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Poverty, corruption, and crime. Can the state of Bihar find its way out of this mess?

The Sampoorna Kranti Express is a direct overnight train from New Delhi to Patna, the capital of the eastern state of Bihar. It makes just two stops along its 1,000-kilometer route, one at the crumbling industrial city of Kanpur, where it picks up vital personnel: armed guards. Their role is to fend off bandits who lurk along the tracks in Bihar, derailing trains and robbing -- even killing -- those on board. The railroad might do well to assign guards to the passengers once they alight at Patna. The city of 1.4 million is as lawless as the routes that lead to it, with kidnapping and murder almost daily occurrences. It's particularly sorrowful given that Bihar is the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, father of Buddhism, Lord Mahavir, founder of the Jain faith, and Guru Govind Singh, leader of the Sikh faith.

India has lately been known less for its poverty than for its clever software engineers, growing manufacturing prowess, and geopolitical ambitions. But in Bihar, all of India's longtime problems are plain to see: destitution, illiteracy, and lack of basic infrastructure and health care. Add to that the venal politics and rampant corruption, and it's a place to be avoided. According to New Delhi's Human Development Report, Bihar is the lowest-ranked Indian state in education, employment, and life expectancy. Three-quarters of Bihar's villages lack primary schools, health care, and electricity. More than 40% of the 85 million Biharis live in poverty, compared with a national average of 26%. Per capita gross domestic product is $130, a quarter of the national average, and the state has almost no industry -- only farmers and small shopkeepers.

Bihar's problems have an effect far beyond the state's borders. Because of its huge population, Bihar's representatives occupy 40 of the 543 seats in India's Parliament -- the third-largest state delegation. Bihar and a handful of other impoverished, populous states have been largely left out of the boom and are a drag on the national economy. With few prospects at home, 15 million Biharis have left in search of work, competing with the poor across the country for low-end jobs and taxing the resources of more prosperous states. And Maoist rebels from bordering Nepal have made inroads into northern Bihar. The border areas "are vulnerable points, and the poor are easy victims," says Nawal Chaudhary, head of the economics department of Patna University. "Bihar cannot be allowed to deteriorate further."

TALES OF PROGRESS

That's exactly what might happen if Bihar can't sort out its politics. In February, voters in the state elected a deeply divided assembly. The regional Janata Dal and its ally, the national Bharatiya Janata Party, came out on top with a combined 92 seats of the 243 in the legislature. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), or State People's Party -- which has governed Bihar for the past 15 years -- won 75 seats, down from 117 before the election. Other parties, including Congress, got the remaining seats. Given the divisions, New Delhi on Mar. 7 imposed federal rule on the state until someone can cobble together a government.

It's precious time wasted. As the rest of India races ahead, Bihar is being left further behind. For the past 15 years, Bihar's politicians have focused more on empowering the lower castes than on development. Leading this "social revolution" has been RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, a village son from a midlevel caste of cowherds. Yadav has held power by pitting his lower-caste supporters against the upper castes. But when Bihar's migrant workers come home on visits, they regale family and friends with tales of the progress and relative prosperity they have seen in the rest of India, fanning discontent with Yadav's rule. "For the first time, [Yadav's] essential social base has been alienated," says Shaibal Gupta, who heads the Asian Development Research Institute, a think tank in Patna. The disillusionment is evident in Behrampur, 30 km from Patna but reachable only by a dirt track. The village school is incomplete, a roofless, windowless shell. The villagers say the teachers visit only twice a year. "We want development. We want schools. We need provisions," says Devbali Rai, a 30-year-old farmer.

Yadav has managed to lead his party despite a continuing tussle with the courts. In 1996 he was charged with misappropriating $200 million that had been earmarked to buy cattle feed for farmers. Although Yadav has been jailed several times, he hasn't been convicted. He denies the charges and has been out on bail for years as the case drags on. He was forced out of the chief minister's post after the charges were filed, but his wife took over the job. Then when Congress needed his party's support to form the national government a year ago, Yadav was made federal Railway Minister.

As conditions in the state have deteriorated, administrators, teachers, and businessmen have left. And industry after industry has abandoned Bihar, including cement, paper, textiles, jute, and food processing. The state has almost no public transportation, and the few cars and motorcycles on the roads often lack license plates, as most drivers refuse to pay road taxes. Yadav, though, says he has brought sufficient development to Bihar and above all delivered power to the lower castes. "We are better off than other states. We have already achieved social justice," he says.

Nitish Kumar disagrees. The leader of the Janata Dal party, Kumar is an engineer, also from the lower castes, who managed to siphon off some of the support Yadav has traditionally enjoyed from the poor. Kumar hit Yadav hard for the lack of development, promising teachers in schools and a revival of agriculture. "People have stopped hoping and dreaming in Bihar," he says.

There's no denying that Yadav has helped to empower the vulnerable lower castes. But elsewhere in India, empowerment has brought an economic revival. "If India is to prove successful in dealing with its problems, it must fix Bihar," says Ashis Nandy, director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. That means helping farmers become more productive, ensuring that teachers show up at schools, and curbing corruption. That may be a tall order, but for Bihar -- and all of India -- it's a crucial task.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Patna, India

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