The New Old Bihar

01 October, 2012

FOR MOST INDIANS BORN OR BRED in any of our metropolises, Bihar can be a place of amusing oddities: a state that is often embroiled in its own paradoxes and conflicting narratives. According to one narrative, it is a place better understood through the lenses of Bollywood filmmakers, topping which list is Prakash Jha, whose movies, notably Gangajal and Apaharan, portray Bihar as infested with lawlessness, where corrupt politicians and policemen work in a nexus with a small coterie of businessmen (most of who have made money through some manner of underhand extraction).

According to the other narrative, the state has had the unaccustomed luxury in recent years of some great press under the chief ministership of Nitish Kumar; Bihar seems to be taking confident steps towards development. Law and order, women’s rights and the quality of roads, the abysmal state of which for decades provided fodder for relentless bashing by the media, have gradually morphed into symbols of an emergent Bihar.

Nonetheless, old prejudices die hard, and it doesn’t help when a filmmaker of a later generation, Anurag Kashyap, does a revisionist take with a movie like Gangs of Wasseypur (1&2), which reinforces the old perceptions.

Therefore, it was inevitable that I made my first trip to Patna, in late August, with eager anticipation, given the chance it afforded to better understand a state whose portrayal has been overtly colourful in news and popular media. Not that a short three-day visit is time enough to test new ground, especially when an exercise in social inquiry is not the primary purpose of the visit. But intent works in funny ways, and discoveries happened in the middle of work, meetings and traversing the sluggish Patna traffic. There were signs of the new Bihar everywhere, signs that helped unravel what was really going on. There were new buildings and construction projects—their newness unmistakable—new shops and showrooms in the city markets, and those explicit signs of admission into the Development Club: malls. (Interestingly, the first mall in the city is owned by Prakash Jha himself.) And unsurprisingly, there were educational institutes that seem to have cropped up in their dozens.

Beyond these signs, there were the micro-narratives, discovered in conversations I had with different people. I found that there were as many in-state stories as those floating around in the external airwaves, what they said depending upon who I spoke to.

So, a shopkeeper extolled the improvement in law and order. A businessman complained about the erratic and inordinately long power cuts. A sales executive who relocated to Patna from a distant village praised the improved roads. Somebody from eastern Bihar raged at the “incorrect portrayal” of life in Bihar in Gangs of Wasseypur. And both a local newspaper journalist and the owner of an advertising agency griped about Nitish Kumar’s monopolistic entrustment of the entire state government’s advertising budget to a single department of publicity, and using his government’s ad-spend to control the media.

But, amidst this flurry of narratives, it was a missing sign that pointed to something that characterised an important aspect of the continuing fragility of the state’s economy. It was an absence that I noticed during a 100-km drive from Patna to Bodh Gaya.

The highway wasn’t wide (merely two lanes and lacking a median strip), but it was well-paved. While much of the countryside was overwhelmingly rural, it was dotted with scores of schools and teaching institutes. These were definitive support signs for the dominant narrative on better roads and higher education levels.

What was absent is something that is almost always present along most highways in India, especially those leading out of a state capital. In those 100 km, I was hard-pressed to spot any factories. By factories I don’t mean power plants or oil refineries or large cement manufactories. I mean small- and medium-scale factories that manufacture soaps and detergents, pharmaceuticals, household hardware, garments—any manner of consumer goods and industrial products factories common in most other parts of the country. There were no FMCG factories that provide the fuel—direct and tertiary employment—that runs local economies. It might be argued that the absence of factories along a single state highway is hardly an indication of a giant lacuna in a government’s plans. But then if official figures are to be believed, there would be similar trends elsewhere in the state. Except for a few districts that house some heavy industries, industrial output in Bihar as a whole is extremely low; it contributes just about nine percent to the state’s economy. Further, while Bihar did record a 13.1 percent growth in 2011-12—the highest of any state in the country—the growth was fuelled by massive public sector spending and not by private investments in manufacturing.

Improved law and order, women’s empowerment and better roads are the current administration’s buzzwords—and they are good ones—but if the state aims to reach a real inflection point, it will have to make the small entrepreneur its focus. Not the colourful kinds like those in Gangs of Wasseypur—their notoriety is best shaken off, even though they make for great storytelling—but the mundane plodders entrepreneuring the daily needs of life, the ones who are the undramatic backbone of a robust economy.