This is the fifth installment of a series that CNBC-TV18 is launching known as Know Your Country. Helmed by our columnist Vijay Kumar Gaba, it is based on his observations about India and its people during his numerous travels across the length and breadth of the country. The fifth article is focused on Bihar, its economic situation and countless contradictions. Follow the series here.
I travelled to 27 out of 38 districts of Bihar, covering all the nine divisions. During my 2-week journey, I spoke to over 4,000 people in 460 villages and towns.
My strong impression about this amazing state and her people is that if your body's internal immune system permits, a journey through Bihar must be undertaken. A 1,000-km journey through the state would be sufficient to know why India is an incredible land of people and what is keeping it from becoming great again. It certainly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The state of Bihar and her people are full of countless contradictions. From 35,000 feet you may not see much social or economic disharmony in the state. However, a little deeper dive tells you the tale you may perhaps not get to hear anywhere else.
At every kilometre in your journey, you feel as if Bihar is a massive puzzle with many pieces missing and many unrelated pieces that perhaps got exchanged with the other puzzles. It is therefore almost impossible to solve this puzzle.
Poverty, gender inequality, religion, spirituality, nationalism, urbanisation, feudalism -- all these references lose their standard meaning in the context of Bihar.
Someone sitting in Delhi or Mumbai could never imagine what poverty could actually mean. How Rs 32/day income that was ridiculed by many a few years ago, could be a luxury for millions. How 10-15 construction labourers cramped in a 10x10 tin-roofed room in Delhi's heat and cold and Mumbai's humidity and filth, may actually be living a rather luxurious life as compared to the conditions back home.
For a youth who has grown up in a metropolis, it might be tough to understand how Brahmins who are supposed to work and pray for the betterment of society, could actually wield firearms and perpetrate terror on the poor and the helpless.
The Bihari labourers who are building swanky buildings and highways across the country and could even be key to building smart cities, have constructed Bihar in a most haphazard way. The roads are messy. The new houses look dilapidated. Even in cities like Patna, the concept of town planning appears to have been completely ignored.
While the aspiring Indian are talking about taking over the global giants like Alibaba, Facebook, Samsung and IBM - the Bihari aspirations are still stuck in the government jobs.
Land of countless contradictions
Traversing through this historical landscape, one is faced with countless contradictions at each step. The incongruence appears to be the order for the state. For example, consider the following:
(a) In this land of Buddha and Mahavira, the entire populace seems to be deeply engaged in superstitions, religious rituals (कर्मकाण्ड) that might have lost their relevance centuries ago. In fact these superstitions and religious illiteracy could be traced as one primary reason for the abysmal poverty and hopelessness in the state.
A lot of local people do visit Gaya, the place where Buddha received enlightenment, but not to seek the light of knowledge, but to perform some rituals, which most of them are not sure why should be performed.
If you are interested to know, Gaya is apparently the only place in India where a living person can perform his/her own last rites.
Buddhism here is synonymous with radicalism and not identified with spirituality. Mahavira, an epitome of altruism and renunciation, is considered mostly the god of rich Marwari.
A lot of pilgrims from Japan, China and Thailand visit Gaya. The Japanese people have apparently donated large sums of money for the maintenance and development of Gaya, widely considered to be the Mecca of Buddhism. However, most of the Bihari males know Japan as the land of Aphrodite. The most conspicuous advertisements in the local newspapers are about Japanese oil, capsule, ointment and machine for enhancing sexual prowess.
(b) The Mithila region of Bihar is known to be the birthplace of Mother Sita, the queen of Lord Rama. Unfortunately, despite large scale male emigration from rural areas, the sex ratio is adverse in most parts of the state. Both urban as well as rural areas have adverse sex ratio. Mithila region has the worst sex ratio (approximately 880 females for 1000 males)
(c) To outsiders, Bihar usually means a fragmented society - where poor people prefer caste over economic development. I found this to be little further from the truth.
Prima facie, here the caste appears mostly a feudal weapon of socio-economic suppression. The rich, the landlords and the powerful of all castes use this weapon for social or economic discrimination and suppression. The poor, the helpless and the oppressed only use the caste to unite.
(d) The great Maurya kings and the legendary seer Chankaya who together achieved the dream of United India (अखंड भारत) no longer belong here. In two weeks of stay in the state, I could not find a soul who talks or thinks about the nation or nationalism. Even the extreme right-wingers' thoughts are mostly parochial.
