The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mission impossible'

For Bihar’s economic problems, everyone seems to have an answer hidden in his sleeve. Some of these are garbled echoes of the pet economic theories. Others are the specialist’s knowledgeable prescriptions for the state. All these however failed to bail the state out of its Bimaru condition.

During his three-day visit to Bihar, the president of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, had a glimpse of Bihar’s psyche. That this state is in the process of falling to pieces became quite obvious to the nuclear-scientist-turned-first-citizen of the country as he went hopping from one programme to another, interacting with people, farmers and politicians.

He refrained from offering any ready-made solutions as politicians and experts are wont to. Instead, he laid stress on agriculture, tourism and medicinal plants, which have been Bihar’s strong points.

His list of remedies for the state’s ailments came sometimes in the form of advice — for instance, when he met about 500 farmers in Paligunge — or as instructions, as if from a teacher to his students — when he spoke to schoolchildren and political leaders. He left Patna last week after conveying a message for a change in the character of leadership in Bihar.

He urged the people to abandon the fear of the future and concentrate on shaping the present. He reminded his listeners that Bihar needed leaders who would transform themselves from managers to mentors and from directors to facilitators.

That was as far as the president could go. He has been hearing for long about the state’s downslide. A month ago, he heard from Union ministers from the state like C.P. Thakur about projects perishing in Bihar as funds return for lack of utilization. Kalam had another account of the state of affairs in Bihar from the railways minister, Nitish Kumar.

Besides, he has been reading about the chief minister of the state, Rabri Devi, sulking in a corner at a national-level workshop or storming out of another because her state was placed lowest down on the economic development map. During his visit, he met Laloo Yadav who complained of a stepmotherly attitude of the Central government. Among the many shocks that hit him was the moment of surprise when a minister in the Rabri Devi cabinet spoke accented English and introduced himself as the science and technology minister. A moment of pregnant silence followed. The president might have been wondering what the science and technology minister was supposed to do in a state lagging so far behind the rest in science and technology.

Kalam may have sounded obtrusive to Bihar’s politicians. But he was trying to generate a sense of hope among the people and leaders and make it a psychological platform from which to launch his development initiative in the state, which he knew was the last signpost on the growth-map of the country.

Laying the foundation stone of the Rs 98.74 crore railway coach maintenance factory in the native village of the Union railway minister, Nitish Kumar, created the initial sense of triumph. But his development concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears of the current crop of politicians and have failed to cause a stir.

The politicians, not surprisingly, failed to rise above local bickerings. During his meeting with the president, Laloo Yadav called the leader of the opposition in Bihar, Sushil Modi, “a destructive opposition leader”. Laloo even pleaded with Kalam to remove Modi from his post. An angry Modi, who has been taking the Rabri Devi government to task on the alleged nexus between the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal legislators and criminals and on the declining law and order situation, shot back at Laloo Yadav immediately after the president’s departure: “We have very few expectations from the state government after the president’s visit. His well-intentioned cautionings on the state’s future will not move the state administration which is gripped by pure inertia.”.

The leaders from the ruling RJD and the Congress called the programme a triumph of Nitish Kumar’s nose for publicity. But the analysts and observers are more cautious. “Bihar has witnessed development reaching a nadir, whichever yardstick is used to measure growth.The president’s interest in the Bihar phenomenon may have put Bihar on the national agenda. But the political skepticism pervasive in the state is difficult to wish away”, says Saibal Gupta, member secretary to the Asian Development and Research Institute in Bihar.

The president, escorted by development experts, visited Nalanda and Bodhgaya, the pilgrimage centres of the state, met farmers at Paligunge and also met educationists. In his addresses at about half a dozen meetings and seminars, he repeatedly talked about the development potentials of the state and its rich heritage. “I know Bihar well. I am aware of the pains and dreams of the people. You have to know your potentials to strive harder for growth”, he said.

In all her addresses at these meetings, on the other hand, the chief minister, Rabri Devi, kept harping on the need for a special package for her state: “The Centre is yet to announce a special package despite the fact that it had deprived of the state of its revenue from the mineral-rich areas when it decided to bifurcate the state in November 2000”.

Whether it is because of lack of adequate fund or administrative inefficiency, Bihar’s underdevelopment statistics put it safely as an economic basket case. A few indicators of the state’s misery are that only 10 per cent of households enjoy electricity, 55 per cent of households fall under the below poverty line category, and the public distribution system caters to just 5 per cent of the people. The fact that 29.2 per cent of the slumdwellers of the country come from Bihar (according to the National Capital Regional Board Report) has failed to move Bihar’s politicians.

There are, however, two models of growth in the state. One in which the development fund is poured into their constituencies by the Union ministers hailing from the state. Harnaut and Nalanda have been hogging the headlines, thanks to George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar respectively. Fernandes made Nalanda bag the Rs 3,000 crore ordinance factory recently. Nitish Kumar’s package for his home constituency — including railway lines in Fatua Islampur and the railway coach maintenance factory inaugurated by Kalam — involved an investment of over Rs 600 crore. “We wonder if Bihar exists to both Nitish Kumar and Fernandes beyond their own constituencies”, says Ramashankar Tiwari, a Food Corporation of India employee in Mokama.

The other, in which the state government is involved, Central money is usually returned unutilized. A sum of Rs 149 crore had been sanctioned and released to the state in March 2001 for laying roads in 629 villages. But the state government could utilize only Rs 58 crore till March 2003. The reason provided by the road construction department was that it did not have qualified engineers.

Laloo Yadav complains of the conditionalities attached to Central funds. But these are not specially imposed on Bihar. But Bihar’s minister are not willing to face the truth and try to change things around. “We have heard enough diagnoses of Bihar’s disease. Let us hear about the cure”, says Jagadanand Singh, state minister for forest and environment while rejecting and banning the circulation of a development report prepared by the planning commission.

Kalam had a rather novel solution to offer: “Don’t come up with nagging complaints. Rise above personal perceptions. Take inspiration from history and work together”, he told a delegation of legislators before going back to Delhi.

The president has left a clear message. He has tried to chalk out a roadmap and even attempted to jolt the politicians out of their false perceptions. Above everything else, he has striven to bring back the Bihar debate. Are Bihar’s leaders prepared to take a hard look at themselves' How many of them have the strength to transcend the misery that has enveloped Bihar for some time now' And, how many have the courage to face the truth'

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