Why is Bihar poor?
Poverty in Bihar is related to the management, and transformation, of its production systems. Thedeep social stratification meant that the production systems (read, vast tracts of highly productivelands) were traditionally controlled by a few, typically belonging to the higher castes. Members of other castes survived on the diversified opportunities provided by an agrarian economy that supplied bumper harvests, but was also unstable, thanks to the seasonal floods and changes of river courses. Before Independence, layers of entrenched
demanded usurious taxes from the peasants – ensuring their deep poverty – while the expropriated amounts were used to maintain the hold of the
on the land and satisfy their whims. The exploits of the Darbhanga Maharaja had reached folklore proportions. After Independence, the process of industrial development was spurred by the central government (which focused on the mineral rich areas to the south that is presently Jharkhand), while the state governments dealt with land and irrigation. The meagre resources of the state government wereinvested in embankments of the rivers – nearly 3000 km of embankments were built till 1990,attempting to stabilise the production systems. In fact, temporary stabilisation did take placeduring the ‘60s and the ‘70s when the promise of a booming agriculture actually sucked in labour from different vocations, (arguably) leading to rapid loss of diverse traditional skills. According to the assessment of the Second Irrigation Commission of Bihar in 1994, the flood- prone area had increased to 6.88 million hectares in 1993 from 2.5 million hectares in 1952. If theGanga Stem is excluded, 3.75 million hectares of North Bihar, which is nearly 83 percent of thetotal drainage area of different tributaries of the Ganga in the state from the north, is now flood- prone. Clearly, embankments failed to ensure steady growth of agriculture. Agriculture had become an even more ‘high gain – high risk’ phenomenon, since the frequency of flooding had reduced and its intensity had increased. Uncertain productivity, and unclear ownership of land, ensured that rents collected from share-cropping were invested elsewhere – transport buses, or even higher education. Reducing productivity was, therefore, harming thetiller/ share-cropper more than the landlord (who spread his risk through large landholdings and diversified investments). In fact, the process of impoverishment of the tiller reduced his capacitiesto claim his rights on the asset that he worked on, which helped the landlord to focus elsewherewhile retaining control over land. At the community level, peasants were thus dealing with economic exclusion from landed assets, social discrimination on the basis of caste (which identified him with his occupation), and political marginalisation through non-representation. At the individual level, they were dealing with an overwhelming dependence on labour (an asset that is prone to excessive risks), loss of other assets (houses were often washed away during the floods), and loss of any other opportunityto invest. Moreover, in the past few decades, they were coping with an altered scenario where the floods were more devastating, governance was weak and they themselves were more impoverished and marginalised. Where survival is the only issue, confidence and self-esteem invariably take abackseat.Governance in the state of Bihar shifted gears during the ‘80s, when the democratic processes finally shattered the entrenched social stratification in the political arena and representatives of the backward castes came to power. The new dispensation worked to dismantle the existing systems and structures that were perceived to be in favour of the forward castes, particularly thebureaucracy (and even the judiciary to some extent). Provision of assets (chiefly land, but also some houses) to the hitherto dispossessed backward and scheduled castes was attempted but soonbecame ad hoc and unsustainable due to the lack of credible and efficient systems of delivery.