The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It was difficult to make out the blurred shapes on the platform as the train pulled into the Patna station on a cold winter night. The time was 9.30 pm and we were at the heart of Bihar. To my friend from Princeton, a researcher on “all thriving democracies of the world”, Bihar evoked endless curiosity. He had been fed tid-bits about its rustic charm, piping hot littis, mashed potatoes with fried onion rings, curried mutton on misty winter nights, caste mayhems, the Sonepur cattle carnival, and its uncrowned king, Laloo Prasad Yadav. He could not wait to sample Bihar first hand and fill his notebook. He asked the driver of our weather-beaten Maruti van, “Are you a Bihari'”, his notebook already half-open.

“Yes sir, I am a Yadav,” pat came the reply. Confusion clouded my friend’s eyes. He mumbled under his breath, “How was a Yadav different from a Bihari'” I marvelled at his ignorance. For a resident of Bihar was first a Yadav, Bhumihar, Lala, Rajput, Kurmi, Koeri or a Paswan, and then a Bihari.

This Bihar “syndrome” — often thought to be the stumbling block in the state’s path of progress — has its roots in the absence of sub-nationalism that defines the intermediate socio-political identity of a state. A native of West Bengal is inevitably a Bengali beyond the state’s frontiers, that of Punjab a Punjabi, that of Maharashtra a Marathi, that of Tamil Nadu a Tamil and so on. It is only in Bihar that an individual is identified by his caste instead of a regional entity.

The syndrome, considered a characteristic of the BIMARU states, is marked by a near-total absence of sub-nationalism, poor work culture, deep-rooted corruption, caste-based politics, lack of political and social motivation and low self-esteem. Last year, the additional solicitor general of India, Kirit Rawal, had raised a storm when he allegedly said that the capital city should not be allowed “to get afflicted by the Bihar syndrome”. The comment had sparked off widespread resentment among the resident Bihari intelligentsia in Delhi and elsewhere in the country. An indignant Bihar assembly even devoted an issue of its periodical, Sakhya, to record the leaders’ protests. Most of them, however, blamed “poor administration and the prevailing anarchy” for Bihar’s negative image.

Rawal’s fears were echoed by the Bihar industry commission, which in its report, “Industrial development imperatives in Bihar”, pointed out that Bihar was a state of mind —“It is like a hat that has lost its shape because nobody likes to wear it. When it comes to Bihar, it is more a matter of attitudes, opinion and impressions than that of facts which often get exaggerated.” The commission recommended the setting up of a public relations cell for image-building.

According to the leader of the opposition, Sushil Modi, the low self-esteem of an average Bihari is a direct fallout of inefficient governance. “Whenever people from the state go outside, they become objects of ridicule. This is not because they were born in Bihar, but because of the present state of affairs. Reforms can change the perception.”

Not only hoi polloi, the syndrome has affected even the upper echelons of Bihari society. Bihari bureaucrats, a formidable tribe by virtue of their astounding success rate in the civil services examination, relish Bihar-bashing in public. “Nothing moves. Things are in a mess,’’ is the common refrain of IAS and IPS officials from the state.

This inertia has been evident for some time in the past. During the freedom struggle, especially during the Gandhian era, Bihar had always been at the forefront. The Champaran satyagraha is a case in point. But the patriotism did not translate into anything positive for Bihar after independence. The crusade against feudalism led by the Kisan Mahasabha intensified agricultural growth, but the movement remained confined to a few backward and marginal caste groups which were landless. Outsiders got to tap Bihar’s mineral base. While the Tatas pumped funds in Chhotanagpur at the turn of the last century, the Dalmiyas created their own Dalmiyanagar.

After independence, Bihar allowed its economy to slide, and by 1961, it ranked second last in the list of most-backward states. The freight equalization policy of the Sixties, that sought to bring uniformity in the mineral cess structure, dealt a crippling blow to the state, making it subservient to the western and the southern states, where anti-Brahminism got converted into an agenda for “sub-national” identity, which in turn accelerated economic growth.

Bihar’s dependence on outsiders to harness its industrial potential and its single-minded focus on agriculture proved to be its bane. Since agriculture as the primary economic activity was caste-centric, the caste groups concentrated on altering the feudal structure only to the extent that would suit them. Caste thus became an overriding factor in determining the development matrix. Progress was limited to pockets and its fruits enjoyed by only those groups which fought for it. The trickle-down effect failed to encompass the society.

At present, Bihar has one of the lowest credit deposit ratio of 23.18 against a national average of 53.4, a dismal per capita income of Rs 3,859 and the highest poverty percentage at 42.60 per cent. Though it has registered a sharp increase in foodgrain production over the past decade, the growth rate, ironically, has been minus 1.04 per cent.

Besides economy, the absence of a link language in the state has also contributed to Bihar’s backwardness. Bihar’s fragmented personality, with its numerous territorial identities and definite dialects like Bhojpuri and Magahi, lies superimposed over the rigid caste hierarchy. The linguistic chauvinism has prevented people from agreeing to a common development agenda. In fact, this has led to deeper polarization and demands for autonomy on the basis of linguistic identity. The Mithilanchal movement followed by a tentative clamour for a Bhojpur caucus were fallouts of this language schism.

But every cloud has a silver lining and in Bihar’s case, the bifurcation is proving to be one such. Says Saibal Gupta of Asian Development Research Institute, “Post-bifurcation, three issues have united the broadest spectrum of the Bihari society — the lopsided procurement policy of the Centre (the compensation package and the asset division between Bihar and Jharkhand), the Hajipur railway zone and flood control.” These three issues witnessed unprecedented consensus.

A recent seminar on “Bihar: identity and development” in Patna, Gupta brought together a disparate group of legislators, party workers, and intellectuals to debate on the issue. The exercise, the first of its kind, agreed on one core issue: let Bihari sub-nationalism create an impact in the global market. The participants concurred that it was necessary to replace the clichés with positive thinking. The fact that Bihar has at least woken up to the syndrome is a giant leap in itself.

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