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The new republic of Bihar

By Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
September 30, 2006 16:42 IST
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The foetid smell of sweat, raw onions, garlic and mustard oil rises in the still, humid air of 1, Anne Marg as thousands collect in the sweltering heat to meet the chief minister of Bihar.

This is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's Janata Durbar, held at his residence twice a week. People spread their gamchhas under the trees outside the chief minister's residence and sleep there to ensure they can meet Kumar the following morning.

Usually, their problems relate to unemployment, ex gratia medical relief, poverty, transfers and postings, police brutality and oppression. . . all the existential problems of any villager, all resolvable at the district level but imported to Patna because of a dormant administration.

A young woman tugs at a security official's sleeve. "I don't have a petition," she says, on the verge of hysterical tears. "I paid Re 1 to someone to write out my petition but he took my money and walked off."

An officer is summoned and an application is written on her behalf. This will be entered in a data base designed by Tata Consultancy Services to enable the chief minister's secretariat to track the complaint and redress it if the district administration doesn't act on it.

Nitish Kumar arrives at the meeting with a cavalcade of bureaucrats. Every application is entered in the data base, and when the chief minister gets it, he hands out redressal on the spot.

"Get me the Muzaffarpur SP," he demands. A woman weeps in front of him. "This woman is a Dalit. Her children have been killed. Why isn't the thana registering an FIR?" he yells on the mobile.

"There is no such thing as a 'little' height," he tells a young man pleading with him to use his influence and get him admitted to the police overlooking a "small problem" -- his height.

The scenes are not peculiar to Bihar. Every chief minister encounters them though Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi never felt the need for such an exercise in their 15 years in office. Kumar is trying to bring governance back to Bihar after a long absence. Advocate general P K Shahi recalls the way the change in the state was relayed to him.

"It was the day after the election results and Nitish Kumar was to take oath. The chief minister told me to make preparations for the panchayat elections. I explained that the matter was before the Supreme Court in the form of a Special Leave Petition. He said, 'Do what you want. I want the elections'."

Within a day of assuming office, Kumar held a meeting with his bureaucrats and explained how he wanted things run.

For the first time in its history, the police in the state were asked to prioritise their job. Two problems were identified: one, gunslingers involved in extortion, intimidation and sometimes abduction by "bahubalis" (mafia lords). Second, abductions as an industry. Cases were divided into two categories based on their primacy and how recent they were. And then the Bihar police got down to the painful task of solving them.

"The challenge was obvious. The older the case, the harder it was to get evidence. Alongside, we also wanted to make an example of recent crimes. The message we wanted to send was: 'Don't think you can commit a crime and get away with it. Because you can't, not now," says additional DG of police (operations) Anil Sinha.

Once the police understood that criminals were going to get no political protection, they decided to go after them. The Arms Act is beautiful in its simplicity.

Nothing more than a sub inspector's testimony is required to prosecute a criminal, so reports of arrests from districts began pouring in. The criminals were chargesheeted in three days, brought before a fast track trial court and convicted even before they could ask for bail.

In other states these incidents would be commonplace; in Bihar they are unbelievable. Now the second phase of operations has started: the arrest of those against whom FIRs have been lodged.

When arrest orders against minor "bahubalis" Sunil Pandey and Anant were issued, Bihar was in a state of shock. Both were sitting MLAs from the Janata Dal U, Nitish Kumar's party.

Uncertain of their fate, the police went to Pande's home, and though they knew he was inside, did not arrest him, merely pasted the proclamation on his door and returned. Inside, Pande granted interviews to television channels. When this was brought to Kumar's notice, he publicly reprimanded the police brass.

The result of these moves has been nothing short of dramatic. Where earlier Patna cinema halls never screened evening and night shows, now they are sending cash registers ringing hysterically. Retail sales are up -- people who used to visit shops only during the festive and marriage season are crowding shopping centres like Mauryalok.

Young people can be spotted waiting for a table in the swisher restaurants of the capital. Shops are open till 9 pm. Young women think nothing of going for a morning jog at Gandhi Maidan, the sprawling park in the centre of Patna.

