reportage

The Great Leap Forward?

By ANUJ CHOPRA | 1 July 2010

ON A SCORCHING MORNING in April, Nitish Kumar’s helicopter jerkily touched down on a coarse village pad in west Champaran, stirring up a blinding dust cloud. Kumar disembarked, the rotors still whining, inspiring a roar from the waiting crowd pushed back by baton-swinging policemen. He waved as he climbed into his car. The crowd roared again. They sprang behind his siren-screaming convoy. Two minutes into the village, Kumar’s car shrieked to an unexpected halt. His convoy nearly careened out of control into a dirt embankment. Kumar stepped out to another mob eager to swallow him. They pushed and shoved, desperate for his attention. Those who couldn’t get close scowled at security officials.

Cutting through the swelling crowds, Kumar launched an impromptu tour of the scruffy village. He went inside the airless public food distribution godown, leafed through the lengthy lists of beneficiaries, and chided the block development officer for the needless delays in distributing the sorghum and wheat. He went to the local middle school, tested if the kids had learned their tables and the teachers could spell their names. He waltzed unannounced into the school kitchen and felt between his fingers morsels of the piping hot chhola-chawal to personally investigate if the school kids’ mid-day meal was freshly cooked. Walking through the dusty village streets, he stopped and asked random old women if they were receiving their widow’s pensions and other government doles.

A crowd of photographers chased him. He seemed like a king among his subjects. But negotiating Kumar’s multi-layered security cordon wasn’t easy. With notebook in hand, I frequently found myself snared in ugly verbal exchanges with gun-wielding security men whenever I breached the perimeter.

This was the first day of Kumar’s Vishwas Yatra—or confidence march—which kicked off on 29 April from Bagaha village in west Champaran, a landscape steeped in history. In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi, jolted by the plight of local indigo farmers exploited by British landlords, launched his first Satyagraha revolution in the independence movement from here. Kumar, dressed in a white kurta pyjama,  stood on a  podium festooned with his posters and party flags.  Thousands of people  had gathered from neighbouring villages to hear him speak, undaunted by the  oppressive heat. “The intention of my yatra was not to hold a rally, but only to check the progress of various development projects we began four years ago,” Nitish said. “But it’s difficult to address such a massive crowd without a rally.” Nitish’s vist appeared as an evaluation exercise, but he  seemed to be  measuring his support base before state assembly elections  slated  for the end of this year.

Until half a decade ago, Bihar was a byword for all that is woeful about emerging India—chronic poverty, anarchic crime, and caste violence. The word Bihari even became pejorative. The state had the highest child mortality and the lowest literacy rate. Its notorious kidnapping industry was running a parallel economy. Impoverished migrants were frequently beaten up for swamping other states. Post-liberalisation, the rest of India was galloping ahead, but Bihar was stagnating.

Enter Nitish Kumar—a self-proclaimed karmayogi, a sage-doer, who vowed to turn Bihar around. His Janata Dal (United) party, or JD(U), swept to power in 2005, ending the 15-year-rule of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the champion of identity politics and the messiah of Bihar’s backward castes. A slight man of lean political heft in national politics, Kumar won elections riding on the coattails of the surging anti-incumbency wave that drove his predecessor out of office. After four years of his rule, in February 2010, when news of the magical 11 percent economic growth broke, old perceptions about Bihar crumbled overnight. A new buzz trilled the air. But even before that, Bihar’s new gung-ho growth grabbed media headlines across the country. In 2008, Kumar won the CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times Indian of the Year award for “turning around one of the most underdeveloped states of India.” The following year, The Economic Times conferred on him the Business Reformer of the Year award, rating his performance even higher than Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit. In April 2010, The New York Times lauded his model for Bihar’s economic development, reckoning that it could be replicated in other poor corners of India. If the figures are to be believed, at 11.03 per cent, Bihar is growing nearly as fast as Gujarat. And if his spin doctors are to be believed, Bihar could soon outpace China in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth.

But is Bihar’s economic miracle for real or is it PR spin? If it is legitimate, is development likely to trump caste politics? The image of Bihar has changed, but has Bihar really changed? These are integral questions that could seal Nitish Kumar’s fate—and indeed, that, of Bihar—in the state elections scheduled for the end of this year. For a fortnight during a blistering April, I travelled around the state in search of answers.

UNTIL THE EARLY 2000s, Champaran was the crime capital of Bihar. It was lassoed by gangs of bandits and bahubalis (strongmen), given teeth by political patrons and feudal landlords. They transformed this region, which Gandhi once called “the land of Ahimsa” (non-violence), into the kidnapping capital of Bihar. Travelling to Champaran often elicited grim warnings: you could be waylaid by notorious gangs who could make you “che inch chhota”—shorter by six inches, by decapitation. If not bandits, you could run into petty thieves who would rob you of everything, down to your underwear,  given the chance.

