Breaking Free: How Nitish Kumar Turned Bihar Into a Model of Indian Reform

In Patna, the noisy capital of India’s northern Bihar state, a crowd gathers early for the weekly janata darbar, the “people’s audience.” Many have traveled for hours, even days; some stop for a bit of fortification β€” sticky sweets and fried snacks from vendors on the lawns outside β€” before they enter the makeshift meeting hall. By 10:30 a.m. hundreds are standing under the whirring ceiling fans and corrugated metal sheeting. They form an impeccably ordered queue. Nearly all are men, most are poor, a few are barefoot, and each one has showed up for the same thing: to present their grievances directly to Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, the man at the end of the line.

In a spotless white cotton tunic and pants, Kumar, 60, sits at a desk with a clear view of the only clock in the hall. The desk is bare except for a microphone and a pen, and Kumar glances briefly at each petition as it’s placed before him. There are requests for jobs, complaints about corrupt village officials and pleas for a new bridge or ration shop. Kumar dispatches them to the row of ministers and bureaucrats lined up at tables on one side, as clerks briskly usher each supplicant to the relevant official. By 12:30 p.m., Kumar kicks off his sandals under the desk and relaxes β€” all 800 cases have been heard.Β 

Petitioner Ram Naresh Pandey, a 75-year-old farmer with forearms like tree branches, says that since 1990 his fields haven’t had enough water because his neighbors upstream, of a different caste, diverted it from the main irrigation canal. He wants a side canal for his part of the village and makes his case to the minister for water resources, who promises to look into it. Pandey can check: his complaint has been scanned and numbered, and, with some help, he can go to the nearest town to track its progress online. Why did he make the 124-km journey to the janata darbar? “If not here, then where?” he says. “We now have hope.”

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Hope once seemed unimaginable in Bihar. For decades the state was an Indian byword for poverty, violence and corruption. But that was before Kumar became chief minister in late 2005. In nearly 40 years in politics, Kumar has forged a reputation for quiet living and firm leadership ever since, as a bookish, idealistic engineering student, he joined a 1970s youth movement against corruption, unemployment and rising prices. Kumar’s formula for good governance is based on straightforward, effective initiatives. He set up fast-track courts that convicted nearly 66,000 criminals β€” including three members of Parliament β€” and he bet big on roads, building some 33,000 km in five years. That combination of security and connectivity has spurred Bihar’s economy to 11% average annual growth since 2006, second highest in India after Gujarat, the country’s industrial powerhouse, and on par with states with much higher incomes, better infrastructure and more educated populations.Β 

Kumar is now targeting official corruption β€” work that is drawing national attention. Indians are engaged in a fervent debate over whether corruption is an unavoidable lubricant in the country’s rush to prosperity. Kumar, who is often mentioned as a possible future Prime Minister, believes that justice need not be sacrificed to achieve growth, and that Bihar can show the way for the rest of India. “We’re not starry-eyed about the challenges ahead,” says Sam Sharpe, India head of the British government’s aid agency DFID. “But we do think what’s happening [in Bihar] is quite a historic transformation.”

The Accidental Miracle
Achieving double-digit economic growth was never Kumar’s goal. When he first ran for the chief-minister job in 2005, he was a single-issue candidate. “I didn’t say much,” he tells TIME. “I said rule of law will be established.” It was a canny strategy. Kumar’s rivals promised the usual β€” jobs, state subsidies, empowerment of the lower castes β€” but lawlessness had become so extreme that it trumped everything else. While Kumar’s predecessor Laloo Prasad Yadav was loved by many lower-caste Biharis for unapologetically being one of them, he failed to deliver on public safety. “People gave [Yadav] a mandate, but he did not perform,” Kumar says. “That’s why people got disenchanted.”

To fight crime, Kumar filled thousands of vacant police posts and ended political interference in law enforcement. These changes are reflected in tiny police stations like Chitra Gupta Nagar in northern Bihar, where officer Ram Uday Tiwari is in charge. Before, says Tiwari, “You couldn’t do anything. Everybody had some political connection. We were constantly getting orders not to file charge sheets against this person or that person.” Now Tiwari spends most of his time doing his job β€” investigating crimes, finding witnesses β€” and holds public grievance hearings twice a week.Β 

As security has improved, growth has followed: farmers are getting their grain, produce and milk to market without fear of being robbed, and shopkeepers are staying open longer now that people do not fear stepping out after dark. In absolute terms, the economic changes are modest. Per capita income is still one-third the national average. There are no call centers in Bihar, no multiplexes or sushi bars. There’s hardly any electricity: the last power plant was built 26 years ago, and only 10% of households are connected to the grid. But deprivation has also led to innovation. One program, replicated in several other states, provides bicycles to girls who enroll in ninth grade, an incentive that not only helps close the education gender gap but also keeps girls in school, making them less likely to marry before 18. Bihar is also the first state to fully implement a Right to Public Services Act, which puts a time limit on common public-service requests: for example, 30 days for a driver’s license, 60 days for a ration card. The law makes it more difficult for bureaucrats to wheedle bribes by delaying requests; a clerk who fails to provide a service in time has to personally pay the fee.

To promote transparency, Kumar requires every minister and senior bureaucrat, himself included, to publicly disclose their assets. The central government, as well as other states, has similar rules, but in Bihar they are actually enforced. Last year the authorities prosecuted 19 officials for allegedly owning assets in excess of their income. Kumar also got the legislature to pass the Bihar Special Courts Act of 2009, which gives the state the right to confiscate the property of those charged with having “disproportionate assets.” Earlier this year, the law was applied for the first time when the house of an influential bureaucrat in Patna was seized. He denies the charge, and, if he is acquitted, he is entitled to the value of the property plus interest. If not, the pale yellow house with the gaudy black metal gate will remain Pratmik Vidyalaya primary school. There’s also a time limit of one year for corruption trials, so cases don’t drag on as they are wont to in India. “It gives the feeling of instituting vigorous justice,” says C.V. Madhukar of PRS Legislative Research, a governance institute based in New Delhi. “It’s a very important signal.”

The End of the Line
Bihar has come this far this fast largely because of Kumar. Will the changes endure after he departs the scene? Kumar says the people will not allow Bihar to backslide. “There are two streams,” he says. “One is that of cynicism, nothing can happen, all around corruption is there. Parallel, people have started [having] faith in better governance. This kind of stream is also flowing. It will get wider and wider, and ultimately that other one has to diminish. One day, nobody is going to tolerate corruption.”

Santhosh Mathew, principal secretary for Bihar’s rural-development department, believes that Bihar’s voters should be able to hold their politicians β€” Kumar too β€” accountable for results. So he’s working on a scale to rank political constituencies through a development score, and another to measure the effectiveness of Kumar’s janata darbars. Mathew hopes this will generate “the political heat” to keep the reforms going. “For development to be sustainable, it has to sink in.”Β 

Even in remote corners of Bihar, there are signs of change. In the northern district of Khagaria, where Mathew used to work, armed men on horseback once roamed freely, terrorizing villagers. They are gone now, killed by police or rival gangs, or locked up since Kumar took office. “Whatever he’s done, it’s good,” says Hariram Paswan, a country vet. Paswan and his fellow villagers no longer have to worry about thugs, so their ambitions and expectations have risen. Last year the community successfully lobbied to expand the village school to up to eighth grade. Now they want better teachers, and a functioning health clinic. Nitish Kumar is no longer Bihar’s only idealist.

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Source: Jyoti Thottam for Time