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The signs of change in Bihar

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
May 28, 2009 17:18 IST
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About a week ago, I read a piece of very good news amid the welter of speculation about whether M Karunanidhi's family ties with the United Progressive Alliance would be retained or not. It was a despatch from Rajpura and Patiala by the Indian Express correspondent Aman Sood about the Punjab farmers.

No, it was not about another green revolution there. Sood conveyed the travails of the Punjab's farmers about not finding enough workers to work on their farms. The issue, of course, is large, for 2.8 million hectares have to be sown this season and those who raise paddy crops are beside themselves in agony. If it is going to change the pattern of farming, by forcing the landowners to use labour-saving devises like machines which sow paddy, then so be it.

There are reasons why I categorise it as 'good news'? The labour that the Punjabi farmers were looking for, as they have been for years on end, are the Bihari migrants who for the season, do their jobs and return. It is just that this year, there are not enough of them arriving by the trains and many have chosen to remain in Bihar this year as things have changed. If things have changed in Bihar, then it is very good news indeed.

Migration from Bihar has its origins in green revolution in Punjab and the spill over later into Haryana which generated an unprecedented clamour for farm labour. It started as a small trickle to a flood in a decade ending in the 80s. That was an opportunity for the north-western belt because things were abysmally poor in Bihar. But if what Indian Express said is a significant trend, then there is hope in store.

This perhaps is one good reason why Nitish Kumar won the seats he did for the National Democratic Alliance to Parliament. These migrants who are not coming out of what was a wretched state are perhaps the best testimonials for the man who is doing things and winning people's approval.

I have not been to Bihar, ever, for I felt there was no point in travelling to the dark ages where the family fiefdom of Lalu Prasad Yadav reigned and where nothing except Lalu mattered, even for the media. It was as if to the world, Lalu was a proxy for a state. Newspapers were full of the man and his wife and the unashamedly large brood they raised. There was the galazy of bahubalis, the word for the underworld lords who doubled up as politicians. Political patronage to these bahubalis was no different from the alleged state terror that reigned in Gujarat during 2002.  

There are reasons to go there now. But over a period of time, I have heard, especially from Bihari girls who have come to Maharashtra, especially Pune and Mumbai to study higher and professional courses, that they had fled Bihar in the sense they would prefer not to return there. Their families had encouraged them to sprout wings and fly away to better places. The one single thing these young things said was, "Patna is not a safe place to live. Imagine how it would be in the interiors".

Some occasional items on the national television, when put together into a cogent quilt, shows us that people feel secure enough to take out their Mercedes cars which they had locked away for fear of exposing their wealth. People can hope to return home late in the night without the family waiting in dread till the doorbell rang and the person was ushered in. Streets are alive again and Bihar is crawling up from the pit.

Nitish Kumar apparently has shown that given a will, an "ungovernable state can be governed." In reality, it was never governed until a few years ago.

It is possible that there are Lalu acolytes who would trot out statistics and say that Bihar ain't changed. That would be a political lie which some clever spin doctor can get across. Neither do I have any statistics to show but have enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Bihar is changing and can be changed. Remember what Nitish Kumar said when he received the CNN-IBN award for the best politician?

"When I went there, the chief minister's office had only a Remington typewriter. Today, Bihar is judged for being the best e-governed state!" He did not say a word more but in that short pair of sentences, indicated the distance travelled. Surely, one cannot claim that things are so good that Patna should once again be called Patliputra of the yore and its splendour but things are moving. The slowing down of out-migration is another good indicator.

However, given where Bihar was, it has a long way to go yet but the start is quite welcome. Yes, it is unbelievable that it happened but happened it did. The other point to ponder is Lalu Yadav. Why is it that a man who turned the Indian Railways around and became the cynosures of management schools across the world did not make a difference, for the better, I mean, to Bihar?

Was there a vested interest in keeping Bihar back? Please recall that on his failure to upstage Congress in his fiefdom, Lalu Yadav had to eat the crow and later announce that he would be spending the time in rural Bihar for some time to come because his "organisation had weakened there". It is from the rural Bihar that the migrants go to Punjab. And it is from Bihar that a significant section of the migrant population to other cities hails from.

Earlier, all that Lalu Yadav did when the likes of Raj Thackeray took to violence to deter the migrants from there and the rest of the Hindi belt from taking up residence in Maharashtra, was shout himself hoarse and threaten that he would hold the Chatt Puja celebrations in Mumbai. He claimed that the Biharis had their right to livelihood and Mumbai had better provide it. It did not occur to him that the same right was denied them in their own state.

So if politics drove, or good politics, I must say, drove Nitish Kumar to the issue of bijli, pani and sadak so be it for that is the least that is needed to be done before talking of other issues.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Mumbai-based commentator and former deputy editor, The Hindu


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