The more I see of the world, the more convinced I become of two generalizations I have constructed. Generalization #1: different parts of the world display different levels of economic prosperity and development, and with time the differences accumulate thus increasing regional disparities. Generalization #2: basically all humans are the same, and at their core they all have the same innate human abilities, desires and drives. The first generalization in light of the second begs the question: what accounts for the varying degrees of success of various peoples? Why are certain aggregations of people successful while others not?
Traveling to Bihar made me acutely aware of the fact that I was in a part of the world which has been singularly unfortunate in modern times. One would have expected it to be a veritable paradise given that it has a rich and deep history, and is abundantly endowed with natural resources. What went wrong? It is a source of mystery to me.
The flight from Delhi (Patna is not directly connected to Mumbai) was seriously delayed. It was late in the evening when I checked into the hotel Maurya Patna, the best hotel in the best part of town. A machine-gun equipped policeman stationed close to the lift on my floor did much to remind me that I was in a state that is largely lawless and has massacres with fair degree of regularity.
Surveying the room and the bathroom, I did a quick calculation of the number of hours that I will spend in Patna and consoled myself that I will be too busy to note the passage of time. The air conditioning system vented an unpleasant stream of humid air into the room. I was told that the restaurant closes at 10 PM. The front desk informed me that hotels everywhere around the world shut down their restaurants at 10 PM. After checking out the room service menu, I decided to skip dinner.
The next two days I spent in the conference rooms in the hotel, meeting with a group of people who had finished touring three selected districts of Bihar: Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, and Patna. The organizers were from the Aga Khan Development Network and I was invited to take part in the de-briefing proceedings. My host was Dr Somnath Bandyopadhyay who was leading the mission to figure out what the AKDN should do to help with the development of those three districts.
The short answer to what’s wrong with these places: everything. Listening to the experiences in the field, it became clear that it is a systemic problem and that the entire ecosystem was sick. Too many people, too little land, too little production, too little education, too much government, under-performing government schemes – the list goes on.
Bihar has a population of over 80 million people, approximately that of Germany. While Germany’s annual production is valued at US$2.9 trillion, Bihar’s production is around US$24 billion, or less than 1 percent of Germany’s. Bihar’s statistics are depressing even compared to India. Its per capita annual product is a third of India’s. The growth of Bihar’s economy actually decelerated as the rest of India’s growth accelerated. In 1980s, Bihar’s real per capita income grew at 2.6 percent (national average 3.3 percent), but in the 1990s, Bihar slowed its real per capita income growth to 0.0 percent (national average 4.0 percent.) It was at the bottom of the list of 16 major Indian states.
Bihar’s agricultural productivity is half of India’s. That is all the worse because agriculture accounts for 45 percent of Bihar’s income (compared to overall for India 25 percent.) Bihar is actually almost all rural – 90 percent of the population lives in rural Bihar (compared to India’s 70 percent.) And the rural areas are crowded: the population density is nearly 900 people per sq km, about three times India’s population density. [Source.]
Not surprisingly, Bihar is at the top of the list of negative indicators. Kidnappings: 3rd highest after UP and Rajasthan. Murder rate: 2nd highest after UP. Total fertility rate: 4.4 second to UP (national average 3.3.) [Source.] Bihar trails in practically all indicators of development such as literacy rate to income distribution.
Sitting on in the de-briefing meetings, a picture of gradual and steady decline began forming in my mind. The signs were apparent. The power failed intermittently. Bihar produces no electrical power of its own. Somnath informed me that Bihar gets about 1000 MW of power from outside the state, 700 MW of which is unaccounted for. Patna consumes 300 MW, a good bit of which appears to have been used by the Rabri Devi household. It is reported that when she vacated her official Chief Minister’s residence, they had to remove 53 air conditioners.
Bihar is in dire straits and can be the textbook example of a failed state. One wonders whether bad governance is the result of poverty or whether poverty is the cause of bad governance. I suspect that it is a little of both given that democracy is the link. The people deserved their leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, the guy who was at the helm of affairs for over a decade in Bihar. He is reputed to have dismissed development as of no relevance to his people.
In some sense, Lalu is right. Bihar does not need development, thank you very much. The state has over 80 million inhabitants. Sure they don’t have the GDP of Germany, but the people get by, don’t they? The land provides. And that may be the reason that Bihar is poor. You can get by somehow by doing nothing. The land is fertile to a fault. Water is abundant. In north Bihar, water is not only plentiful, there is too much of it. The story of north Bihar and its floods is something I had not known about.
[Previous post: Part 1. To be continued.]