Banditry worsened in the 15 years of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rule. “Fearing [bandits], people those days preferred not to light up lanterns in their homes even after dark,” Badri Pandey, a 68-year-old retired army soldier, told me, sitting in a clay-plastered porch outside his house in Siswa Basantpur in west Champaran. “Everyone understood that the police will come only when you’re dead; not to save you when you’re alive.”  In the 1980s and 1990s, the area around Pandey’s village, the fertile flood plains on the banks of the Gandak River, came to be known as “the Chambal of Bihar.” The government-led Operation Black Panther, launched in  1986 to wipe out banditry, failed miserably.

In 1990, just when Lalu was elected with an overwhelming majority for his first tenure, Pandey, at the time an infantry soldier with the Rajputana Rifles who fought in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, sought premature retirement and returned to Siswa Basantpur to look after his ailing parents. But the growing tyranny of gangs troubled him. Pandey went around Champaran’s villages to gather a shahidi jatha—not really a suicide squad, but more like a taskforce. The men in the squad swore to sacrifice their lives if they had to in order to protect their roti aur beti—lands and daughters. Eventually, he set up a Gram Suraksha Dal, or village defence committee, in 324 panchayats. Villagers were given arms training, and taught to rely on themselves, not the police, to fight bandits with country-made double barrel guns. Pandey told of several brave and bloody battles villagers had fought since 1990—some in sugarcane fields and sunflower farms, others cowering behind sand hills and caverns moulded by the untamed Gandak river—with dreaded bandits like Sattan Yadav, Bhangar Yadav, Ramprasad Yadav, all renown for their curled-up moustaches and reigns of terror.

Gram Suraksha Dals were instrumental in deterring bandits. Many bandits were also gunned down by the special task force stationed on the border with Nepal. But the adoption in 2005 of Kumar no-tolerance approach to crime led many gangs to surrender, while others fled to the Terai plains of Nepal.

The meteoric drop in crime is the most conspicuous change in Bihar since Kumar became the state’s chief minister. Before he came to power, streets in towns and villages, even in the capital, would empty at sundown. Those same streets now invite swarms of people late into the evening. You can travel from Patna to Bagaha at midnight without  fear of being shortened by six inches—an unlikely prospect just half a decade ago. But crime was only one aspect of what bedevilled Bihar: there were also stalled development projects, lack of job opportunities and poor investor confidence.

Nitish initiated a trenchant reform of the criminal justice system when he came to power. He set up special courts to conduct speedy trials and clear previous backlogs. A whopping 39,000 criminals were convicted in his first three years in power, according to official estimates. He spruced up Bihar’s policing structure, built new police stations and hired sub-inspectors and constables, who were tasked with fighting kidnapping and extortion.

He even announced an instant cash reward of 10,000 rupees to gangsters and bandits who willingly surrendered. They are also offered a rehabilitation package worth 200,000 rupees, which includes state-subsidised housing under the Indira Awas Yojana, and free education to at least two of their children up to matriculation. Bhangar Yadav, wanted in 106 criminal cases of murder, extortion and kidnapping—and with a 300,000 rupee bounty on his head—surrendered in May 2008. His gang, called the Jungle Party, had inspired fear in Champaran for nearly three decades.

Becoming a bandit was fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s—it was the road that led to politics. No longer. Political patronage of criminals has declined under Kumar’s rule. Mohammad Shahabuddin, a notorious criminal-politician and a four-time Member of Parliament (MP) from Siwan, with 30 criminal cases against him including kidnapping, extortion and intent to murder, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007. Shahbuddin hails from the RJD, but it’s not just criminal politicians from opposition parties who have been singled out. Anand Mohan, a former MP from Kumar’s JD(U), was executed in 2007 for the lynching of Muzaffarpur’s district magistrate in 1994.

But this change could well be temporary. Bihar is a test case of the ‘broken windows’ theory of crime: if a broken window is not fixed immediately, criminals surmise that a sense of lawlessness exists. If it is fixed immediately, they understand that people of the neighbourhood are vigilant. This approach was famously credited for controlling New York City’s skyrocketing crime rate. The resulting drop in crime eventually attracted business, investment and residents back to the city. In Bihar, there is a sense that while many criminals are not currently active, they may soon return.

Rust now gathers on country-made weapons belonging to Gram Suraksha Dal members. Five years ago, they were on duty around the clock, guarding their villages day and night. They stopped manning village streets just months after Kumar was sworn into power. Bandits are slowly fading into memories. But this peace is tenuous. “There’s no guarantee that the next government will not patronise criminals out of self-interest or political compulsions,” Pandey told me. “We are a latent force. You could say we are an army currently confined to the barracks. We’ll have to reawaken if crime returns to Champaran.”

NITISH KUMAR IS CREDITED for Bihar’s economic miracle but the state’s actual growth is difficult to gauge.

