The last Nitish Kumar government presented annual report cards to the people of Bihar. This time round, the chief minister has indicated that the government’s work may be up for internal review in six months. The six-month review may or may not take place but in Patna’s secretariat, it has already unleashed a frisson. As preparations were afoot for the grand swearing-in at the historic Gandhi Maidan on November 26, secretaries in key departments were urgently overseeing the preparation of the agenda for the next five years. There was no time to be lost, especially in areas that Nitish had prioritised in his poll campaign. In his second term, Nitish will have the political room to set his own pace. This, after all, is an election in which Bihar’s voters have elected a government, but no opposition. The fact that no party has notched the number of seats required to be anointed the main opposition party in the new House—Lalu Yadav’s RJD has won only 22 against the required number of 25—does not fully capture the story of the terrible decimation, not just of the RJD, but also of the Left forces, now huddled into one seat, and the Congress’s spectacular failure to relaunch.
But realistically speaking, Nitish will have two to three years before the clock starts ticking louder for Lok Sabha polls 2014. Two to three years in which to move towards “sampann Bihar” without any distractions, and to give a meaning to “sushasan” that is larger than the assurance of personal security and road connectivity. The gains made on these two fronts are on their way to being normalised. In his second term, Nitish must match his stride with the vaulting popular aspirations he himself awakened in his first.
If in the first five years, the work of setting up of a system where none existed was accompanied by a certain flourish and spectacle, the hard labour of the second term is likely to be of consolidation more than creation. It will be conducted in a quieter place, less invested with publicity and drama. In many areas, what is now required is the honing of delivery of an already existing basket of schemes.
There is another crucial difference this time. In the past five years, Nitish’s attempts to bring back the state into the business of building public goods in Bihar had to be feverishly tempered by his compulsion to craft a political constituency of his own through specially targeted schemes, transfers and reservations for the sections he courted—the extremely backward castes, Mahadalits, Pasmanda Muslims and women. This time, however, Nitish will have more room for manoeuvre in this respect as well.
As a senior cabinet minister in Bihar puts it, “Ab bacha kaun?” In other words, between Lalu and Nitish, all the political mobilisations that were possible on the basis of identity in a state of raging caste inequalities, have arguably been exhausted. Nitish showed great political ingenuity in his first term in identifying and addressing each and every group and sub-group left unattended after the Mandal revolution of the 1990s.
But there is a second reason why Nitish will have more freedom, should he look for it, to blur the lines and work more overtly towards a caste-neutral framework of development: the nature of his mandate spans virtually every social group. Nitish’s big win suggests that even his opponents voted for him, while Lalu’s abject loneliness today is borne of the fact that even his supporters didn’t vote for him.
Deputy chief minister Sushil Modi says that the new government’s priorities will be power and irrigation. These two sectors figure in all the lists being drawn up of the new government’s priorities. Other areas that Nitish Kumar has also conspicuously flagged in his election speeches, and that are, therefore, likely to draw special attention: reform of the public distribution system, and corruption, especially at lower levels of bureaucracy.
The challenge in the power sector is the most urgent but results here take a longer time to show. Nitish has promised to make Bihar a power surplus state by 2015.
With a thermal power installed capacity of only 440 megawatt, while the peak load is 2,500 megawatt and growing daily, Bihar is dependent on a central allocation of 1,750 megawatt. Of this, according to Ravikant, principal secretary, energy, Bihar gets 900 to 1,000 MW—1,400 MW at best—leaving a huge gap.
The problem also is, Nitish has repeatedly stressed, the Centre has not provided coal linkages for investments in the power sector in Bihar. “We will put greater pressure on the Centre in this regard, after this mandate,” says BJP minister Nand Kishore Yadav, who has now been given the roads portfolio.
The situation is expected to ease a bit after expansion work at the two plants at Barauni and Kanti is completed and there is talk of a joint venture with NTPC in Nabinagar, but that will take about three to four years to deliver. In the short run, says Ravikant, Bihar has asked for more allocation from the NTPC unit at Barh, and is actively encouraging biomass projects.
Lack of electricity has also meant that Bihar has not been able to fully utilise its large groundwater resources for agriculture. Agricultural productivity is further held back by the fact that the entire state boasts of only two large irrigation projects, on the Kosi and Gandak. “In this term, we need to develop an irrigation system. We need to make barrages, harness technological knowledge from all over the world. North Bihar has the most fertile land in the Gangetic plain. It used to be said that the second green revolution will unfold in Bihar,” says Vijendra Prasad Yadav, a senior minister in Nitish’s cabinet, who has now been given the portfolio of energy, excise and parliamentary affairs.
