| Prosperity’s Burden: Paddy being carted to threshing mills in Bettiah along a newly built road. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur |
If Nitish Kumar’s stature — and political clout — has grown since he took over the reins of the state in November 2005, so have the expectations and aspirations of the people who voted him to power twice.
For a chief minister who had made susashan or good governance the cornerstone of his regime, it is ironical that across the vast swathe of the Bihar hinterland, murmurs of dissatisfaction are growing louder as people question the ability of the administration to deliver at the grassroots.
Parmeshwar Sharma, 65, who belongs to a Below Poverty Line family in Chilmilitola in Begusarai district, is entitled to Rs 200 per month as old age pension for the last five years. “Whenever I go to the mukhiya he asks for Rs 500 as bribe or an age certificate. When I go to the block office, the BDO asks for even more for issuing the age certificate. I have abandoned my efforts to get the pension,” says Sharma, who lives in a hut with his wife.
A journey through the remote hinterlands in Begusarai, Khagaria, Bhagalpur, Samastipur and Darbhanga districts around the Ganga, Kosi and Burhi Gandak rivers has brought to the fore the increasing disgruntlement among the people.
The major grievances are the endemic corruption throttling the Nitish government’s delivery mechanism at the grassroots level; extremely poor educational set-up and third, the virtual absence of healthcare facilities. Ironical, since the people are resenting Nitish rule on the very issues at which the government has claimed to have worked hard.
For instance, the government has taken several legislative and executive methods, including the right to service act, special court act and strengthening of the vigilance wing, to contain corruption. Official figures say the school dropout rates have gone down to nearly two per cent from 13 per cent and over 13,000 patients are visiting the hospitals per month against barely 40 when he took charge of the state in 2005.
But for people cutting across castes and communities and living in the remote hinterlands that constitute almost 80 per cent of the state’s habitation, these figures mean little. “It was better when we had no doctors visiting the hospitals and no schools. We did not expect relief from the hospital and we never wasted money on transportation to visit the hospital. Now, we go to the hospitals to find that there are no medicines, and doctors shout at us as if we have committed a crime. We lose our hard-earned money and our ailments aggravate when we visit the hospital,” says an angry Pashupati Paswan (50), a rickshaw and cartpuller at Bhagwanpur in Khagaria.
Villagers along the 7km rural stretch from Rajaura to Tilrath in Begusarai admitted that they had good roads, schools and even teachers. “But what is the use of these teachers who spend whole of the day in preparing khichdi for the students and then quarrel over the distribution of the money left after buying the food items? All these teachers (read contract teachers) are fools, they don’t teach the kids,” said Rambalak Sahni (35), a resident of Rahampur in Khagaria district.
It is not as if the people do not appreciate the work done by the government. They openly admit that the roads are a far cry from the “trenches and craters” that existed in the past; that hospitals function with doctors attending and the provisions for housing for the poor and old age pension besides other social security schemes are a marked improvement over past regimes.
“The road is there which we can use to reach the block office. But when we reach the block office to get our newly registered land mutated, the circle officer asks for a huge bribe. There is no control on him. The old age pension is there but we cannot get it unless we pay a bribe. Eventually, the relatively richer ones who are in a position to pay a bribe and get into the BPL list become beneficiaries. The doctors are there but they treat and behave with the relatively affluent people in a better manner. They scold us when we visit,” says Ghazali (50) of Begumpur in Samastipur district.
The aspirations of the people have gone up. The roads, schools, hospitals now look old. The government, at least for now, does not appear to have any answer on how to tackle the rising aspirations and expectations of the people.
The frustration though is not enough to make the people lose hope in Nitish and root for Lalu Prasad, who has been touring across Begusarai, Khagaria, Samastipur and Darbhanga districts with his Parivartan Yatra and drawing good crowds.
“We gathered at Lalu’s meeting to air our grievances against Nitish who we expect to deliver to our expectations. We still treat Nitishji as a good man. We are still not thinking in terms of bringing Lalu back,” says Bhikhari Yadav (30) at Rahmatpur.
The rising expectations and related resentment appear to be more of a “warning signal” rather than a “churning” to oust Nitish from power. The chief minister still has three years to go in his second term during which much water is expected to flow down the Ganga.