Says principal secretary to the chief minister, R C P Singh: "Last month we logged 27 convictions a day. Of these, eight per day were for life imprisonment. In September we expect this to go up. In the last eight months we have convicted around 3,000 people in cases of heinous crime -- murder, kidnapping and murder -- and 2,000 people have been convicted in other crimes."

The gain? "Once convicted, the person cannot get any government contract. Nor can he contest elections," says a police officer.

Can the government sustain the momentum? Apart from an inefficient, corrupt and demoralised force, there are objective problems: lack of training and manpower shortages.

But the Bihar government has hit on a unique scheme that the President of India commended when he visited the state. It has already recruited 5,000 retired soldiers who have been banded as the Special Auxiliary Police for constabulary and cordon and search operations.

Therefore, when you have an incident like the Jehanabad jailbreak case, or where the local police is suspected to be either involved or frightened of acting (and this happens a lot in Bihar), this force will be used.

The Bihar government is also, for the first time in many years, actually spending the money given to it for modernisation -- buildings, secure communication, and brand new computer systems to replace the aged 486 and Pentium II systems they had earlier.

Under another novel initiative, 50 officers have been headhunted in the CBI for vigilance functions. Beginning November, these officials will be tasked with handling cases relating to disproportionate assets, and entrapment.

It is not just on the law and order front that the state government has moved. A Single Window Act, 2006 seeks to cut red tape for industry wanting to invest in the state.

There are new rules for infrastructure development, the Rent Control Act has been abolished, stamp duty has been cut for better compliance, the Agricultural Produce Marketing Control Act used to force farmers to sell only at designated mandis has been abolished, the power sector has been unbundled into eight new entities, Bihar has a new sugarcane policy...

"Bihar is going to spend Rs 17,000 crore (Rs 170 billion) over three years just on roads. Apart from unbundling the power sector, we are going to franchise distribution," says N K Singh, newly appointed vice chairman of the state's Investment Board.

A 180-acre tourism complex has been envisaged in Bodh Gaya-Rajgir-Nalanda that will combine spa and health tourism. A golf course-multiplex-shopping mall-luxury hotel complex is to be set up here.

The project cost will be anywhere between Rs 850-1,000 crore (Rs 8.50-10 billion). At the invitation of the Bihar government, a representative of the World Tourism Organisation and UN expert on regional planning, James Esserman is currently touring this area.

"The Nalanda University was world famous. We want to develop it into a modern world-class educational centre," Nitish Kumar says. Singapore senior state minister for external affairs Balaji Sadashivan was in Patna earlier this week and he has promised Singapore's support for the project.

Seductive as all this sounds, Kumar and his colleagues are acutely conscious that they need to have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Health is a formidable challenge with immunisation figures at a mere 11 per cent -- against a national average of 54 per cent.

In January 2006, average patients per primary health centre (PHC) was 39 with 85 per cent or more patients going to doctors in the private sector.

In the last eight months, Rs 222 crore (Rs 2.22 billion) has already been spent on the health sector and the outlay in next year's budget could be Rs 400 crore (Rs 4 billion) (it used to be Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) before 2005).

"We want the doctors to be free from the management of support services so that they can concentrate on providing the specialised services they are meant for," said Deepak Kumar, state health secretary.

Pathology services, radiology services, hospital maintenance, ambulance services and mobile medical unit services have all been outsourced.

Pathology services, for instance, are available at PHCs; the labs pay rent to the state government which makes no investment. Government patients are charged rates fixed after consultation between the government and the labs, on the understanding that the labs are free to use the premises and charge non-government patients market rates.

For those registered with PHCs, the charges are low. Ambulances are available at every hospital. But what has increased footfalls in PHCs is that 13 essential outpatient drugs and 24 essential inpatient drugs are provided free. From November, all medicines for indoor patients will be free.

Deepak Kumar concedes that absenteeism was a serious problem but there was not a lot the state government could do about it.

"Most doctors never viewed suspension as a punishment -- it left them free for private practice. But we have tried to see the problem from their eyes: to see patients but neither be able to prescribe them medicines nor send them for an x-ray. Now that we've redressed this, the doctors are enjoying their job."