Bihar is said to be growing at nearly the same pace as Gujarat. But 11 percent in Bihar is very different from 11 percent in Gujarat. The economic boom in Bihar, largely construction-centric, has not resulted in a widespread banishment of poverty and unemployment. But the figure is emblematic of some semblance of governance returning to Bihar after decades of dereliction.

The state now has mediocre roads, many of which are dirt tracks with bone-jarring depressions. Its villages have four hours of electricity, compared to no electricity at all. Its hospitals have doctors and schools have teachers, albeit poorly qualified, but still a radical departure from the days of rampant truancy. If you build a state from scratch, every little thing you add is a plus. Every small achievement is perceived as a big one.

“Look at it this way,” Saibal Gupta, the director of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute, told me. “In Gujarat, if you pay a bribe, you’re guaranteed a cut of the output. In Bihar (before Kumar) you paid a bribe at the input stage with no guarantee that you’ll ever see the output. Bihar is metamorphosing from a pre-production scam to a post-production scam.” That’s a sea change in the context of Bihar. The state may still be five times behind Uttar Pradesh and ten times behind Maharashtra, Gupta told me, but it’s finally moving forward.

Bihar’s overall growth rate has accelerated largely due to the exceptionally high rate of building. The construction sector in Bihar grew from 37 billion rupees in 2004-05 to 120 billion rupees in 2008-09, a nearly three-and-a-half-fold increase, according to the state’s economic survey. About 1,854 bridges have been constructed and 6,800 kilometres of road have been laid in the past four years. With new roads, Kumar claims the farthest corners of Bihar are reachable from Patna within six hours. But despite the emphasis on building roads, the road density—road length per 100,000 people—is just 111 kilometres, a far cry from the national average of 360, according to the state’s economic survey of 2008-09. And the proportion of the Bihar’s villages connected through roads is only 57 percent. In Gujarat, by comparison, 99 percent of villages are connected.

Nitish Kumar has also raised spending on social welfare schemes. Bihar spent 1.75 billion rupees over the past three years to distribute bicycles to about 900,000 schoolgirls under the Mukhya Mantri Balika Cycle Yojna. The programme, started in 2007, provides bicycles to girls for transportation to school, thus stopping, the scheme claims, the girls from dropping out. Under the plan, every girl who passes the eighth standard is given a cheque of 2,000 rupees to buy a bicycle. It’s a scheme “close to my heart,” Kumar wrote in his very first blog on http://nitishspeaks.blogspot.com, which he launched in April 2010. “When our government had taken over, the number of dropouts in schools in the state was a staggering 2.5 million. Today, it has come down to around 1 million.” Anecdotally, at least, that claim doesn’t sound exaggerated. In the countryside, you notice more schoolgirls riding colourful bicycles to school than ever before. Kumar has announced plans to extend the bicycle scheme to boys from this year.

But can an increase in public spending alone sustain economic growth? Little investment has been made in sectors like agriculture and small-scale industries, which employ the overwhelming majority of Biharis. Even though Nitish Kumar is often seen hobnobbing with industrialists and tycoons, hardly any industries have been set up in his tenure. Most investments are still on paper. For hundreds of kilometres, as I travelled from Patna towards Champaran, the only chimneys I noticed belching smoke were brick kilns. The winding journey through the sun-baked farms and decrepit towns on the northern fringe of Bihar took roughly eight hours—not six, as Kumar often claims.

The most common sound I heard was the whirring of generators. The state faces an acute power shortage. Bihar needs 3,000 Megawatts of power, but manages to generate only 900 MW. The per capita income in the state stood at 9,765 rupees in 2008-09, less than one-third the national average. If you own a generator in rural Bihar, you are a rich man. People will visit to you to charge mobile phones, watch the news, check the latest cricket score and sit under your fan in the sweltering heat.

Almost 90 percent of Bihar’s population is rural. Eighty percent lives off agriculture and animal husbandry. But little investment has been made in irrigation and agricultural development. Migration continues unabated—most of it is distress migration; a vast majority of those migrating are not land owners. The canker of corruption, which Kumar vowed to uproot last election, has grown. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is in a shambles. Save for a few success stories, the scheme hasn’t stemmed the rising tide of rural migration to the cities. Only ten days of employment on average is provided around the state, according to Jean Dreze, a New Delhi-based development economist, who travelled around Bihar the same month as I did.

The economic miracle, if there really is one, has done little to change the hardscrabble life of the average Bihari. Gathered at a tea stall at the crossroads of Bagaha was a gaggle of young men clutching bundles of clothes, headed home from Mumbai to prepare for the yearly harvest. Yes, there’s a new road snaking through their village, one of them said, but little else has changed. “Bambai bhaag raha hai, Bihar so raha hai.” There is no work in Bihar. Their village is still wracked by crippling poverty. It is full of naked children with distended bellies. Emaciated men in dirty loincloths toil on scorched farms, while women in frayed saris look after the goat and cow barns, worried about their next meal.

