Eastern India is usually seen in an unfavourable light by those who live outside the region. Those of us who live here have to hear from others in the country how backward and lacking in dynamism the region is. I have even heard from some serious persons that there is something wrong with the DNA of the people of this region. The Lalu Prasad joke that did the rounds in his heyday said it all. When the puzzled industry minister of Japan saw the poverty of Bihar in the midst of all its resources, he is supposed to have told Prasad that he could turn Bihar around within a reasonable period of time if he were given the charge of its industry. “Big deal!” Prasad is said to have replied. “Make me the prime minister of Japan and I shall turn it into Bihar in less time.”
Is there nothing good about this region? It is important to look at the situation in an objective manner without feeling resigned or becoming defensive.
I think there is much to appreciate here. To begin with, consider the number of persons involved. Eastern India, consisting of the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, involves a very large number of people, not including those living in the northeastern states, to respect their separate identity. The combined population of these four states (more than 267 million) is higher than the combined population of Germany, France, Italy and Canada (more than 239 million). Remembering that 60 per cent of the national population is below 30 years of age, this region has a large number of young persons and not an ageing population, as in advanced societies.
Consider the educational institutions that are located in this region. Apart from Calcutta University, this region has several universities and many institutions relevant for business, such as the Indian Institutes of Management (Calcutta, Ranchi), Indian Institutes of Technology (Kharagpur, Bhubaneshwar and Patna), Bengal Engineering and Science University (Calcutta), Xavier Labour Relations Institute (Jamshedpur), Xavier Institute of Management (Bhubaneshwar), West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (Calcutta) and National Law University (Cuttack). The intellectual legacy of this region is considerable. While Calcutta University was one of the first modern universities to be set up in India, this region can boast of the first IIM in India and of the first IIT as well. Historically, the region had in Nalanda one of the earliest universities in the world that was known for its scholarship.
This region is rich in natural resources, with fertile land and adequate water. It is known as the mineral heartland of India. In the Chota Nagpur plateau and Odisha plateau areas — covering the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha — is to be found, according to D.R. Khullar, “India’s 100 per cent kyanite, 93 per cent iron ore, 84 per cent coal, 70 per cent chromite, 70 per cent mica, 50 per cent fire clay, 45 per cent asbestos, 45 per cent china clay, 20 per cent limestone, and 10 per cent manganese.”
Apart from Calcutta, this region has important cities such as Durgapur, Siliguri and Asansol in West Bengal; Patna, Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur and Gaya in Bihar; Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Dhanbad, and Bokaro in Jharkhand; Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack, Rourkela and Puri in Odisha. The region can also boast of many industrial achievements. To talk only of the steel industry here, Tisco, now Tata Steel, a major global company, has its largest plant in Jamshedpur. The Iisco plant of the Steel Authority of India Limited is located in Burnpur near Asansol. These two plants were the first integrated steel plants in the country.
Cynics may yet raise an objection: what about the situation at present? Well, there is some good news in this respect too. Nitish Kumar, the present chief minister of Bihar, has shown what can be achieved with political will. All reports indicate that he is turning Bihar around from a state crippled by corruption and caste-based politics to a state with development on its agenda. Odisha has also shown a remarkable capacity to attract big projects. A growing awareness that development is needed and possible seems to be gaining ground all over. Taking into account the point of view of those interested in setting up industry here, it may also be pointed out that the region is far from being saturated. This means there are opportunities to be explored.
It has to be admitted at the same time that not all is well in this region. Eastern India remains low in terms of regional disparity. According to a study by Parthapratim Pal and Jayati Ghosh, regional inequality has increased in the 1990s, especially considering the three richest states (Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra) and the two poorest states (Bihar and Odisha). More recent data indicates that in terms of nominal GDP, Bihar remains at the bottom and the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha well below the national average. More distressingly, according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, there are more poor people (421 million) in eight Indian states alone (which include Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal) than in the 26 poorest African countries combined (410 million).
This region remains politically disturbed, with party rivalries, tribal unrest and the Naxalite insurgency. Many districts from all the states of eastern India are affected. While the genuine problems of the poor are neglected, excessive politicization has created a condition where political parties expand their areas of control in a situation of scarcity.
The challenges are clear. The region has to develop, including industrially, in an inclusive manner. Too much energy gets wasted in dealing with petty issues. This is typical of a situation where the size of the cake is relatively small. Once the cake is made larger and a reasonably good possibility exists of a fair share for all, it should be possible to go beyond pettiness. There is a clear need to think big. An assessment of the real possibilities is the first step in that direction.
With the rise of Asia, there is a growing need to invest in our Asian neighbours. For such a national policy, eastern India assumes critical importance. It can become the gateway to not only our immediate neighbours (Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal) but also to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Thus the task is to move towards closer cooperation and possible integration in different spheres in an expanding manner: within the four states (not just for political reasons), with the Northeast, which needs to be better integrated, with our three immediate neighbours, and with the Asean and other nations.
There are immense possibilities. Our politicians, caught up as they are in their petty games, have failed us. They need to become aware of the possibilities of this region. Moreover, visionary persons from different domains can come forward to suggest the way forward for the region. The time has come to wake up to a new dawn.