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Bullish on Bihar: Go East, young man!
October 31, 2003
As someone who believes in economic cycles, I have become a believer in Bihar. If only for the negative thought that Bihar couldn't possibly get any worse. The news from the state is depressing indeed: caste wars, young men kidnapped and forcibly wed because of unreasonably high dowry demands, the clowning of Laloo Prasad Yadav (this generation's answer to the late lamented Raj Narain), highway robbery, you name it.
So much so that 'Bihari' has come to be seen in some circles as an insult. I was told by an acquaintance of the situation, he, a Malayali, experienced in college days in Bangalore. The Hindi folks would refer to him, without malice, as a 'Madrasi,' which irritated him. He just loved being reduced to a stereotype, especially when he had absolutely nothing to do with Madras. Then he hit upon an ingenious solution: he began referring to Northerners as 'Biharis.' They would get very upset, and would attempt to tell him they were... whatever else, but not Biharis.
My friend would feign ignorance, and launch into this whole speech: "I know in the North there are Punjabis and Biharis. You are not Punjabis, because you don't have turbans and beards. Therefore you must be Biharis, no?" He would beam, clearly proud of his watertight logic. Obviously, he never 'got it' about non Punjabi non Biharis. He must have made his point though, for they stopped calling him 'Madrasi.'
But what struck me is the disgust and disdain most people have for Bihar. This, I think, is unfair and disregards the illustrious history of the state. For after all, the very name 'Bihar' comes from the Buddha vihara; and Bihar, with Magadha and Pataliputra, was the very center of the glittering Buddhist civilisation of 2,000 years ago.
The great university of Nalanda was there, too. So clearly, this land was one of the most civilised in the world for a thousand years, till roughly 1200 CE. And I personally see no reason why it cannot revive itself and reclaim its lost glory.
After the drying up of the Saraswati following an earthquake circa 1900 BCE, the people of the Indus Saraswati civilisation seem to have migrated eastwards to the Gangetic plain and re-established their culture there in the land around the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.
There must have been sufficient water, for this is perhaps the biggest requirement for agrarian civilisations: the ability to produce an agricultural surplus which can then be used for other activities like architecture, art, literature, trade, and, alas, warfare. See my old columnThe River Sutra.
Furthermore, then as now, Bihar had a treasure trove of metals and minerals that would have been exploitable and tradable.
So what has happened to Bihar since the heyday of the Mauryas and Guptas? Cyclical decline for sure. Further, it was the ill effects of colonisation and brutalisation. For, when Alauddin Khilji sacked Nalanda circa 1200 CE, beheading every one of the Buddhist monks he found, and burning the great library to the ground, it had the effect of erasing civilisation there: it was one of the greatest cultural crimes ever committed. The poignant story,The Last Lesson at Nalanda, (The Indian Express, September 18, 2003) captures this perfectly.
The European colonists were not so bad at rapine either. They destroyed the forests, cutting down much of the old growth; they turned much of the coal and iron belt into dangerous, inhuman mines where men's lives were worth nothing; they took over and destroyed the waterways that had guarded the populace against El Nino droughts and resulting famines for hundreds of years. Now some of these canals are being rebuilt painfully, bringing the elixir of life back. See the article This Diwali, heart of darkness is bright and shining (The Indian Express, October 25, 2003.)
With their culture and civilisation lost, their very survival dependent on the vagaries of monsoons, Biharis essentially reverted to an uncivilised existence. Nothing has happened for a couple of centuries to improve matters.
Nothing in particular is happening now, either. But it is in the nature of things that there will be ups and downs. As a contrarian, and because it appears as though Bihar has reached its nadir and couldn't possibly decline any further, I predict that Bihar can only go up. And that trajectory may be very quick.
In case you think casteism in Bihar is its biggest challenge, I present you with Exhibit A: Kerala. A hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda was so appalled by Kerala's rigid and unbelievably cruel caste system that he called it a lunatic asylum. Today it is by any measure the most egalitarian part of India. If Kerala can do it, why can't Bihar?
Similarly, if you don't believe things can change overnight, consider Exhibit B: Calcutta and West Bengal. This dowager of a city, once upon a time elegant even under the colonial heel, and a center of industrial prowess, has been converted in a very short period of fifty years into a disaster area where there are no jobs or even hope.
The lush Bengali countryside, once the engine of the Indian economy, producing at least 12 per cent of the world's entire industrial output (yes, far more than California does now!) has been ravaged by twin scourges: the colonists and the Old Left.
On the other hand, let us look at my beloved South in terms of the economic boom. As a contrarian, I will go against the grain. Without in any way putting it down, I think there is overexposure and excessive hype about the South, for example in The Telegraph of October 27, 2003: Software South Steals March Over 'Sick' States.