“Even if I accept the 11 percent figure, where is this growth happening?” Professor NK Chaudhary, of the economics department at Patna University, asked me. “Who is Bihar shining for?”

When the Central Statistical Organisation broke the story about Bihar’s 11 percent magic growth figure in February 2010, Professor Chaudhary was perplexed. For three of the five years between 2004 and 2009 for which this gross domestic product growth was calculated, agriculture production had shrunk. Baffled, Chaudhary referred to Bihar state’s economic survey 2008-09, tabled the previous year in the Legislative Assembly by the government, carrying the economic statistics of the preceding five years. He calculated the harmonic mean—the mathematical average of the GDP numbers for the previous five years. It was between six and seven percent.

So why then is Bihar claiming it is growing at 11.03 percent?

The economic data for 2009-10 was tabled in the Legislative Assembly a month late—in March instead of February, which is the norm. Strangely, the data for 2009-10 was missing in that report, and the data for the previous years had been tinkered with to reach the magical figure of 11.03 percent: most of the lagging figures had been quietly jacked up. For instance, the agriculture growth data for 2008-09 was changed from -6.7 to +13.33 percent, a mysterious jump of 20 percent. That year, severe floods in Bihar’s Kosi River and the subsequent drought adversely impacted Bihar’s agricultural output.

If the figures were changed surreptitiously, does that mean the economic surveys tabled in the State Legislature in previous years were wrong? Or are the numbers in the 2009-10 report wrong? I wanted to ask Nitish Kumar himself, but his office declined my request for an interview.

Leafing through pages of the 2009-10 report in his office at Darbhanga House on the banks of the Ganga, Professor Chaudhary pointed out that some of the figures in that report represented advance estimates that could be slightly revised in successive editions. But a jump, for instance, of 20 percent in agriculture, a sector that is bleeding in Bihar, raises serious doubts about the veracity of the magical 11 percent. “There is a scope for doubting these estimates because of startlingly different numbers in different reports,” Chaudhary told me. “It’s like telling a beggar one fine day that he’s a wealthy man.”  The credibility of that data was further weakened by a caveat appended to that report by Pronab Sen, the Chief Statistician of India: “This data is not authenticated by the Central Statistics Organisation.”

But whether or not the economic miracle is real, Bihar has progressed compared to Lalu Prasad’s reign. “By that yardstick alone,” says Chaudhary, “it’s advantage Nitish in the next election.”

BUT NO ONE CAN WRITE OFF Lalu Prasad just yet.

Yadav and Kumar began their political careers together. Both entered public life through the Bihar Movement of 1974, led by veteran Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan against the misrule of the then Congress government. This movement, also called ‘total revolution,’ initiated by students in Bihar, attracted a mass following cutting across economic classes. With scores of other JP campaigners, Yadav and Kumar both went to jail for taking part in the movement.

For years, they were the best of friends, but their values could not keep them together for long. Kumar broke away from Yadav in 1994 and formed the Samata Party, the earlier version of the JD(U). Kumar and Yadav are stark opposites, but it is impossible to describe one without the other, not least because they are the leading contenders for the throne of Bihar. Yadav, in his country-bumpkin style, tickles crowds with his deliberate tomfoolery. Kumar, more polished and mild-mannered, treats politics as serious business. Yadav has the charisma to strike an immediate rapport with the masses. Kumar is sober and reticent. Yadav has positioned himself as a champion of identity politics; Kumar has positioned himself as the champion of development politics.

Lalu Prasad and his wife Rabri Devi, who between them ruled Bihar for 15 years, finally seemed fallible in 2005. Yadav, the cowherd from Phulwaria, described himself as an “old peepul tree that cannot be uprooted.” But uprooted he was. In an interview with me at his 10 Circular Road residence in Patna one early Saturday morning, he sat in his front porch in a vest and lungi, chewing a neem twig, a spittoon by his side. I asked him what had sheared him of power after 15 years. He didn’t attribute his defeat to his fabled contempt for development, or to the absence of governance during his rule, or to crime, which had increased in Bihar under his watch.

“MY equation bigad gaya,” he said, straightening his fringe-cut hair with his fingers. MY—the Muslim and Yadav combination, the largest voting block in Bihar, which for 15 years gave him a 26 percent up-front edge over his rivals—went against him.  He was in no mood to elaborate, but perhaps he understood that Muslims and Yadavs, who kept him in power for three consecutive elections, cannot be taken for granted.

What about Kumar’s economic miracle? Won’t that go against him this time? Doesn’t he feel threatened? He almost laughed at the suggestion. “Ab New York bhi yahi keh rahi hai,” he said, referring to a recent article in The New York Times, which lauded Nitish Kumar’s development work. No one in Bihar reads The New York Times, he says, nor do any of the suave economists screeching aloud about Bihar going the way of development. The champion of identity politics, Yadav knows all too well that this won’t resonate with the masses. In a deeply feudal society like Bihar, he can still effortlessly parlay caste passions into votes.

