How Bihar Went from Basket Case to Case Study

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I visited Bihar for the first time in 1998, when its reputation for lawlessness was well-deserved. Traveling by train from Delhi, you knew exactly when you crossed the border into Bihar. That’s when groups of aggressive, ticket-less riders suddenly jumped onto the train, comfortable in the knowledge that, in Bihar, no one would challenge them. A while later, the train stopped for several hours, during which time an explanation eventually made its way to the passengers. There was a body on the tracks, and we would have to wait for someone to claim it.

That makes Bihar’s turnaround all the more dramatic. After Nitish Kumar took office as chief minister in 2005, the state has enjoyed double-digit economic growth, and he is credited with reducing crime, improving school enrollment and improving Bihar’s woeful roads. The state is doing so well that it is even drawing migrant labor from neighboring Nepal; the flow of people used to go the other way. Kumar was recently re-elected with an even stronger mandate, and I wanted to see the so-called “Nitish Effect” for myself.

In the capital, the main difference is the number of people, particularly women, walking around freely after dark. Patna is bustling, but unlike in the rest of India,  cities are not the engines of growth in Bihar; villages are. There, the link between law-and-order, infrastructure and growth becomes very clear. Beekepers in the village of Patiyasa told me that they could now transport their boxes of bees around the state, without fearing that the bad roads would wreck their cargo or that local gangs would rob them along the way. Those two changes have immediately improved their profits, putting more money into their pockets, which some of them have spent on the shiny new motorbikes parked outside their houses. Small vegetable growers in Yusufpur and Khirodharpur say that the safer, smoother roads have made their whole families more productive. Women can now safely travel by themselves to bring vegetables to market or sell milk from their buffaloes to the local dairy cooperative, leaving the men more time to work in their fields.

They were all praise for Kumar, but five years of success have also raised expectations. Biharis, like so many other Indians, are demanding that Kumar now do something to curb corruption. “Everywhere there is corruption,” says Rajendra Prasad Singh a farmer in Khirodharpur. “This should be removed.”

Kumar has already made some bold moves against corruption. Top state officials, including himself, must now disclose their assets online. With his strong majority in the state legislature, Kumar is now pushing for a “right to services” act that guarantees citizens the delivery of documents like company registrations, driver’s licenses or death certificates within a fixed period – or the offending bureaucrat must pay a penalty out of his own salary. If Bihar can curb corruption, it might finally attract private investment, sustaining the growth that so far has come mainly from public spending. Even Nitish realizes that the “Nitish Effect” alone can only do so much.