(e) The populace which was in the forefront in the movement for independence from British rule and movement from independence from the feudal rule of Congress Party is struggling with slavery. Very few raise voice against oppression; and many of those who raise voice against oppression do so to become oppressors themselves.
(f) The state leadership has always put a strong emphasis on ‘secularism’ (सर्वधर्म सदभाव). However, as we could see, religion as a political factor is relevant only for the ‘upper caste’ voters. The backward caste people have almost no inclinations towards the religious divide.
(g) An average Bihari youth still aspires to be a government officer - mostly civil servant, law officer or police officer. The children from affluent families are opting for management and technical studies. But these are few and mostly leave Bihar for good once they get a good job outside Bihar.
The paradox is that the populace which aspires to be administrative, legal or police officer does not come across as the one having much faith in legal and constitutional framework. Non-compliance is the norm. Compliance is considered a sign of weakness and reason for ridicule and rejection equally by both the poor and the rich.
(h) This may surprise many readers, but I did discover that a very conventional Bihari society perhaps comprises the largest LGBT community in the country. Incest is not only widely in practice but also an integral part of folklore.
(i) Humour is an essential ingredient of the Bihari folk arts (music, drama, songs and literature) But unfortunately, an average Bihari today has a very stiff upper lip. They are silent and stressed. They look much older than their age.
(j) The incidence of deadly diseases like cancer is rising disproportionately, especially in the Gangetic plains of the state. Ganga Jal is no longer Amrut (nectar). It is in fact poison for poor Biharis. Nature is certainly not on Bihar's side. Unfortunately, for a population of more than 100 million, there is only one credible hospital in Patna for cancer treatment. Most of the people have to travel to Kolkata, Mumbai or Delhi for treatment.
(i) The state of agriculture in this predominantly agrarian state is pathetic. Frequent floods, uneconomical holdings, poor marketing and storage infrastructure, lack of formal credit, social biases, fragmented and inefficient food processing industry, and high incidence of land-related litigation are major reasons cited for lower agriculture contribution to the state economy.
A large part of the population in Bihar suffers from floods almost every year. Millions of people suffer tremendous hardship due to the inundation of their houses and fields. For many of these people, life begins afresh every year, as they lose their shelters, belongings, old parents, infants, and jobs to floods or to the disease and starvation that invariably follow the flood. This cycle has been going on for the past many decades. Bihar has a regular flood control department. Every year it goes through the same routine. The most unfortunate part is that this misery of people has been accepted by the administration and the politicians as
fait accompli. So much so that political parties even do not consider it important to promise effective measures for flood control in their election manifestos.
(b) Low agri income and minuscule industrial base have resulted in large labour migration from the state in the past four decades. This is a strong vicious cycle which the administration is finding difficult to break despite the sizable rise in social sector spending. Bihar's economy, therefore, continues to be substantially dependent on the economic growth in the industrialised states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, as a large component of the Bihar growth could also be attributed to the repatriated money by laborers working in other states.
(c) With the rise in the personal vehicle population, the poor local road network has become a common complaint even in remote villages. However, inadequate power and poor water management continue to be the most regretted infrastructure bottlenecks.
(i) In the past few years, the willingness to educate children has increased materially. The rise in public investment in education infrastructure is visible in most parts of the state. However, most teachers in schools and private coaching centres are unfit to be even high school students. Education is certainly leading to rise in aspiration. But the competitiveness and employability quotient of graduates remains very low. Frustration rather than knowledge and competitiveness appears to be the primary outcome of the higher expenditure on education.
(ii) Despite socialist regime in the state for past 25 years, the socio-economic disparities continue to grow. While it is certainly a matter of extensive research,
prima facie the higher economic growth in the state could be just an offshoot of growth in other parts of the country leading to higher remittances, higher social sector spending, and haphazard private construction activities in all urban agglomerates.
(iii) The administration does not appear to be in sync with the government. People in general believe it to be highly inefficient and corrupt. Most block and district level officials we spoke to cited routine interference in their work by politicians and non-compliant elements supported by these politicians. Law and order machinery is found grossly inadequate, unresponsive, and corruptible.
Vijay Kumar Gaba explores the treasure you know as India, and shares his experiences and observations about social, economic and cultural events and conditions. He contributes his pennies to the society as Director, Equal India Foundation. The views are personal. Read his columns