Unpacking the Bihar story

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SummaryHow the state has turned around under Nitish Kumar, and why it still needs help.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has more than one reason to cheer the Raghuram Rajan committee report’s ranking of states on composite development. Apart from being put close to the bottom of the ladder in the new index of underdevelopment, Bihar also scores near the top in “performance”, that is, the reduction of underdevelopment — a most sensible parameter introduced in the report — far ahead of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Fair enough. If one has to point out the biggest governance turnaround in the country in recent years, one almost certainly has to turn to Bihar under Nitish.

When Nitish came to power in 2005, over two-fifths of Bihar’s population was below the poverty line. Its literacy, student-teacher ratio, immunisation and electrification rates were among the worst in the country. Of the 69 most backward districts in India, 26 belonged to Bihar, more than two-thirds of the state. Bihar needed help, but it also had the lowest utilisation rate for Centrally funded programmes, forfeiting a full 20 per cent of Central plan assistance during 1997-2000.

It was outright dangerous to be in Bihar then. Kidnapping for ransom had become an industry. Women avoided venturing out after dark even in its capital, Patna. Politically protected gangs brazenly roamed its streets in Jeeps, with firearms in open view.

The new Bihar, to use the title of a recently released volume edited by Nicholas Stern and N.K. Singh, is different. The law and order situation has improved, with the incidence of dacoities and robberies reduced by half between 2004 and 2008, and incidents of kidnapping for ransom coming down from over 400 in 2004 to 66 in 2008. As a result of road-building activity, travel times in most parts of the state have fallen by more than 50 per cent. There has also been a remarkable increase in the average per month footfall in healthcare facilities, and the routine immunisation rate has caught up with the national average. Drop-out rates have also declined, with the rate in 2011 one-sixth of the 2005 level.

What led to these changes? Innovative use of the arms act and speedy trials helped restore law and order; changes in contracting documents accelerated road development; and monitoring doctor attendance using call centres drove sectoral-level changes. But the overarching “model” was strengthening governance by enabling and driving the bureaucracy and police force to experiment and solve problems.

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