Development research pop

Written by Ashwani Kumar | Updated: Sep 1 2013, 16:12pm hrs
Once upon a time, there was a state called barbaric Bihar, a dying state and heart of darkness! And now aka John Houlton, Bihar might dobara become the heart of India argues Rajesh Chakrabarti in his book Bihar Breakthrough: The Turnaround of a Beleaguered State. It sounds like Ripleys Believe it or Not, but a dysfunctional state can be transformed if you are led by Nitish Kumar, a very special individual, and his five intelligent, honest and committed bureaucrats, contends Chakrabarti, a policy academic at the Indian School of Business. All your special leader needs to do is empower his elite team of bureaucrats by giving them an elusive free hand. In return, individually responsible bureaucrats ensure out-of-the-box governance solutions and strictly monitor outcomes. Personal supervision by the leader solves not only frequent ego-conflicts, but also mitigates rent-seeking opportunities among bureaucrats. This is the crux of Chakrabartis so-called partial model of Bihar, a disturbingly neo-utilitarian theory of a developmental state. Consider this: In an ingeniously anecdotal account, the author tells us how the phone rang, conversations began between Nitish Kumar and his trusted bureaucrats and Bihar got reinvented! Is this so simple Or the author lets down his guard against lurking dangers of listening to only His Masters Voice (HMV). We dont know yet!

At the outset, the author admits that the book is only about the first term of the NDA rule from 2005 to 2010 and he is a newcomer and spent only a year in Bihar. But he also politely avers that he has made countless trips down Patnas Bailey Road and spent hours pouring over government, media, NGO and multi-lateral agency reports to produce a document in public policy rather than a purely academic historical account. Treat it as a folly or an advance in ethnographyit is up to you! The author concedes the challenges of documenting policy changes, as the most crucial changes in the selective areas of administrative intervention were guided by the superior intellect of the key bureaucrats and effected by informal and personalised channels. For instance, the speedy trial of criminals worked without a single written order! This explains why the book is shorn of the usual trappings of social science research such as academic referencing, end notes, sources of data and appendixes. There are only 17 references in the entire book as small mercies for methodological pundits! So what!

Believe me, this is exciting pop writing in development research, as it makes for engaging, compelling and entertaining reading at college canteens or Cafe Coffee Day! In a strange twist of fate, Chetan Bhagat is born again, as this book is a pure delight for the uninitiated, neo-literate and wannabe post-reforms policy generation that has grown ambitious and aggressive in just one night at the call centre, in Bihar or elsewhere.

In a romantic-thriller style of racy and intuitively intelligent narrative in 256 pages, there are sub-plots (13 short, crisp chapters with an epilogue on Abhayanand) around the proverbial restoration of law and order, roads, education, health, panchayati raj and also the Koshi floods of 2007. In contrast to swiftly plucking low hanging fruits, the chapter on industry and economy rehearses the familiar story of a stunning over 14% growth through the construction-services-consumption-growth model. The fact that the Raghuram Rajan Committee has positively considered granting Bihar special category status shows how federal politics can impact economic growth in low-income regions. An insightfully liminal subplot reveals why and how Nitish Kumar manages direct contact with people through janata darbars. If politics is about imperfect and asymmetrical information, managing it is not cheap. Consider this: The advertisement budget of the Bihar government rose dramatically from R4.5 crore in 2005-06 to R34.6 crore in 2009-10!

In contrast to the NK Singh and Nicholas Stern-guided African Safari of eminent economists in The New Bihar, Chakrabarti presents a personalised glam, glory-soaked ramp show where an elite band of IAS officers (namely RCP, RK Singh, Abhayanand, Afjal Amanullah, Anjani Singh, Pratay Amrit, Deepak Kumar and Chanchal Kumar), handpicked and shepherded by Nitish Kumar, unveil a revolution from the top. With no interference from Nitish Kumar or the ruling political class, the team of Amanullah and Abhayanand re-established the primacy of law and order, and stopped bahubalis from spreading terror. Though Abhayanands controversial initiative of outsourcing policing to temporary hires by the SAP (special auxiliary force) strikes at the core of the idea of infrastructural state power (a la Michael Mann), this has ironically helped restore the legitimacy of police power. Drawing from the experience of RK Singh and the anecdotal daily log of Pratyaya Amrit, who headed the BRPNN (Bihar Rajya Pul Nirman Nigam), the chapter on the road to development informs us how strict monitoring by a committed and honest IAS officer can single-handedly revive the BRPNN, and re-engineer administrative procedures and processes with IT systems. And he also magically delivered 518 bridges in just three years, as opposed to 314 bridges in the preceding 30 years! It made Patna accessible from all parts of the state in less than six hours!

This pattern of empowerment of bureaucracy and strict monitoring of programmes is the recurring theme in all the successful interventions in Bihar, concludes Chakrabarti. Successful stories of reservation of women in PRIs, PPP (public-private partnership) in reviving defunct hospitals, Cycle Yojana through direct cash transfer for girls and setting up the Patna IIT, National Institute of Fashion Technology, National Law University have already etched into popular imagination. Mysteries abound when we find in the book no reference to the dismal performance of MGNREGA, PDS, mid-day meal, ICDS and RGGVK, etc. Omission of Jeevika (BRLP)-led revival of SHGs is also perplexing. A major shortcoming in the analysis of social programmes is the failure to distinguish between culmination outcomes and comprehensive outcomes!

In the closing pages, the author demurely doubts the sustainability of the personal approach of Nitish Kumar and refers to complaints of afsarshahi (officer rule). Notwithstanding lessons from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Nitish Kumar deliberately divorced administration from electoral politics and also marginalised the role of his fellow politicians in governance! In this divorce, not just a bitter separation between the JD(U) and BJP, but also lies the future of Bihars so-called partial model. If Lalu Yadav succeeded in politicising social change but presided a predatory state, Nitish Kumar ironically governs an increasingly depoliticised, yet effectively autonomous state-directed provincial capitalism in Bihar. To conclude, the increasing bureaucratisation of democratic mobilisation of subordinate classes and castes has the potential to reverse what Amartya Sen calls huge signs of improvements in Bihar. This sums up the dilemmas of Bihar Breakthrough!

Ashwani Kumar is professor & chairperson, Centre for Public Policy, (habitat & human development), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and also author of Community Warriors; State, Peasants & Caste Armies in Bihar