within a fortnight, the damage was done. It was too early for Bihar to project a positive image. A lot of groundwork needed to be done.

Nevertheless, certain key signature steps-material or symbolic-were taken in those early months that sent clear signals about the intent of the new government. Within a week of Nitish's swearing-in, Sadhu Yadav-Lalu Yadav's brother-in-law and the MP of Gopalganj-received a vigilance notice to depose in connection with a flood relief scam case. It was a sign of changed times-of a regime where connections would no longer serve to cover up crimes. Earlier, when Sadhu Yadav was accused of making a transport commissioner issue an illegal order at gunpoint, Patna Police had given bail to him in his own drawing room. He was known to be beyond the reach of law. Within weeks, the new government had him on the run with a nationwide arrest warrant on him. Sadhu Yadav's application for anticipatory bail was also rejected.

But in some ways, going after opposition goons was easy. Nitish's real test came when, a few months later, a criminal-politician JD(U) MLA and long-time ally, Sunil Pandey, created a ruckus at a plush hotel that snowballed into a media splurge. Nitish instructed the police to register a case and Pandey went no time to waste into hiding. Soon, another strongman of the JD(U) fold, Anand Mohan, was arrested using force.

The vigilance group, headed by ADG (and future DGP) Neelmani, had several high-ranking officials in its cross hairs as well. Within a month it had arrested the chairman of Bihar Public Service Commission and several of its functionaries on charges of corruption in the selection of Bihar Administrative Service personnel. Months later the group flagged glaring discrepancies in the formation of below poverty line (BPL) lists by the state's food department.

Another major move was the reopening of twenty-seven of the infamous Bhagalpur riot cases of 1989 vintage. These were the cases that were closed by the earlier government despite evidence against the accused. Of the nearly 900 cases stemming from the riots, less than 300 cases had chargesheets filed in the previous fifteen years. And that in spite of Muslims being a strong support base of the previous regime. By constituting a one-person judicial commission to re-examine the twenty-seven cases, Nitish sent a strong and much-needed message. Though his government was in partnership with the BJP, he signaled a strong secularist message with this move that helped reassure the minorities and started removing any apprehensions they may have had regarding the new dispensation.

One could, of course, interpret these steps by the new government in various ways-from political vendetta against the Yadav goons to communal vote politics of wooing Muslims. And, of course, many did that. Surely the government needed more than a few isolated moves to signal its real intent. But taken together and interpreted sympathetically, the moves signified a far more fundamental shift. They indicated that the law would now be allowed to take its own course without political co-opting and compromises. The same rules would apply with the same strength to all communities and for all persons, regardless of their friends in high places. This, in itself, was a first in a long time for the people of Bihar.

But the fight against crime was not focused on police action alone. Within weeks of coming to power, the government announced a 'surrender and rehabilitation policy' with considerable cash incentives for surrender of person and firearms as well as education of children and funding of building of homes for the family of the surrendered criminals. The logic here was that often the common man took to crime almost as the last option of livelihood rather than being driven by greed for money or lust for power. This policy offered them a way to extricate themselves from that state of affairs. By March 2006, nearly 200 notorious criminals surrendered, in the chief minister's presence.

The most significant 'first moves' of the Nitish government were not restricted to law and order. Within six months of coming to power, the government had to complete the three-tier panchayat elections. Local governments, being direct governments, were arguably the place where social prejudices and power plays were most prominent and if properly utilized, these could be the biggest area of social empowerment. Nitish was keen on bringing about empowerment of lower castes here, but without rolling out reservations across the board and refuelling the caste politics that was so characteristic of Bihar. Also, women in Bihar needed empowerment in a big way. By most social indicators, the gender gap in socioeconomic power was vast in the state. No government action could change this more dramatically than placing women in positions of authority in local self governments-the mukhiyas, the block panchayat samiti pradhans and zilla parishad pradhans.

The solution was a first for the country. In a landmark move, the government reserved a full 50 per cent panchayat seats for women candidates. In addition, 37 per cent seats were reserved for Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). These included 20 per cent for OBC Annexure I castes (that excluded the Yadavs and Nitish's own Kurmis), 16 per cent for Scheduled Castes and 1 per cent for Scheduled Tribes (proportionate to their population share). Naturally, the two reservations would overlap, meaning that no time to waste the women of the backward classes were likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of this change.

The government moved swiftly on this, convening an all-party meeting and passing first an ordinance and then the Bihar Panchayat Raj Act of 2006 to usher in these changes so that when, in six months, the panchayat elections were held, they were held under the new rules. The polls ended up electing over 54,000 women, including 3,800 women mukhiyas, and eighteen women zilla parishad chairpersons. Nitish had also wanted to move to party-based elections as in neighbouring West Bengal, to help particularly the Maoist-affected areas, but failed to do so. Given that it would have been a major change, he convened an all-party meet but the RJD and a few other parties were completely opposed to the idea.

The 50 per cent women's reservation in panchayats was the first step in the empowerment of women, which would be a consistent thrust area in the years to come and a major plank of Nitish's social justice theme.

The legislative fillip was visible in other developmental areas as well. One of the first major laws passed by the new government was the repeal of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) and Boards Act. These were agencies instituted half a century ago when agricultural markets were extremely local and needed support to spread. Most states in India have these laws and they are part of the state subject. With the passage of time, these laws have generally proven to be a hindrance to development of natural markets, prohibiting farmers from selling their produce to the best buyer available. It is widely recognized, both by international agencies as well as by India's Planning Commission, that the APMCs-in their present avatar as a network of vested interests of intermediaries-are now much more a liability for the agricultural sector than an asset, leading to a wide wedge between the price the consumer pays for agricultural output and what the farmer gets for his produce. And yet, states have long been dragging their feet on amending or repealing the APMC Acts. Bihar became the first state to repeal the APMC Act and abolish the marketing boards by September 2006. For the farmers, this opened up the possibilities of offering their produce for sale to anyone with the best price offer, of organized retail and of carrying out contract farming.

