The battle ahead

Nitishs triumph

Nitish Kumar deserves kudos for his spectacular electoral victory in Bihar though only two cheers are presently warranted. Among those who clearly lost were the naxals who did their best to subvert the polls but failed. The ballot box triumphed over the bullet but that battle in not yet fully won. Narendra Modi was kept out and the BJP must ponder whether it wishes to follow Modi’s model, with its Hindutva overtones, or Nitish’s more inclusive pathway.

The BJP did well to win 91 seats, 36 up, against the JD(U)’s 115. The 25 per cent vote Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD won indicates that caste still reigns strong. The Congress was near-routed, while the left found its base further eroded, signalling the shape of things to come. It is disturbing that not only were a large number of candidates with criminal charges nominated but that as many as 85 were elected (JD(U) 43, BJP 29). The number of crorepatis returned to the Assembly this time has risen, with many of those re-elected showing assets considerably in excess of what they had declared five years ago.

However, these are not the sole reasons for proclaiming Nitish Kumar’s triumph no more than a half-victory. His previous term did notch up notable accomplishments: an enviable rate of growth; considerable progress in school and teacher enrollment, especially among girls thanks to an imaginative free cycle scheme for those passing the eighth grade; gender empowerment by mandating 50 per cent panchayat membership for women; ensuring that the benefits of reservation penetrated below the creamy layer by creating a new category of extremely backward classes; building and improving roads and bridges, stamping on lawlessness by enforcing the criminal justice system; and generally improving  governance through better public service delivery.

Considering the sense of hopelessness and despair that had gripped Bihar, characterised by misgovernance and near-anarchy following years of misrule, the turnaround achieved is truly remarkable. Yet, there is no basis for complacency. Some gross symptoms of Bihar’s dysfunctionalism have receded but the underlying malaise remains: rigid caste and feudalism entrenched in extraordinary oppressive land relations that have long been a huge agricultural depressor and a root cause for violence, destitution, indignity and naxalism.

Bihar remains among the country’s least urbanised states, especially after losing the mineral rich, industrialising Jharkhand region. Rural unemployment and debt are high and what could and should be India’s bread basket, given its excellent soil, plentiful water (for the most part) and sunshine, have very poor crop yields. The sugar economy is in need of modernisation. This was among the pillars of Nitish’s first round strategy, which somehow got lost on the way.

Lost opportunity

The massive Kosi breach and floods some years ago was a disaster that afforded opportunity for a new agrarian beginning as nature’s fury had wiped the slate clean. Instead, a dreadful and inefficient status quo ante was restored at huge public expenditure to enable an age-old system of feudal exploitation to be ingloriously resuscitated. A heaven sent opportunity for a massive experiment in agrarian and socio-economic engineering was simply thrown away. Unemployment and distress migration remain high.

Unless these tasks are tackled head on, Bihar will plod along but never take its rightful place as a vanguard state that it once was in history. Vested interests abound, not least among Nitish Kumar’s close supporters. The chief minister appointed two landmark committees in his first term: the Bandopadhya and Dube committees on agrarian and educational reforms respectively. Both produced excellent reports, the latter recommending common schools among other things. Alas, the chief minister baulked. Neither was implemented. Millions of share-croppers remain in virtual bondage and are ripe for revolution.

This must not happen again. The new Nitish administration was sworn in at the Patna maidan last week — another symptom of populism and playing to the gallery rather than focusing on the ball. With a huge majority — even with many die-hard conservatives around — he must grasp the nettle, break Bihar’s land-caste-feudal stranglehold and release the enormous human resources and energy that have remained bottled.
Bihar’s irrigation systems, especially Kosi and Gandak, are in a mess and need to be taken in hand with consolidation, on-the-spot updating and correction of revenue records, with mobile courts in attendance and much else besides as spelt out under Kosi Kranti.

South Bihar suffers from periodic drought even though it is underlain by an ocean of water in a deep aquifer between 1,500 and 3,000 metres deep in several layers as hypothesised after careful study as far back as 1967 and further verified by examination of ONGC’s core petro-geological drillings samples from Bihar’s terai.

The World Bank offered to assist exploratory drilling to map the potential aquifer, believed to stretch from Faizabad to Saharsa along the north Ganga plain. The Government of India disregarded the offer. This is something Bihar must now insist on taking up to prove the hypothesis which, if established, could transform the approach to water resource development and exploitation.

Given reform and modernisation of its land and water regime, Bihar could triple its crop production, attain higher productivity, take surplus labour off the land through agro-processing, small industry, based on Nepalese hydro power and by developing its service sector.

This is what Nitish must do. Will he?


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