A similar initiative in education has been planned. Nearly 240,000 teachers will be recruited over the next two years but the charge of managing them will be given to the panchayats.

As 58 per cent of the panchayats in Bihar are manned by women, Nitish Kumar says this will work beautifully. "There is no one who wants a child to study more than a mother, no matter how poor the family might be," he says.

To correct the discrepancy between the quality of education in state run and private schools, a committee headed by former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey is studying the issue.

Prem Shankar Mani, an MLC and Janata Dal U ideologue, says, "We believe the ends of social justice will be served only when children from lower castes get access to English education."

Mani says declassing children is an important element in education for a state as poor as Bihar. "Talk to a child in a public school and ask him about hunger. He will describe it as appetite. But he has to learn the meaning of hunger as well from his low caste classmate."

World Bank lead economist Dipak Dasgupta says health and education reforms by the government are steps in the right direction. "But," he adds cautiously, "we need to know more about evaluation and monitoring." Nitish Kumar smiles wryly at this. "They are right," he says, "the programmes need to be monitored every day, every week."

And this is the downside. In order to reform the Public Distribution System, the state government asked all district magistrates to collect figures of families Below the Poverty Line. One deadline has already been missed and a second one advanced.

Last week, at a videoconference with DMs, the chief minister lost his temper. The supply side story is that one block development officer complained he could not collect these figures because of threats by a "bahubali" and requested an NGO to conduct the survey. The NGO countered this by saying they would be subject to the same threat. The net result is that the figures are yet to come.

Nitish Kumar made the somewhat rash promise that all districts would be covered by the rural employment guarantees programme.

He told Business Standard that every district had reported that job cards were being handed out. But at a recent Jan Sunwai in Jehanabad, several women complained to the Land Reforms Commission's D Bandopadhyaya that they had asked for work but had been denied cards.

This is the problem everywhere. There is one Nitish Kumar, a handful of officers by his side, battling the state of mind that is Bihar. His ministers, even if they are honest good men, don't know how to be ministers.

When industries minister Gautam Singh was invited by the Bihar Industries Association along with the US Consul General in Kolkata, who speaks fluent Bengali, instead of discussing plans to encourage investment to Bihar, Singh spent the better part of an hour with the US envoy teaching him the Bhojpuri equivalent of Bengali words.

Ask Nitish Kumar and he will explain why he wants to encourage sugar mills to set up integrated sugar complexes in Bihar -- ethanol, alcohol and suage plants -- but when the government announced the new sugarcane policy, the minister in charge, Nitish Mishra cried off from an industry-government meet confessing he was yet to understand the policy.

State finance minister Sushil Modi was not even present at the press conference with Investment Commission chief Ratan Tata. Like a cuckolded husband, he is always the last to know when it comes to events in his department.

Understandably, big business is wary about investing in Bihar, though the state government is trying to make sure it doesn't turn away for lack of a policy and legal architecture.

Although the chief minister says FDI worth Rs 14,000 crore (Rs 140 billion) has been approved for the state, the real bucks have come in only to set up 14 sugar mills. The chief minister is clear what he doesn't want: "We will not be joining the race to set up Special Economic Zones in Bihar," he says. "They are controversial and we can't spare agricultural land."

The Union government is holding out a helping hand. Thanks to a Patna visit by P Chidambaram earlier this year, bank CMDs are burning the tarmac at Patna airport. They are coming to Bihar in droves. What this activity yields is another matter. Last week, bids were opened for roadbuilding in Patna. The contract has gone to the Tantia group.

If words don't match deeds, the Bihar elite, whom Kumar has kept engaged so far, will lose patience. But the World Bank says everything Kumar is doing is "exactly right".

"In principal, Bihar should be growing twice as fast as the the national average if the government continues its reforms process. That's the potential of the state," says Dipak Dasgupta. But adds his associate, Mandakini Kaul, "Expectation management is a big issue."

That is the challenge for the new republic that is Bihar.

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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