The day I interviewed Yadav, he seemed irritated by the constant influx of random visitors. (He agreed to speak with me only after much coaxing.) He had returned to Patna after a stormy parliament session where he pushed for a caste-based census, which might give him added weight ahead of the Bihar elections.

Yadav is a man with megalomaniacal ambitions. “Pehle power lao,” he told a villager from Chhapra district who came to him to ask for an RJD party ticket in the upcoming elections.  “Pehle humko jitao. Power lao. Phir chairmain ya jo bhi bana denge. (First facilitate my victory. Then I’ll reward you with a plump government post).”

Yadav evinced brilliance in his early years in power. Rambabu Yadav, 45 and the father of six children in Barbigha, a Yadav-dominated village of cowherds in the Patna district, remembers Lalu Prasad’s vow to build roads in the state at an election rally in 1990. “Hum Bihar ki sadak ko Hema Malini ke gaal ki tarha chikna kar denge (I will make the roads of Bihar as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks),” he remembers the politician saying in his amusingly rustic style. But the optimism faded just as quickly as it had soared. When people demanded roads after his election victory, he issued a blunt rebuttal: “You only need roads if you have a car.”

But those sins are easily forgiven in Barbigha. “Lalu chara kha liya par hamein samaan diya,” Rambabu told me. “He may be guilty of the fodder scam [a 1996 corruption scandal which involved embezzlement of 9.5 billion rupees from the state’s animal husbandry department. The case has been under investigation for years with no conviction in sight], but he gave people from Bihar’s lower castes a sense of pride.”

Lalu Prasad’s election victory gave the Yadavs of Barbigaha, a historically marginalised community, a sense of proxy psychological empowerment. The brutal oppression by the Bhumihars—or the upper-caste landed gentry—stopped. Before that, for centuries, a Yadav man couldn’t pass in front of a Bhumihar’s house with his shoes on. He was required to keep his shoes on his head while passing through. Yadavs could be killed, maimed, or raped by a Bhumihar, but their complaints were seldom registered by the police. Lalu Prasad’s victory, in its own way, won Yadavs freedom from the tyranny of Bhumihars.

Lalu Prasad may have engineered social upliftment, but this empowerment operated at the level of symbolism alone. Five months ago Kumar’s government affixed electricity poles in Barbigha. For the first time in their entire lives, villagers experienced the joys of electricity. Before this, for decades, Barbigha had been ensnared in darkness. But this kind of development does not trump caste loyalties. Disloyalty to their messiah, Lalu, for life-altering development is anathema to this Yadav village.

BUT YADAV IS HARDLY KUMAR’S MAIN THREAT. It’s the Bhumihars.

Kumar has changed the political discourse in Bihar from caste to development politics since he assumed power. He may be the development man of Bihar, but he is not caste-blind. Like Yadav, he realises that survival hinges on social engineering. He is still hamstrung by his 2004 election defeat from the Barh Lok Sabha constituency to Vijay Krishna, a Rajput leader of the RJD, even though he endeavoured to bring new employment-generating development projects in the region, including a new NTPC thermal power station. His ambition to become an MP was straitjacketed by an electorate that chose to vote in favour of its own caste.

Kumar belongs to the Kurmi caste, which, unlike Lalu’s sizeable Yadav support base, is not numerically dominant. In order to win elections, therefore, he has had to orchestrate his own kind of social engineering. In this regard, Nitish Kumar is not just the Chandrababu Naidu of Bihar, but also the Mayawati of Bihar.

In many ways, Kumar seems to have outdone Yadav in widening social schisms through caste politics.

In the 1990s, one of Yadav’s favourite slogans was “Bhoora Baal Hatao” – a passionate call to uproot B- Brahmins, R- Rajputs, B- Bhumihars and L- Lalas (a caste of businessmen) from the seats of power. But for all his sloganeering, he never actually clipped their wings. Keeping the social power imbalance intact was the safest way to retain power. But Kumar has done what Yadav promised lower castes he would do against the Bhumihars.

To counter Yadav’s MY vote bank, Kumar gave the Extremely Backward Castes (EBC), which comprises 108 castes and forms 29 percent of the state population, 20 percent reservation in Panchayati Raj institutions. For the Mahadalits, he provided lucrative programmes like subsidised homes and a monthly supply of bathing soap. But the EBCs and Mahadalits, both shrewdly created by him, would make up a sizeable voting block. In the process, Kumar has angered Bhumihars.

I travelled to Deodaha in Patna district, which is a microcosm of how power structures have shifted with Kumar’s caste maneuverings. The village has 15 Bhumihar families, 100 Chandravanshi families, 35 Paswan families and 200 Yadav families.

