Bihar’s dystopian moments and a looming crisis

By Yashwant Sinha & Atul K Thakur

Should the government of Bihar get the benefit of doubt or should it, along with its political partner, the Central government, not be held solely responsible for its poor performance today? The Centre’s much-touted spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’ has been nothing more than a hollow promise. There is a glaring gap between stark ground realities and propaganda. India’s federal system is badly challenged today with partisan Governors, misplaced policies and languishing financial assistance.

Bihar is no exception.

States, including Bihar, have been in the throes of financial stress from before; the novel coronavirus outbreak and the national lockdown have further weakened their fiscal position. In fact, Bihar is still waiting for the elusive ‘special status’ that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised during elections and again soon after Nitish Kumar formed the government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sadly, it has proved to be another ‘jumla’.

Bihar has had a long history of suffering because of a persisting feudal political culture that neglected efforts to create industrial capabilities and employment opportunities in the State. Consequently, the exodus of labour has become a new normal since the 1990s. Despite the fact that construction of new roads and overbridges made through central assistance in Mr. Kumar’s first term along with the contractual recruitments (especially in schools) could draw a few migrants back to the State, the situation on the migration front remained grim. Mr. Kumar has been in power for 15 years, yet the fate of these workers has not improved. They continue to be vulnerable and compelled to work without any legal protection.

The forgotten people

With the global pandemic and national lockdown causing unprecedented loss to lives and livelihoods, Bihar’s vulnerabilities have come full circle. The State government has failed to ensure proper equipment and health-care facilities to the people. It has also dealt with migrants with disdain. A large number of Bihari migrants in Delhi, Mumbai and other parts of the country were left stranded when the lockdown took effect. Some of them tried their best to stay wherever they were, but finally gave up as they had no money or food to survive.

The heart-rending visuals of the poor and helpless migrants desperately walking from Delhi/National Capital Region back to Bihar reflect the hollowness of the State’s approach to tackling a disastrous disease and the consequent lockdown. Also, some recent developments show that the government adopted a selective approach in disaster management. For example, while an MLA from the ruling party was issued a special pass to travel to Kota in Rajasthan to bring his child back from there, countless others were left to face socio-economic hardship and apathy.

Within the State, pauperisation is in full swing and the hunger is just killing; Biharis with no support of remittances are on the fringes in their own homeland. In Gaya and other parts of Bihar, children were seen eating roasted frogs. What could be more pitiful than this in a country that will have food grains of over 100 million tonnes in warehouses by the end of April, and as according to the Food Corporation of India (FCI), where the annual produce is expected to be record 292 million tonnes in year 2019-20? Reportedly, India has enough in macro projection. Reportedly, India has too little with lack of insight in disaster management in a trying time such as this.

Floundering health care

In Bihar, public health was the next thing after education that became corrupted and collapsed. Opening of new hospitals including an All India Institute of Medical Sciences and few others were hardly beneficial for the poor living in rural areas since they do not have the means to avail them. Unlike the highly publicised claims of Mr. Kumar, health-care facilities at district and block levels are in pathetic shape.

As per National Health Profile 2019 of Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI), there are 7,13,986 total government hospital beds available in India. More precisely, this amounts to 0.55 beds per 1,000 population. Many States even lie below the national figure, Bihar is one of them, experiencing an acute shortage of government hospital beds with just 0.11 beds available per 1,000 population. This is something alarming in a State that was once known for its socialistic leanings. The odd match-making of allies in the ruling government is not creating room for the resolve to help people.

Irrespective of the fact that Bihar has now a new grammar of politics, the State government has failed to give due weightage to the health sector. Even when Mr. Kumar may no longer be charmed with socialism, how can he overlook the unimaginable hardship of the poor, the unemployed and the marginalised? He must bargain for more from the Centre, because his alliance with the BJP has not benefited Bihar. The people of Bihar are still waiting for the fulfilment of the promises made by Mr. Modi and Mr. Kumar.

Ram Vilas Paswan, who holds charge of Food and Public Distribution at the Centre must think of universalising the Public Distribution System. As a leader from Bihar, he should think of the migrants from Bihar and elsewhere in the country, and ensure basic supplies to them even without ration cards. Mr. Kumar should enable timely policy advocacy for this. Also, he should not be wary in seeking the views of the Opposition’s views in terms of crisis management and a plan to rebuild.

As the global and national order is in a phase of reset, it is no longer an option for Bihar to ignore chronic issues such as industrial backwardness, unemployment and outbound migration. For Mr. Kumar, who was once known as ‘Sushasan Babu’, the time has come to follow Raj Dharma. What is expected from him is to be dutiful, not the balancing plays of caste arithmetic and crossing the fence merely for political survival. The state of affairs in Bihar is worrisome; accordingly, policies and plans have to be prioritised. Politics in the State should not defeat the aspirations of millions of Biharis who have already suffered too much.

For sure, the land of Bihar should never be known as the ‘imaginary homeland’ for its people who are now home-bound as the cities which they contributed to build have failed them.

(Yashwant Sinha is India’s former Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004). Atul K. Thakur is a Delhi-based policy professional and an advisor, BiharConnect. This article was first published in The Hindu)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of BiharConnect and BiharConnect does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Gyanendra Kumar Keshri

Gyanendra Kumar Keshri is consulting editor of BiharConnect. He has nearly 20 years of experience in journalism, having worked for diverse media streams in India and abroad.

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