Yes, the South is on the ascendant. Some of this can be attributed to good management. Chandrababu Naidu is a marketing wizard, who also has a great deal of substance and sincerity. S M Krishna is doing much better than his dull, inept predecessors. J Jayalalithaa has curbed her tendencies for excess, and her second incarnation is doing amazingly well for Tamil Nadu. A K Antony in Kerala is doing a terrific job despite backbiting and intrigue from fellow Congressman K Karunakaran.
But let's look at the downsides as well. In Andhra Pradesh, development is essentially confined to Hyderabad and Secunderabad. I have to admit they have done a masterful job there. When I went there recently after many years, I was simply astonished that a grimy medieval city had been transformed so much in such a short time.
And it is true that good governance has brought dividends to some parts of the state. But in the vast hinterland, especially Telengana and the drought prone interior, things still need to improve a lot. The plight of Andhra farmers who commit mass suicide now and then, and the fact that the barbaric Maoists still have some support in rural areas, both underline the long haul ahead. While e-governance has improved things, and there is a refreshing can do attitude, life is still grim for rural people.
In Karnataka, once again development seems to be confined to the Bangalore region and to some extent Mysore and Mangalore; in general, southern regions of the state. The vast, arid, interior northern parts of the state have not gained anything from the infotech boom. The real Deccan plateau of giant boulders and reddish laterite is still plodding along in the 19th century while Bangalore has zoomed into the 21st.
While Bangalore is still extremely pleasant -- it is by far my favourite city in India -- and it has become quite cosmopolitan and globalised, there is also increasing pollution, stress, and crime. Old timers tell me that the weather has become much harsher, rush hour is choking the roads, and life has become unpleasantly fast.
Tamil Nadu has done an exceptional job in attracting automobile majors to the outskirts of Chennai; and Madurai, Tiruchirappalli and especially Coimbatore are all thriving. Despite its dependably atrocious weather, Chennai has become a more appealing city with better restaurants and shopping.
But then there is Salem district where large numbers of female babies have been murdered because of poverty. Arid coastal districts, such as Tirunelveli, have not shared in the rising fortunes of Chennai. The lack of water is a major problem all over Tamil Nadu, as demonstrated by persistent acrimony over the meager flow in the Kaveri.
And finally there is Kerala. It has squandered its many assets in infighting and political extremism; Kerala is a money order economy. Behind the misleading facade, there is economic deprivation. When the Gulf boom ends, as it inevitably will shortly, Kerala will be hard pressed to survive on nothing more than its good looks and charm: can tourism and ayurveda and backwaters sustain 30 million avid consumers?
I hasten to reiterate that I say this about the South as an avid Southerner. It is good that the South is getting good marketing, but I wish to point out that it is not as though Bihar is so completely behind the curve that they can never catch up. No need to give up.
If I were a young and adventurous person, I would head out to the badlands of Bihar, figure out the corridors where growth is most likely to happen, and invest there. But being older and less brave, I merely advise others to do so. In the medium term, meaning in the next 20 years, Bihar will be a success story.
For Diwali, belatedly, here is a song for all exiles, voluntary and otherwise. Vikram Seth's wonderful poem has always affected me powerfully.
For me, though, it's not the Raag Malwa, it is the half heard melody of a rough rustic voice singing a capella a Bhakti hymn from Manikkavachakar (as in G Aravindan's masterpiece Chidambaram).
It is looking out my window in Kerala and seeing a host of dragonflies silhouetted against the deep green of coconut leaves and the lighter green of tamarind and neem, and remembering the souls waiting to be reborn buzzing about as dragonflies on the rock out at sea in M Mukundan's On the banks of the Mayyazhi River.
Rest then, disquieted heart!
Thanks to this web site where I found the poem:
DIWALI --- Vikram Seth
Three years of neurotic
Home. These walls, this sky
These streets, these voices...yet
Five? Six? generations ago
And two generations later
English! Six-armed god,
English: beloved language
The Moghuls fought and ruled
The land assumed their love.
How could an Englishman say
Macaulay the prophet of learning
And Kalidas, Shankaracharya,
The undigested Hobbes,
O happy breed of Babus,
And I twist along
And as we title our memoirs
And we import songs
And as, over gin at the Club,
I know that the whole world
Huddled in towns, while around:
"The landlord's hirelings broke
When I am old? No-one
That sun that, were there water,
Yet would these parched wraiths still
This may as well be my home.
This could well be my home;
Its phases: the winter wheat-
The first smell of the Rains
What if my tongue is warped?
And when an alap of Marwa
It holds me-till the strain
"But freedom?" the notes would sing...
Give your soul leave to feel
"The world is a bridge. Pass over it,