But while on both power and irrigation the results are likely to be slow and somewhat unspectacular, the new Nitish government has eye-catching moves up its sleeve on two other fronts—in the drive against corruption and in reform of the public distribution system.
Having sensed a building clamour against corruption in the lower bureaucracy, in all his poll campaign speeches Nitish mentioned a law with the provision that if a chargesheet has been filed against someone accused of corruption, permission can be sought for the confiscation of his property. He would open schools in those buildings, said Nitish, or use that space to create other socially useful assets like old age homes.
The Bihar Special Courts Act 2010 was sent for presidential approval where it was pending for almost 10 months. Presidential assent came in March. Since then, High Court benches have been constituted and in June, nine cases were filed against senior officials, including an ex-DGP. The law and its effects will fully unfold in Nitish’s second term.
A big idea is in the works for PDS reform. Bihar is planning a separate, independent body to create a new BPL list for the state. At present, according to government of India estimates, Bihar has 65 lakh BPL families while the state’s own surveys point to a figure of up to a crore and a half. In his election campaign, Nitish promised, to loud applause from his audiences across the state, that the state government would make up for the shortfall of foodgrain.
“The chief minister has been personally involved in PDS reform in the state,” says Tripurari Sharan, principal secretary, food and civil supplies. “Bihar PDS was in a shambles in 2005,” he says. “Now Bihar is on the procurement map. There’s been a silent revolution.” Four years ago, he says, Bihar used to lift 1,30,000 metric tonnes of foodgrain per month for PDS; it lifts more than 3,25,000 metric tonnes per month today.
There are plans to decentralise procurement. But if availability of foodgrain still remains a problem, the government proposes to give cash to the needy. This will be a step ahead of the food coupon system introduced by the Nitish government in 2007.
The Nitish government has widely experimented with direct cash transfers in its first term—for instance, the Mukhya Mantri Cycle Yojana, the scheme that gives Rs 500 for uniforms for girls and boys in classes 3,4 and 5, or the one that promises every child in the aanganwadi Rs 250. Nand Kishore Yadav claims, “We reached cash to every household, in some form or the other.” Cash transfers, he says, cut down corruption. “The Planning Commission is debating the cash subsidy, we have implemented it,” he says.
This debate could catch up with the Nitish government in its second term. “Even cash transfers can be fiddled with,” says PP Ghosh, at the Asian Development and Research Institute at Patna. “The government should focus its energies on reforming the PDS by learning from states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala. There is no substitute for enforcing greater accountability of the bureaucracy. Cash transfers are a short cut”.
For Saibal Gupta, also at ADRI, Nitish’s big challenge will be this: “So far, he could get a dividend from the strategy of direct transfer. Now he must address the fundamentals. For instance, land records must be updated, the bataidar (tiller) must be given legal status and benefits.”
In June 2006, the Nitish government set up the Bihar Land Reforms Commission under the chairmanship of D Bandyopadhyay; it submitted its report in 2008. One of its recommendations urges legal recognition to bataidars, because “…the Bihar Tenancy Act did not recognize the vast mass of cultivators commonly known as bataidars through whom 30 to 40 per cent of arable land in Bihar is getting cultivated.”
That report was put on the backburner after it stoked a political controversy, and threatened a backlash from the landowning upper castes against Nitish. Now that fears of that backlash have proved to be exaggerated, it remains to be seen whether the second Nitish government will make its way back to that report.
A report card
What was done: Roads
In 2004-5, with the RJD government in power, the state spent Rs 133.85 crore on roads and built a measly 384.60 km. After the Nitish Kumar-led government came to power for the first time in 2005, both the money spent on roads and the length of roads increased steadily. In 2005-6, the government spent Rs 263.23 crore on roads and built 415 km. A year later, the numbers went up to 1662.93 and 984.04 respectively. In 2008-9, 2,417.14 km of roads were built
What’s left: Power
As a result of bifurcation, power generation capacity in present Bihar reduced. Only 29.6 per cent of total generation capacity remained with Bihar; the remaining 70.4 per cent went to Jharkhand. According to latest government figures, per capita power consumption in Bihar stands at 100 units against the all-India figure of 700.
Indian Express, 28 Nov 2010