The clutch of laws that the new government passed in 2006, the very year it came to power, included those on groundwater management, simplification of VAT procedures, enabling state infrastructure, the single window clearance, sugarcane supply and purchase, and stamp duty and an amendment to the Bihar Regional Development Authority. In addition, an industrial policy was put in place in 2006 and as many as four major commissions were set up to push forth government action in four key ideological thrust areas of the new government-the Common School System Commission, Commission for Land Reforms, Farmer's Commission and the Administrative Reforms Commission. No one could blame the government for going slow on its agenda of bringing about order in governance.

The Force of Discipline

True to the chief minister's style, the Nitish Kumar administration had 'hit the ground running' in governing Bihar. When Nitish took over as Union Minister of Railways, he spent his first eight days at Rail Bhavan just talking to officials for over twelve hours each day. By the end of the exercise, there was virtually nobody in the department with greater knowledge about Indian Railways as a whole than Nitish himself. And this was Bihar, a land whose people and concerns had been his own ever since he had joined public life. He certainly needed no induction course here.

Nitish was the unquestioned driver and soul of the new administration. His style, as always, was one of very long hours of focused work with detailed understanding of various departments and issues and problems and a habit of regular monitoring. This last part was how the motor of Nitish's personal energy engaged

knows about and coverage seems to be universal. Childbirths at home, however, are still common despite government incentives. When asked why, the respondents, particularly in the Muslim tola of Sasaula, cited various reasons like inaccessibility or high price of transport at odd hours, most of which do not stand up to scrutiny. Tradition still plays a big role in determining demand. The citizens, quick to blame the government for everything, are still extremely negligent customers.

Education-The Turnaround Story

The story of education in Bihar largely parallels the experience in the health sector. Bihar was traditionally among the worst performing states in India in terms of education and literacy. After the six years of the new administration, it has succeeded in improving its rank by only one, pushing itself ahead of Rajasthan. But that relative measure vastly understates the changes in the education sector as well as its far-reaching social effects. Literacy growth among women in Bihar during the past decade has been the highest in the history of the census. Today, one of the commonest sights on most roads in Bihar is a group of girls in neat blue-and-white salwar-kameez (school uniforms) bicycling together, presumably to or from school. The social impact of this on the status of women and the demand for education itself has stretched far beyond what any cold statistic can ever capture.

However, even the statistics are far from unimpressive. Consider elementary education. In 2005 the average pupil-teacher ratio in Bihar's schools was 96. In 2011 the figure stood at 58. The student-classroom ratio had dropped from 99 to 72. In 2005, around 27,000 schools had at least one toilet; in 2011 well over 45,000 did. Separate girls' toilets were available in just over 8,000 schools in 2005; it rose to well over 31,000 in 2011. Drinking water availability rose from just over 49,000 schools to close to 64,000 schools. The estimated number of out-of-school children dropped from over 23 lakh in 2005 to just over 3.5 lakh in 2011,

Schoolgirls on bicycles: a common sight anywhere in Bihar today

notwithstanding the population rise. The annual average dropout rate in primary schools fell from 36 per cent to 6 per cent. The number of children receiving textbooks rose from close to 76 lakh to over 199 lakh. The budgetary allocation on textbooks rose from slightly over `83 crore to almost `344 crore.

As in health, in education too, the pre-2006 scenario was abysmal. A large number of government schools were not open for even 100 days in a year. There were one or two teachers per school and absenteeism was the norm. In fact, people had lost faith in the government schooling system itself. Private initiatives had, of course, stepped in, with practically no quality checks, but at least the schools were open 300 days a year. So parents who could afford it naturally preferred to send their children to the private schools. But the private efforts were nowhere close to being a state-level substitute for the government school system. To achieve a state-wide impact on elementary education, it was imperative for the government to get its act together.

Like in health, here too a central scheme provided major support to the state government. This was the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA). However, unlike the NRHM in health, SSA was not started at the time the new government came to power; it had been in existence since 2001. The programme, carried out in collaboration with the state governments, sought to open new schools in habitations with no schooling facilities and provide existing schools with additional classrooms, toilets, drinking water, maintenance grants and school improvement grants. It also provided teacher-deficient schools with additional teachers, enhanced the capacity of existing teachers through extensive training, gave grants for developing teaching-learning materials as well as strengthening the academic support structure at cluster, block and district levels.

But this was not enough. For instance, SSA funded textbooks for girls and SC/ST students, but not for others. It provided funding for building new classrooms but not to repair old ones, or for playgrounds or boundary walls. This funding had to come from the state budget. When the new government came to power, the social sector received high priority and funds started flowing into education. But it was not just the question of funding. How and where exactly this money was spent would distinguish between sustained improvement and total failure. Take the example of toilets. In a general tick-the-box approach, the only question that mattered was the existence of a toilet or the lack thereof. But sometimes it meant toilets were built according to the contractor's convenience with no proper running water and often no separate facility for girls, so the facility did not really meet the intended needs. The new regime started making these distinctions and set specific standards to improve the effectiveness of the facilities provided.

Anjani Singh had become the principal secretary, human resource development, even before the new government came in and he continues in that role as this book goes to press. He and his fellow officers have often come up with several innovative measures that have gone a long way in changing the face of education- particularly elementary education-in Bihar.

The initial thrust was to narrow gender gap. There was a significant gap between literacy and education levels across genders

First Published: March 26, 2013, 1:37 PM IST
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