All is not well in the state of Bihar. Or so it seems from the flurry of media stories highlighting the darker side of the Nitish Kumar miracle.
Among the most recent is an Outlook magazine cover story highlighting the six myths about Bihar as an economic powerhouse. The article by Pragya Singh rebuts six key claims [Read it here]:
One, Bihar became the fastest growing state in the shortest period of time. Outlook points out that Bihar has always experienced wild fluctuations in growth rates, enjoying double digit rates even in the bad old 90s.
Two, agricultural policies are the most progressive in the nation: Share is declining steadily even though the population remains predominantly rural. Bad policies have led to spiraling food inflation, higher than the rest of the nation.
Three, Bihar is a safe place to do business. Yes, state-sponsored crime is down, but kidnappings, rape, theft et al are up.
Four, Bihar will soon be an industrial dynamo. Not quite since investment is still trickling in to the state.
Five, Bihar’s consumer economy has immense potential. While per capita income has grown, so has inflation. And there is poor access to credit due to the small number of banks.
Six, Bihar is building roads at a lightning rate. Yes, but they don’t matter in a state dominated by micro-enterprises.
There are lots of contradictory facts and figures, confusion that Singh attributes to selective data:
The Bihar government has outsourced a number of services. For instance, the state’s annual economic survey is brought out by a private think tank, the Asian Development Research Institute, since 2006. Since the move, it is regularly pointed out, data on critical performance indicators is selectively included or excluded in these reports. So the problem, says Santhosh Mathew, a senior bureaucrat in the Bihar government, may lie in “faulty, unreliable” data than in “spin”.
The charge of spin is especially serious since it comes on the heels of an Open magazine investigation that exposed the draconian control exercised by Kumar over his state’s media. Using a carrot-and-stick policy – ie enormous state PR spending coupled with punitive retaliation – Kumar now has near-virtual control over what is printed about him and his state. A senior journalist who was demoted and forced to resign because of a column critical of the CM says:
The Urdu press has never been a good place to work, but under Nitish Kumar’s regime, it has become worse, and things are no better in the state’s Hindi press. I remember the Emergency, when there was declared censorship. Under Nitish, it is undeclared, and this makes it even more dangerous for democracy. The truth is being suppressed like never before, and the entire media is being pressured to build and burnish Nitish Kumar’s image.
And yet, despite his best efforts, Kumar remains dogged by bad press in the national media. The Indian Express recently ran a series of investigative stories exposing corruption in one of his pet schemes: The MahaDalit Commission. The scheme was launched in 2009 to give land to the poorest of the poor Dalits, who often lose out to their better off brethren in traditional schemes. Three years later, it is an embarrassing failure: “Allegedly acting in concert, government officials and brokers ganged up to buy land dirt cheap from villagers and then, within days, sold it to the government at four to five times that price. That land was then distributed under the Mahadalit Vikas Yojana.”
The scheme had targeted 2.18 lakh families at its inception, and as of 2011, 1.53 lakh families were given plots. And that includes a poor Dalit family that was alloted a local pond in Kumar’s own district. (Early this month, the CM ordered a probe into the land racket, promising that the “guilty will not be spared”.)
Corruption, check. How about that old Bihar bugbear, law and order?
A new Tehelka story alleges that the Patna police deliberately looked the other way while Ranvir Sena supporters went on a rampage after the assassination of their leader, Brahmeshwar Singh. It quotes a rickshawala, who says: “In all my years in Patna, I have never seen something like this. Are caste wars really a thing of the past in Bihar?”
So is Bihar regressing to the dark days? Not likely. Life is undoubtedly better in the state and under Kumar. The real lesson here is this: Beware of your own hype. Kumar’s self-styled reputation as a miracle-maker has bred sky-high expectations that he now finds hard to meet:
Sure, Nitish hardly inherited a prosperous, effective state machinery. In fact, 42 per cent of Bihar’s population lived below the poverty line (Planning Commission) in 2008. His government also introduced new ideas. For instance, the chief minister responded with road-building and education, to create a backbone of skilled manpower and industry. But expectations are higher than that. “Biharis are culturally and politically critical and sharp,” says Manoj Srivastava, principal secretary, Panchayati Raj. “Today they don’t leave much room for benefit of doubt.”
Read “How to Build a Reputation” on the Outlook website
“Old caste wars haunt Nitish’s naya Bihar” on Tehelka.com
“Editor in chief of Bihar” is available on the Open magazine site.