My 2008 visit to Bihar and the Janata Durbar of Nitish Kumar

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In November of 2008, I had my third visit to India in nearly 18 years and the second in less than a year. In my previous two visits, I could barely pass by Bihar; but this time around, I was able to tour the state for two weeks. In the cities of Darbhanga, my home town; Bhagalpur, my in-laws' place; and Patna, I had a chance to observe the changes over the years and talk to people randomly.

Higher Education in Disarray

In Darbhanga, where I began my teaching career more than two and a half decades ago, I did meet with former colleagues and teachers. From the stories they related to me, I could sense the ever declining condition of the universities and colleges in Bihar. I was told students came to the colleges and universities only at the time of registering themselves for and when they had to take the final exam. The rest of the time, except for skeleton services, practically nothing happened on the premises. "Teachers come to the departments and play cards," said a retired professor, my former teacher and mentor. "The teachers don't get salaries on time and therefore, they don't care. They are busy making money through other means such as giving private tuition," he lamented.

The government-provided services, especially in educational areas, seemed to have almost disappeared. As a result, a series of privatization of practically everything – from kindergarten school to the higher level education – was in evidence. Almost every service is handled by the private enterprise, and, therefore, revenue doesn't flow into the provincial government coffers, observed another retired political science professor. The college and university officials, I was told by many former colleagues, keep greasing the palms of everyone who mattered and the giver made sure they had accumulated enough fortune before they left the office. Friends bemoaned: "Who had the time and motivation to think about improving the standards of education?" In Bhagalpur, I heard stories -- unconfirmed but horrifying -- about the bartering of the positions of vice-chancellors, the top officials in the universities of Bihar.

In Patna, my host, a Sociology professor told me they were active "more in social engagements than in academic pursuits, because there was no incentive to do anything." His educated and enlightened housewife was very frank in her narrative: "Scores of professors come to this living room. I serve on them snacks and tea. They keep gossiping and complaining for hours: 'he should do this, they should do that,' but, none of these young professors has any initiative to do anything on his own!" She was quite hilarious when she said in her Magadhi-tinged Hindi: Eko Akhbaro mein to lekh nahin likhate hain (they don't write even a newspaper article!).

A college employee in Darbhanga, who has been close to our family since his childhood, explained precisely how corruption and swindling had a wide social acceptance in Bihar. "If you are not making illicit money at your work," he said, "people will say you didn't have either opportunity or you were lacking terribly in the required skills." The Bihari society is so much soaked in the culture of corruption that no one can be persuaded to believe that you didn't make unfair money because you were against it by conviction. This college employee himself experienced an awkward situation when his college principal once handed him a cheque of 10,000 rupees in his name. The principal instructed him to encash the cheque at the bank and split the money with him. The college employee refused because at a future audit, he feared, he would be accountable for the entire amount. The principal will be gone but, if the good days returned, he could be subjected to an enquiry. The phenomenon of 'educational mafia,' in its infancy during my time, had matured. They pry on people seeking easy short cuts to education or fake degrees.

Let this be clear, however, that the culture of corruption is not unique to Bihar alone. Other states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have also been going down the precipice. The corruption in Bihar cannot match the states like Punjab and Haryana in its scope and magnitude. But that doesn't mean people in Bihar had the license to do whatever they wanted.

Biharis better than Bihar

The pathetic condition of the education sector notwithstanding, the Biharis were proverbially doing better than Bihar. Remarkably, families of even modest means would send their kids out of Bihar for quality education. The continuing mass exodus of rural poor to urban areas in search of a better life was in stark evidence. A number of people told me that in villages after villages many poor households consisted of ageing parents and a young daughter, the ones who were least employable in cities. The working couple from the family had moved out with their little kid(s) to a city and financially supported the ones left at home. New buildings and roads were in sight. The bazaars were crowded and doing brisk business.

I enjoyed talking to anyone to gather his/her opinion on the condition of life in Bihar. All my sources were important from top bureaucrats to engineers to rickshaw pullers or street hawkers. The common men on the streets were happy with the improving law and order situation. In the previous regime, a three wheeler driver told me, the streets would become quiet very early in the evening. That affected their earnings badly. The strongmen mounted on motorbikes could storm any business or restaurant and the administration would not do anything. The police were now vigilant and because of their promptness in action, crimes had gone down considerably.

