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Friday, July 1, 2005

One of the great challenges facing our republic is the increasing regional disparities. It is well recognized that the South and the West are the engines of growth, along with the region in and around Delhi. The North and the East, with the exception of West Bengal are in dire straits, though considerable potential exists in the fertile Gangetic plains.

The perpetual crisis Bihar is facing is an illustration of governance failure and economic stagnation leading to regional disparities. Already, the per capita income of Bihar is barely 20% of that in Maharashtra. And Bihar is not a small little region with sparse population. With 83 million people sandwiched in the truncated Bihar, its future is a gargantuan challenge for Indian governance. Nor can we isolate Bihar or Eastern UP. Each of them is larger than any nation in Europe. And in a free country, people in dire problems are bound to migrate to other regions in search of livelihoods. The problem of slums in Mumbai is essentially an offshoot of despair in rural Bihar and UP.

There are many who think Bihar and UP can be ignored and the rest of India can get on the bandwagon of growth and prosperity in the twenty-first century. But the truth is, if Bihar and UP languish, India fails too. A quarter century ago, during our civil service training at Mussoorie, when people talked of UP and Bihar, those of us from the rest of India used to snigger with an air of superiority. But experience taught us that in every state of the Union there is a large part of Bihar. The degree and the manifestation of the crisis may vary, but corruption, criminalization, collapse of public goods, failure of rule of law, decline in the quality of leadership, and perverse public discourse are endemic to all of India.

In two ways, Bihar crisis is less intractable than it is made out to be. First, vast multitudes of people in Bihar are vexed with economic stagnation, politics of identity sans public good, criminalization and corruption. The recent political flux has to be viewed in the context of this significant shift in public perceptions. That people do not have real alternatives in terms of better governance, and all parties are victims of the same vicious cycle are a different matter. The yearning of the people for something better is clearly evident. Second, if there is a perception of collapse of governance, it is easier to pick up the pieces and start with a clean slate. A moderately successful state is harder to reform, because it is difficult to summon the will to upset the applecart. But a ‘failed’ state can offer no argument or incentive in favour of status-quo. The crisis of Bihar therefore, could yet be converted into an opportunity.

What then can be done in Bihar realistically? Four major areas are in desperate need of reform, and rapid change is possible in all sectors. The most vital priority is restoration of rule of law. All governance is based on perceptions. If people see ‘might is right’, and that no law applies, then soon all people behave erratically and create a lawless society. The line between a lawful society and anarchy is very thin. A series of steps can, and must, be initiated at low cost to restore rule of law in Bihar. Local courts for speedy justice as an integral part of independent judiciary at a low cost can be constituted swiftly. Once simple disputes are resolved in a credible manner, and petty crime is punished quickly, a culture of rule of law will soon return. Cleaning up of subordinate judiciary following the Maharashtra pattern, identifying and systematically dealing with key visible symptoms of breakdown of public order (“broken windows”), and insulation of investigation of serious crimes from political vagaries – all are politically and economically low cost and high impact solutions.

Second, delivery of education and health care can be improved speedily by institutional innovations. Thousands of middle class Biharis are fleeing the region in search of better education. Empowerment of parents in schools, an improved examination system to measure real caliber of students, and a state testing board to give disaggregated data on educational outcomes to facilitate interventions to improve quality are three low cost solutions which can convert the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle. Similarly, speedy recruitment and training of local health workers, supply of drugs in PHCs, rapid infrastructure improvements to meet the demand for family planning services, and creation of hospital fund at local level to reimburse public hospitals for patient care, with money following the patient are innovations which are eminently feasible. There is no resource problem, because the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and National Rural Health Mission are already in operation with Union support. We need to make sure that committed and competent civil servants are placed in charge, and motivated and talented citizens are attracted on contractual basis to improve and manage delivery of services.

Third, thanks to the proactive measures of Patna High Court, the elected local governments are at last in place. At the local level, there can be greater fusion between authority and accountability, and people can keep track of the money spent and benefits realized. And as most state-sponsored development has come to a grinding halt, the usual resistance of legislators and bureaucrats to decentralization is likely to be less virulent.

Finally, Bihar needs a large dose of Union assistance for infrastructure - especially  roads, flood control and bridges across the many ferocious rivers. A one-time massive package is both necessary and economical. Improvement in Bihar has tremendous consequences to the rest of India by way of reducing population growth and migration. The nation must cheerfully foot the bill for balanced regional growth. But first Bihar administration must acquire the capacity to utilize the resources and deliver results.

Even now, it is not too late to retrieve the situation in Bihar. It just needs innovation, courage, speedy action and prudent deployment of resources. Even politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to improve things, for what is there to plunder in a graveyard? We need to address the crisis of confidence and restore optimism and sense of adventure that were the hallmarks of governance in Bihar fifty years ago.