Deodaha sits on a major fault line.  The village has been hardened by centuries of hatred—with Bhumihars and other lower castes separated only by narrow stretches of dirt road. Bhumihars barely make up three percent of Bihar’s population, but control over 45 percent of the agricultural land. With their land wealth, they have traditionally wielded much influence across Bihar’s rural interiors despite their small numbers.  Kailash Varma, a 58-year-old Bhumihar, was the mukhiya, or village leader, for 28 years. Satish Varma (no relation to Kailash) contested several Panchayati elections against Kailash, but always lost. But in 2006, Satish Varma, a lower caste Chandravanshi, a man Kailash describes as a “man who can only cast his thumb impression,” defeated him, thanks to the 20 percent reservation.

“Thanks to the reservations, we finally have a voice,” Satish Varma, the new mukhiya of Deodaha told me.

Kailash Varma can’t stand Satish. A toothless old man, Kailash lifted his shirt to reveal bullet pocks on his back, injuries he had sustained in feudal gun battles with lower castes in his village over the past three decades.

With a new mukhiya in place, power structures in Deodaha are now shifting. “Bhumihars are now becoming increasingly pauperised at the hands of lower castes,” Kailash Varma told me in his haveli, with peeling white paint. The lower castes who worked as labourers on the farms owned by Bhumihars now negotiate a higher price. “They would get only one of every 12 sacs of rice cultivated,” he said. “Now they have the gall to demand one of every eight.” With new economic realities confronting them, Bhumihars feel compelled to sell land parcels they own to their adversaries—Yadavs and other lower castes. Some in Deodaha are considering quitting farming all together. But most insulting is that Bhumihars now have to bow to panchayat heads belonging to inferior castes like the Chamars, a community traditionally responsible for flaying the carcasses of dead animals.

Kailash Varma, like the other Bhumihars of Deodaha, cannot forgive Kumar for this brand of social engineering that has divested them of power. There is a deep-rooted fear that Kumar plans to introduce land reforms that will eventually transfer their lands to the lower castes. If he is voted back to power, Kumar might enforce the Batai dhari kanoon, or sharecroppers bill, legislation suggested in 2008 by a land reforms commission headed by D Bandopadhyay, a retired bureaucrat. Sensing vehement opposition to the bill, Kumar declared he has no intention of passing it in the state legislature. But Bhumihars like Varma fear that he may not keep his word.

In Bihar, empowering one group often means disempowering another. Winning elections is still about caste arithmetic, not miracle economies.

HOWEVER IMPORTANT CASTE MAY BE, a rallying slogan in this election is Biharipan.

“Bihar ab charcha main hain—dakaiti ke liye nahi balki vikas ke liye (Everyone is talking about Bihar these days—not for notorious bandits but because of development),” Nitish Kumar bellowed at a rally in Bagahi village on the broiling afternoon in April he began his yatra. “Ab Bihari kehlana apmaan ki nahi samaan ki baat hai (It’s no longer insulting to be called a Bihari).”

The crowd roared and clapped thunderously.

For several decades, Bihar, unlike many other states like Maharashtra, lacked a sub-nationalistic identity. Biharis identified only with their caste or national identity. In 2001, Bihar was divided plainly to form Jharkhand without much opposition from its masses, elite and bourgeoisie. But Bihar’s changing image has implanted a sense of pride in belonging to the state. “For the first time in decades, Bihar celebrated Bihar Divas on 22 March this year,” Saibal Gupta told me. The date was significant as a commemoration of the day Bihar was carved out of the Bengal Presidency in 1912.  “Nitish revived the tradition of celebrating Bihar.”

Biharipan will almost certainly not supplant casteism. But it is a powerful symbol of the changing way outsiders view the state, and the way Biharis view themselves. That, in itself, is the real miracle.

ON A SCORCHING MORNING in April, Nitish Kumar’s helicopter jerkily touched down on a coarse village pad in west Champaran, stirring up a blinding dust cloud. Kumar disembarked, the rotors still whining, inspiring a roar from the waiting crowd pushed back by baton-swinging policemen. He waved as he climbed into his car. The crowd roared again. They sprang behind his siren-screaming convoy. Two minutes into the village, Kumar’s car shrieked to an unexpected halt. His convoy nearly careened out of control into a dirt embankment. Kumar stepped out to another mob eager to swallow him. They pushed and shoved, desperate for his attention. Those who couldn’t get close scowled at security officials.

Cutting through the swelling crowds, Kumar launched an impromptu tour of the scruffy village. He went inside the airless public food distribution godown, leafed through the lengthy lists of beneficiaries, and chided the block development officer for the needless delays in distributing the sorghum and wheat. He went to the local middle school, tested if the kids had learned their tables and the teachers could spell their names. He waltzed unannounced into the school kitchen and felt between his fingers morsels of the piping hot chhola-chawal to personally investigate if the school kids’ mid-day meal was freshly cooked. Walking through the dusty village streets, he stopped and asked random old women if they were receiving their widow’s pensions and other government doles.