There were also a few patches of prosperity in districts like Siwan where considerable remittances were received from the Muslim population working in the Gulf countries. There didn't appear to be a long-term planning, however, as to what would happen when these migrant workers, upon retrenchment or retirement, would come back home. In a few places like Darbhanga, the Gulf money allegedly funded the local politics also. In a Hindu majority parliamentary constituency (with a significant Muslim population of course!) and with a political system where black money played such a major role, the use of unaccounted Gulf money gave higher visibility to a Muslim politician even if he belonged to a secular party. This injection of revenue in local politics could be the pretext to communal tension.

During my visit, certain areas in Bihar were still reeling under the after-effects of the infamous Kosi flood of 2008. I had an opportunity to talk to a few knowledgeable citizens of Bihar who had been involved in the Kosi project in their career. The overwhelming opinion I found was in favour of taming the river with high dams. That means more technology-intensive, regulated and expensive projects. Some people favoured massive de-silting and throwing the rivers open so that they could take their own course. Very few seemed to be aware Bihar had an issue with Nepal on the issue of Kosi River.

Visiting the Janata Durbar

On Monday morning, 15 December 2008, I set out to the residence of the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar. The purpose was to see him at his weekly meeting with the general public, the Janata Durbar. I had great admiration for him for challenging Lalu's monopoly in the Janata Dal and then for getting Bihar out of the grips of Lalu-Rabri regime. In November 2005, the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) composed of Nitish's JD(U) and the BJP had trounced Lalu's RJD, formed a coalition government and made steady overall progress. The NDA's performance led by Nitish had earned mention in many international economic journals. I felt strongly Bihar had entered a new politico-economic phase and wanted to offer my services to the Chief Minister.

Although one hundred percent a Bihari, I had all the excitement and curiosity of "a foreign observer." The prospect of meeting with the CM first appeared dim. The Durbar was supposed to be a venue where common people would go with their complaints. I didn't have a specific complaint. A chance encounter, however, with an old friend from Delhi University/ Jawaharlal Nehru University, a senior Indian Police Service officer who was in the Chief Minister's security facilitated my meeting with the CM. I was ushered into the enclosure where the CM was seated with his bureaucrats and listening to the visitors. I was seated one chair away from the CM's.

At the end of the official Durbar, the Chief Minister turned his attention to me. He gestured as if I had gone to him with a complaint. I stood up respectfully, went close to him and handed him a resume with my visiting card stapled. In the surrounding din I explained (may be, unclearly) to him that in North America, with my research and publications on Bihar and with the help of a few colleagues, we have been promoting Bihar as a focus of study. Also, I offered my services to him in any way he or his administration deemed fit preferably in the field of education because that's where I have spent my entire working life.

Thumbing through my resume and verbalizing 'good' at one point, the CM called out an official. A light-dark complexioned young man (he appeared to be in his 30's) in professional suit and tie came forward. Stretched in his chair, the CM spoke loudly in Hindi as if he was introducing him to me: "This is my secretary and an IAS officer." "Do explain to him everything you want," he went on suggesting.

At this point, I handed the CM a spiral bound untitled collection of my poems in Hindi (composed in North America). After waiting on him for a few seconds as he thumbed through, I signaled him to stand up to pose for a photograph with me. There were umpteen press cameramen watching us. He instantly obliged. In fact, he made a one line announcement in Hindi: "This is his collection of poems," and then held the book out for a few seconds in the direction of the photographers.

Before I could really absorb the significance of the moment, the CM began to leave with his entourage. He had given all my particulars to his secretary. In the melee, I heard one photographer asking for my name. I don't recall if I gave him my name or not. The secretary came close to me and asked me to sit down with him. He sent one of his office staff to get his business card. As he was poring over my resume, two acquaintances from our days in the JNU came in rushing. Both of them gave me their Cell phone numbers – one of them got photographed with me – and left. The personal secretary, apparently after noticing my publication, asked me if I could email him later a few of my articles. After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries and a few pictures taken together, I took the exit. Over all, I thought I was treated respectfully. I had stayed around the CM's residence for four hours and had a glimpse of the socio-economic and political realities of Bihar. After a social that evening with a few friends, I headed back to New Delhi the next day. Expectedly, I didn't hear anything from the CM's office.


Dr. Binoy S. Prasad holds an MA (Delhi Univ.), MPhil (JNU) and a PhD (Univ. of Missouri-Columbia, USA). A recipient of Fulbright Fellowship, he has lectured at a number of universities in India, Canada and the USA. The Collection of Poems in Hindi he talks about has since been published with the title: Kabhi Ursh Par, Kabhi Farsh Par.

Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page, Obama Overseas Bihari Association for Meaningful Action (https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari)

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