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Understanding the Bihar model

Sumita Kale 

Rekindling Governance and Development
Edited by N K Singh and Nicholas Stern

HarperCollins India
387 pages; Rs 799

This compilation of essays, edited by N K Singh and Nicholas Stern, catches the reader's interest at first glance because it talks about a state that has taken India by surprise. The book brings together the details and the nuances of what can be called the Bihar model of development, which has brought hope and pride to millions of Biharis. The essays by eminent contributors lead the reader through the state's glorious past, the reasons for the decline of the state both before and after Independence, the dark period of 1990-2005 when Bihar failed to capitalise on the liberalisation of the Indian economy and, finally, the turnaround in governance.

The book comes out fortuitously before election year and offers valuable lessons for those who are in the fray, especially in terms of the details of getting priorities right. It has to be said at the outset, however, that by having two sections titled "Half Full" and "Half Empty," the book presents a balanced picture; it does not come across as a political plug for Nitish Kumar but explains where and why he has succeeded and where he has not. In fact, the "Half Full" section has three essays and the "Half Empty" section has six - suggesting that some of the basics have improved substantially, but there are many challenges that need to be addressed.

The book has 29 essays organised in eight sections. A review cannot do justice to each of these essays, all written by stalwarts in their fields; it can only try to give the flavour of the book. As the editors say in the introduction, the essence of the New Bihar story is that "a greater guarantee for security of life and property, improved road connectivity, improving health facilities, enlarging access to education, imparting vocational education and unleashing plans for creating centres for educational excellence have rekindled the lost pride of Bihar". To some extent, this is not just about Bihar; it is equally applicable to other states.

It is unfortunate that, in many states, the basics are still missing; the powerful impact of ensuring the rule of law alone cannot be overemphasised today. Here, Arnab Mukherji and Anjan Mukherji's piece, "Sushasan: Governance and the New Bihar", explains the policy change in governance, and how innovative moves like Jankari (an e-governance programme that allowed filing RTI by phone and brought 22,600 calls in the first two years) introduced transparency and responsiveness - and built confidence among people. A number of measures - fast-track courts, the Right to Public Service Act, the Lokayukta Act and so on - were driven straight from the chief minister's office.

In fact, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar's analysis of the performance in the erstwhile Bimaru states underlines this point. He notes that strong chief ministers in the four most successful states in this category have shown that when a chief minister gets serious about something, no matter what those areas may be, then "historical disadvantages, economic backwardness, lack of infrastructure, administrative capacity" do not get in the way. This is what governance is all about in most of India - a strong push from the top.

The piece on schooling by Rukmini Banerjee exemplifies this point and makes for fascinating reading. One can feel the energy as administrators grapple with multiple complex issues involved in increasing access to schooling. While cycles for girls is a commonly heard story, one usually does not read about the attention paid to improving the quality of teachers through new centres for training, revamping the teacher training curriculum, and using new approaches like summer camps to improve learning outcomes for students in basic reading and arithmetic and so on.

The essays are quite comprehensive, beginning with a section that gives the big picture and moving through a detailed analysis of the turnaround in growth, fiscal management, health, agriculture, power, infrastructure and investment. The seventh section includes essays that cover a more forward-looking agenda for Bihar. These essays deal with subjects such as higher education, urbanisation, migration and rural growth. There are, however, a few essays within this set - such as those on financial inclusion, trends in Centre-state relations, technology for inclusion - that deal with the general all-India picture. Though excellent pieces in their own right, they distract the reader from the theme of the book.

The last section, "The new culture and identity narrative", could have been more elaborate. In this section, three essays touch on topics that give great insights into what makes a society tick - not usually seen in about economic growth. This section, in fact, takes forward the end note of Kaushik Basu's piece in the first section - many economists dismiss the social and cultural traits of society as being unconnected to growth and development, when there is increasing evidence that "culture, politics and even the arts" play a role in development. Shaibal Gupta's piece, "Reconciling global image and regional aspirations", gives the historical background of society in Bihar. It explains how the lack of ownership of a provincial identity laid the basis for Bihar's downward trajectory.

In the end, it must be noted that for all the exuberance, almost all essays end on a cautious note. Yes, the Bihar growth model has given hope, but the state has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the country.

The reviewer is chief economist, Indicus Analytics

First Published: Thu, September 12 2013. 21:32 IST