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Opinion

From Bangladesh to Bihar

Chandra Mohan is an economics and business commentator.

NEW DELHI, Nov 11 2015 (IPS) - Times are a-changing for Bihar, a state popularly described as a state of mind. The recent elections have brought back Nitish Kumar as the chief minister for the fifth time. Since his first innings as a developmental CM from 2005, he has transformed Bihar from being an archetype of India’s backwardness to one of its fastest growing states. Besides improving governance, he has also politically empowered women in that benighted state. Not surprisingly, the women’s vote was decisive for his electoral success. He now has the historic opportunity to shift gears towards sustainable gender-based development.

N Chandra Mohan

N Chandra Mohan

Towards this end, Bihar’s CM has to look only eastward towards Bangladesh to know the limits of the possible. The landslide vote in his favour has opened up possibilities that many thought didn’t exist before. Lawlessness, misrule and rampant corruption of successive regimes in the past that ensured a dismal track record in development have been banished for now. Stirrings of change will be felt, above all, in law and order. Better governance is bound to change the narrative of development, especially on what he wants to do in primary education, especially for the girl child. What about public health?

To encourage more girls to attend school, the state administration provided free bicycles for school-going children. This resulted in an uptrend in female literacy rates, rising over 20 percentage points between the two decennial census years, 2001 and 2011. This was much more than was observed in the case of males in that state or nationally, for that matter. Promoting greater gender parity in school enrolment thus has been a consistent objective of Nitish Kumar’s stints in office as CM. The priority must now include drastically reducing the numbers of girls without access to schooling.

Kumar’s thrust on education must continue with greater vigour as there is a vast unfinished agenda. When his government first took office in 2005, there were 2.4 million children out of school. This has now been halved to 1.2 million in 2014 according to the “National Sample Survey of Estimation of Out-of-School Children in the Age 6-13 in India” done for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, a flagship government scheme for the universalisation of elementary education. This works out to a higher percentage of 4.9 per cent than the 3 per cent of 204 million school-going children at an all-India level.

The fact that Bihar is still a poor state amidst potential plenty – it has a much higher percentage of its rural population in poverty – cannot be an argument for not pushing the limits of development. Bangladesh is also poor when compared to India, but that hasn’t prevented it from improving the socio-economic conditions of women. According to the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, due to the official focus on women in Bangladesh, a much higher proportion of workers such as school teachers, family planning workers, health carers, immunization workers and even factory workers are women as are in garments.

Bihar (and even India) of course has a long way to go to catch up with the higher rates of female labour force participation in Bangladesh. This measures the number of women above 15 years of age who are engaged or are willing to be engaged in economic activity as a share of women’s population above 15 years of age. In Bihar, this is a lowly 9 per cent as against 57 per cent in Bangladesh. A factor that makes it easier for Bihar to encourage more women to work is that the CM has already politically empowered them since 2006 to participate in decentralized administration at the panchayat or village level.

Despite the best agro-climatic conditions, this state is the bastion of semi-feudal agriculture and there is a preponderance of marginal holdings with low productivity. The relations of production act as barrier on technological change. While beefing up rural infrastructure is imperative, technological change will not take place unless the relations of production also change. The hope is that with better governance, a difference can be made on the poverty front that is essentially one of low agricultural productivity. To plug gaps in development works, the CM has made a beginning by appointing more teachers, doctors, engineers, policeman and officials. Tapping the latent energies of women can help him realise these objectives more efficaciously.

While Bihar no doubt has the advantage of faster growth to impact rural poverty, Bangladesh has managed to achieve much more on human development despite slower growth than India. In 1990, the life expectancy at birth was higher in India but that position rapidly reversed in the next couple of decades. Between 1990 and 2014, it rose by 12 years from 59 to 71 years in Bangladesh. They thus have a life expectancy that is four years longer than Indians or Biharis, for that matter. The huge gains in health are reflected in the dramatic reduction in infant, child and maternal mortality rates.

These are the prospects ahead of Bihar’s developmental CM. He needs to accelerate the pace of progress on education and health so that the workforce of the state has the best prospect of taking advantage of the so-called demographic dividend of a predominantly young population. All these possibilities have suddenly opened up with his fifth innings as CM. With a mandate for governance and development, he faces the challenge of converting these possibilities into probabilities and transforming lives of 108 million people in Bihar through improvements in gender-sensitive social sector spending.

The last thing the people of Bihar need is another regime that will trigger another caste war and plunge the state into darkness and anarchy as happened in previous decades. However, there is change in the air. There is hope that this state can economically empower its women as it has done politically. That it can also reap the dividends that its eastern neighbouring country has achieved in bringing about a many-sided improvement in human development in the fastest possible time. Bihar must leverage its faster growth to ensure better outcomes in sustainable development.

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