A crowd of photographers chased him. He seemed like a king among his subjects. But negotiating Kumar’s multi-layered security cordon wasn’t easy. With notebook in hand, I frequently found myself snared in ugly verbal exchanges with gun-wielding security men whenever I breached the perimeter.

This was the first day of Kumar’s Vishwas Yatra—or confidence march—which kicked off on 29 April from Bagaha village in west Champaran, a landscape steeped in history. In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi, jolted by the plight of local indigo farmers exploited by British landlords, launched his first Satyagraha revolution in the independence movement from here. Kumar, dressed in a white kurta pyjama,  stood on a  podium festooned with his posters and party flags.  Thousands of people  had gathered from neighbouring villages to hear him speak, undaunted by the  oppressive heat. “The intention of my yatra was not to hold a rally, but only to check the progress of various development projects we began four years ago,” Nitish said. “But it’s difficult to address such a massive crowd without a rally.” Nitish’s vist appeared as an evaluation exercise, but he  seemed to be  measuring his support base before state assembly elections  slated  for the end of this year.

Until half a decade ago, Bihar was a byword for all that is woeful about emerging India—chronic poverty, anarchic crime, and caste violence. The word Bihari even became pejorative. The state had the highest child mortality and the lowest literacy rate. Its notorious kidnapping industry was running a parallel economy. Impoverished migrants were frequently beaten up for swamping other states. Post-liberalisation, the rest of India was galloping ahead, but Bihar was stagnating.

Enter Nitish Kumar—a self-proclaimed karmayogi, a sage-doer, who vowed to turn Bihar around. His Janata Dal (United) party, or JD(U), swept to power in 2005, ending the 15-year-rule of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the champion of identity politics and the messiah of Bihar’s backward castes. A slight man of lean political heft in national politics, Kumar won elections riding on the coattails of the surging anti-incumbency wave that drove his predecessor out of office. After four years of his rule, in February 2010, when news of the magical 11 percent economic growth broke, old perceptions about Bihar crumbled overnight. A new buzz trilled the air. But even before that, Bihar’s new gung-ho growth grabbed media headlines across the country. In 2008, Kumar won the CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times Indian of the Year award for “turning around one of the most underdeveloped states of India.” The following year, The Economic Times conferred on him the Business Reformer of the Year award, rating his performance even higher than Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit. In April 2010, The New York Times lauded his model for Bihar’s economic development, reckoning that it could be replicated in other poor corners of India. If the figures are to be believed, at 11.03 per cent, Bihar is growing nearly as fast as Gujarat. And if his spin doctors are to be believed, Bihar could soon outpace China in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth.

But is Bihar’s economic miracle for real or is it PR spin? If it is legitimate, is development likely to trump caste politics? The image of Bihar has changed, but has Bihar really changed? These are integral questions that could seal Nitish Kumar’s fate—and indeed, that, of Bihar—in the state elections scheduled for the end of this year. For a fortnight during a blistering April, I travelled around the state in search of answers.

UNTIL THE EARLY 2000s, Champaran was the crime capital of Bihar. It was lassoed by gangs of bandits and bahubalis (strongmen), given teeth by political patrons and feudal landlords. They transformed this region, which Gandhi once called “the land of Ahimsa” (non-violence), into the kidnapping capital of Bihar. Travelling to Champaran often elicited grim warnings: you could be waylaid by notorious gangs who could make you “che inch chhota”—shorter by six inches, by decapitation. If not bandits, you could run into petty thieves who would rob you of everything, down to your underwear,  given the chance.

Banditry worsened in the 15 years of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rule. “Fearing [bandits], people those days preferred not to light up lanterns in their homes even after dark,” Badri Pandey, a 68-year-old retired army soldier, told me, sitting in a clay-plastered porch outside his house in Siswa Basantpur in west Champaran. “Everyone understood that the police will come only when you’re dead; not to save you when you’re alive.”  In the 1980s and 1990s, the area around Pandey’s village, the fertile flood plains on the banks of the Gandak River, came to be known as “the Chambal of Bihar.” The government-led Operation Black Panther, launched in  1986 to wipe out banditry, failed miserably.

In 1990, just when Lalu was elected with an overwhelming majority for his first tenure, Pandey, at the time an infantry soldier with the Rajputana Rifles who fought in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, sought premature retirement and returned to Siswa Basantpur to look after his ailing parents. But the growing tyranny of gangs troubled him. Pandey went around Champaran’s villages to gather a shahidi jatha—not really a suicide squad, but more like a taskforce. The men in the squad swore to sacrifice their lives if they had to in order to protect their roti aur beti—lands and daughters. Eventually, he set up a Gram Suraksha Dal, or village defence committee, in 324 panchayats. Villagers were given arms training, and taught to rely on themselves, not the police, to fight bandits with country-made double barrel guns. Pandey told of several brave and bloody battles villagers had fought since 1990—some in sugarcane fields and sunflower farms, others cowering behind sand hills and caverns moulded by the untamed Gandak river—with dreaded bandits like Sattan Yadav, Bhangar Yadav, Ramprasad Yadav, all renown for their curled-up moustaches and reigns of terror.

