Bihar’s Battle for Change and Development:

A few Points for Fellow Fighters

(Presentation by Comrade Dipankar Bhattacharya at ‘Hindustan Samagam’ (Summit organised by the Hindi daily Hindustan, on the theme of Bihar-2020: Disha aur Dasha), Patna, 20 October, 2009)
1.     That Bihar today lags behind most other Indian states in terms of almost all commonly cited development indices is an undisputed fact. This trend of decline or stagnation is however no recent feature. This was the case even when Jharkhand was part of Bihar, and following bifurcation Jharkhand too has joined the group of India’s most backward and ill-governed states despite being a small and resource-rich state. There is also a tendency to look at Bihar’s backwardness as a post-1990 development, but there can be no denying the fact that the trends of decline and stagnation date back to earlier periods, especially the last two decades of Congress rule in Bihar.
2.     As a state with a historical baggage of economic backwardness and under-development, Bihar of course deserves special attention from the Centre. But for Bihar leaders in power in Patna or Delhi, this has been more a subject of politicking than any serious and sustained quest for justice in a federal set-up. Around the time of Bihar’s bifurcation the CPI(ML) raised this demand quite forcefully and held a massive demonstration before Parliament, but major political parties in the state kept quiet. As a senior minister in the NDA cabinet at the Centre, Nitish Kumar was then most ideally placed to press for this demand, but he chose to raise this demand only after he became Chief Minister and the power at the Centre had changed hands from the NDA to the UPA.
3.     The question of Bihar’s backwardness must be understood in the context of the policies and pattern of economic development followed nationally by successive governments at the Centre. The policies pursued since 1991 that rely increasingly on the operations of the market and on the ‘generosity’ of foreign capital have only increased regional disparity in India, and all backward regions are victims of this pattern. In the latest survey of Indian states conducted by the India Today group, Bihar, Jharkhand and UP occupy the three bottommost rungs. A development model that pushes such vast regions and population to permanent underdevelopment cannot be a vehicle of progress for the country as a whole. No wonder, India’s position has slipped to the 134th rank in the latest UNDP Human Development Report. The battle for Bihar’s development is therefore an integral part of the Indian people’s battle against the dominant economic policies and priorities of the Indian state.
4.     The main theatre for the battle for Bihar’s development is of course today’s Bihar and sure enough, the script of this battle has to and will emerge from within. There can be little argument over the fact that agriculture holds the key to Bihar’s overall development. It is also an indisputable fact that Bihar is blessed with excellent natural and human resources. Given the kind of fertile land, abundant water and hardworking people available in Bihar, it is eminently possible to bring about a dramatic transformation in Bihar’s agriculture and push the state ahead along a rapid growth trajectory. Much of the success stories of agricultural and industrial development in states like Punjab and Haryana or Maharashtra and Gujarat are actually written with the toil and sweat of Bihari labour. There is no reason why the productive faculties of the same Bihari labour cannot be unleashed inside Bihar and the productive resources of the state fully utilized to propel agricultural and overall development in Bihar.
5.     Land reforms and public investment in agriculture are two key issues in this regard. There is a whole body of literature cutting across ideological streams calling for major initiatives in this direction; the report of the Land Reforms Commission being only a recent addition. It is shocking that the same government which set up the Land Reforms Commission has now unceremoniously junked the Commission’s report after sleeping over it for more than a year. A fair regulatory framework aiding and enabling the productive forces in the agrarian arena is a must not only for increased production and more equitable distribution, but also for any notion of governance based on the rule of law. Any government that shies away from this key agenda actually perpetuates social injustice, administrative anarchy and economic stagnation.
6.     Talking about Bihar’s development, one hears a lot about resource crunch or capital scarcity. Bihar is only ten per cent urban with little industry and this is presumed to be an evidence of capital scarcity. But if we look at the volume of funds unspent, misspent or embezzled in all the mini and mega scams that periodically come to light, the wealth that finds expression in conspicuous consumption or idle bank deposits or chit funds that grow and vanish like meteors or that goes to fund the existing patterns of power, privilege and domination, we know there is enormous untapped wealth waiting to be put to productive use. In fact, the word criminalization which had gained so much prominence a few years ago and which seems to have been brushed under the rhetorical carpet of good governance refers only to the process of accumulation and circulation of wealth by non-productive means and for non-productive purposes.
7.     Along with agriculture and industry, education and health are two no less important questions that have been crying for attention in Bihar. These days there is so much of talk about human, social or knowledge capital and if somebody thinks that corruption and criminalization are the biggest problems facing Bihar, I would say denial of the basic rights to education and health is no less a scandal or crime than all the ones that we have discussed all these years. If anybody thinks that the size of population is a big issue for Bihar, then again there is no better answer to that than the guarantee of an improved state of livelihood, education and healthcare for the masses. The recent report of the Common School System Commission headed by Muchkund Dubey indeed held out the promise of a much-awaited initiative in the sphere of mass education. Yet the report of the Commission seems to have suffered the same fate as is now being meted out to the Land Reforms Commission.
8.     This brings me to the crucial paradox that continues to puzzle the people of Bihar or any sympathetic observer of Bihar’s battle for development. Since the days of 1857 – leaving aside the previous periods of history for the moment – Bihar has never lagged behind in terms of ideas and initiatives or struggles and sacrifices needed for decisive social transformation and progress. In fact, for activists of people’s movement, Bihar has been one of the foremost laboratories not only generating radical ideas and vision but also backing them up with powerful social upheavals. From the anti-colonial uprising of 1857 through Gandhi’s Satyagraha and Sahajanand’s peasant movement to JP movement and Communist-led assertion of the rural poor, Bihar has been home to powerful mass struggles against injustice and oppression. Yet governance in Bihar has been singularly devoid of any bold initiative. From the battle for zamindari abolition to the current debate over minimum recognition of bataidari rights, the quest for agrarian justice and development has always been sought to be throttled by the ruling elite. The oppressed and deprived people – and they are the overwhelming majority in Bihari society – look forward to change as a prospect, and have been fighting heroically for realization of this prospect, but the ruling elite, in Patna as well as Delhi, have always been afraid of the ‘threat’ of change, doing everything possible to thwart it.
9.     Is it possible to resolve this paradox between a people fighting for change and a change-resistant power-structure? The answer is YES and Bihar must find this answer. What we need is a powerful and broad-based movement that goes all the way to bring about a change in the social composition and political character of power in Bihar so that power could serve as an agency of change in the hands of the people. In short we need a movement capable of producing the political will to break the shackles and barriers that keep Bihar chained to backwardness and unleash the productive energy of the society. Barring the Left, the radical Left in particular, Bihar has seen more or less all other ideological currents and political streams in power, and the hiatus between the aspirations of the people and the performance of the rulers, between the agenda of people’s struggles and the direction of governance remains as wide as ever. Bihar badly needs an end to the reign of political betrayal and administrative apathy, and it is time for all those who have a genuine stake in change and development to join forces and create the necessary political climate in the state.

10.       To advocate a qualitative change in the political balance in the state is not to suggest that nothing is possible till such a defining change is achieved. On the contrary, we need every effort and initiative, here and now, on all possible fronts, to intensify the battle against stagnation and betrayal and insist on accountability and advance. A million small but determined and definite steps will hasten the leap that has till date eluded Bihar.