Gram Suraksha Dals were instrumental in deterring bandits. Many bandits were also gunned down by the special task force stationed on the border with Nepal. But the adoption in 2005 of Kumar no-tolerance approach to crime led many gangs to surrender, while others fled to the Terai plains of Nepal.

The meteoric drop in crime is the most conspicuous change in Bihar since Kumar became the state’s chief minister. Before he came to power, streets in towns and villages, even in the capital, would empty at sundown. Those same streets now invite swarms of people late into the evening. You can travel from Patna to Bagaha at midnight without  fear of being shortened by six inches—an unlikely prospect just half a decade ago. But crime was only one aspect of what bedevilled Bihar: there were also stalled development projects, lack of job opportunities and poor investor confidence.

Nitish initiated a trenchant reform of the criminal justice system when he came to power. He set up special courts to conduct speedy trials and clear previous backlogs. A whopping 39,000 criminals were convicted in his first three years in power, according to official estimates. He spruced up Bihar’s policing structure, built new police stations and hired sub-inspectors and constables, who were tasked with fighting kidnapping and extortion.

He even announced an instant cash reward of 10,000 rupees to gangsters and bandits who willingly surrendered. They are also offered a rehabilitation package worth 200,000 rupees, which includes state-subsidised housing under the Indira Awas Yojana, and free education to at least two of their children up to matriculation. Bhangar Yadav, wanted in 106 criminal cases of murder, extortion and kidnapping—and with a 300,000 rupee bounty on his head—surrendered in May 2008. His gang, called the Jungle Party, had inspired fear in Champaran for nearly three decades.

Becoming a bandit was fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s—it was the road that led to politics. No longer. Political patronage of criminals has declined under Kumar’s rule. Mohammad Shahabuddin, a notorious criminal-politician and a four-time Member of Parliament (MP) from Siwan, with 30 criminal cases against him including kidnapping, extortion and intent to murder, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007. Shahbuddin hails from the RJD, but it’s not just criminal politicians from opposition parties who have been singled out. Anand Mohan, a former MP from Kumar’s JD(U), was executed in 2007 for the lynching of Muzaffarpur’s district magistrate in 1994.

But this change could well be temporary. Bihar is a test case of the ‘broken windows’ theory of crime: if a broken window is not fixed immediately, criminals surmise that a sense of lawlessness exists. If it is fixed immediately, they understand that people of the neighbourhood are vigilant. This approach was famously credited for controlling New York City’s skyrocketing crime rate. The resulting drop in crime eventually attracted business, investment and residents back to the city. In Bihar, there is a sense that while many criminals are not currently active, they may soon return.

Rust now gathers on country-made weapons belonging to Gram Suraksha Dal members. Five years ago, they were on duty around the clock, guarding their villages day and night. They stopped manning village streets just months after Kumar was sworn into power. Bandits are slowly fading into memories. But this peace is tenuous. “There’s no guarantee that the next government will not patronise criminals out of self-interest or political compulsions,” Pandey told me. “We are a latent force. You could say we are an army currently confined to the barracks. We’ll have to reawaken if crime returns to Champaran.”

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Anuj Chopra is a journalist currently based in Hong Kong. His reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Economist and The South China Morning Post, amongst other publications. He won the CNN Young Journalist Award in 2005 and the Ramnath Goenka prize in 2012.

READER'S COMMENTS

13 thoughts on “The Great Leap Forward?”

Wonderful research begets a commendable article, with objective representation of both sides of the argument. As rightly pointed out, anything that adds to a blank scorecard would be a positive and at this stage, more than anything else, Bihar (and more so Biharis) needs to find back the positivity & self belief to pull itself out of the quagmire it had sadly found itself in through a couple of decades of anarchy & free-for-all pillage of the state’s resources & pride by (and at the behest of) its rulers. What the article misses out on is capturing and mentioning the fact that Bihar also possesses an abundance of extremely qualified professionals (besides the regular daily wage workers/ grassroots labourers) who pretty much form an indispensable core of various industries all over India. If this qualified migrant population can contribute in their own way to enhancing the productivity for their employers in other states, there is no reason that if comparable growth is promised and the conditions are conducive enough, at least a part of this set will not flee their state of birth. That would be some fillip to the phase of growth the state is finally witnessing. Having said that, this article is one of the most informative & unbiased pieces of journalism to focus on the plight & resurgence of the state of Bihar & causes for both, in a very long time. Kudos to the author!

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