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Home > Contents > Article: Ratnakar Tripathy
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Retelling the Bihar story:
Development = labour remittances + cumulative learning in distant work places + Nitish
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Ratnakar Tripathy

Introduction: Bihar - from freeze to fast forward
Less than a decade ago when Bihar was still groaning under the misrule of Laloo, the only way a Bihari could retain his self-respect was by arguing that Bihar was undergoing a profound social revolution and that the rise of the middle castes such as Yadavs and Kurmis in Bihar was a full time job, not allowing diversions such as basic governance and rudimentary development! And get laughed at all over again! As if life gave societies a chance to do one job at a time or that Laloo ever had a clear cut plan of positive social and political democratization at all!

The other solution commonly employed by the outside migrant upper-classes of Bihar was to simply disown Bihar as a badland, firmly and hopelessly in the hands of an inept Laloo, with no will or patience for governance. This sat easy on the conscience of the upper-castes since the one achievement Laloo may boast of is the well-deserved cutting down to size of the enormous upper caste egos on a daily and systematic basis.  You may call it the ‘politics of humiliation’, my preferred term for the highly effective remedy. But the point is even this Himalayan task was still a finite one and once considered a job well-performed by the early 2000s, the electorate decided to try out Nitish Kumar as someone more likely to have a positive plan and vision for Bihar.  Soon, Laloo was sent into the archives of Bihar’s history which is where he now sits rather quietly.

We have come a long way in Bihar since 2005, when Nitish appeared on the scene fishing for a durable political career for himself away from the vagaries of Delhi politics. The result is – we have arrived at 2011 in a fast-forward mode, supposedly rising from an abyss to the great heights of good governance. Through all this, it would seem that political will alone has been the mainstay for the Bihar polity as well as economy. You may call it ‘administrative determinism’, or an extreme form of political voluntarism if you like. Nitish’s word ‘sushasan’ [good governance], now a term celebrated all over the country and the media through a number of awards and daily praise, quite simply meant in its early days and still does  – ‘we have much lawlessness, no minerals, no power, no entrepreneurial energy, little education, some tourism, even our agricultural mainstay being stricken by low productivity among farmers with small holdings that do not encourage big investment, but we have a WILL to develop, to change all this’. Put this way, the claim sounds like an attempt to cheat the law of gravity. But look at the nuggets of truth behind the hype – a state with rampant absenteeism in schools and offices for decades will now implement the Right to services Act on the Independence Day 2011, after which a government official will be liable to pay a fine if he does not issue you your desired certificate within a specified period. Even as an idea, it’s scary enough for a smug and lazy bureaucrat! Doesn’t this sound like a 1000 watt renaissance right in the midst of the rude dark ages?

The common responses to this may be – ‘all this happens on paper but what about reality’ and the oft-heard ‘how can things change so much in five years?’?   
Once we begin to investigate the above questions, the mantle of heroism would seem to slowly shift from Nitish Kumar to the common voter in Bihar. Social empowerment that starts on a scrap of paper must indeed travel a long way to become reality. Is the common Bihari likely to valorize the great democratic gifts showered on him from above in a hurry? Put this way, the common Bihari sounds like a passive receiver of rights and privileges in a state of general dullness if not ignorant stupor, which he is not, for reasons elaborated below.

Also, when the long journey of social change seems to go at a galloping speed, one has to find an explanation for the pace. Thus the question both Biharis and non-Biharis may share with the article is – has Bihar discovered a shortcut to development that has eluded some other regions and states? This article is thus as much about the heroic tale of the common Bihari as the already declared and decorated hero Nitish Kumar. And it is also about the many years of quiet revving and preparation before changes in Bihar became dramatically visible to the whole nation, often startling Biharis themselves as much as the outsider.

A well-known untold story - I: migrant remittances
I will begin the story of the common Bihari through an abrupt switch of context and go back to an international seminar on the development of Bihar held in Patna in early 2010, attended by a bevy of European academics and managers, keen on researching Bihar inside out for highly mysterious if not dubious reasons. These were hardly disinterested anthropologists bent on puzzling out a society that shot itself out of the dark ages to be in sync with the latest in the world! The whisper doing the rounds among the brown-skinned people was – ‘they got the funding, so they must do the research’.

I sat and listened to a panel of brown-skinned consultants define poverty with the certainties of Newtonian physics for which I was told they charge Rs ½ lakh a day. Instead, if the poor themselves were consulted on the meaning of poverty and got paid for it, consultancy may seem more worthwhile ethically. In the presence of Nitish Kumar, these mavens split hairs over definition of poverty and the real needs of Bihar, promising to share their findings with the chief minister who nodded sagely, willing to be guided by the footnoted findings of the development luminaries. Unfortunately, the one paper that I wish to discuss here must go unacknowledged – its author, never mind the skin colour, warned the audience not to quote him or use him as reference. But this economist from Delhi made what he called a ‘back of envelope’ calculation vital for the case presented here. This is a calculation I had rehearsed innumerable times in private, but not being trained in economics never dared to unrightfully present what seems a Class V level quantification for expert scrutiny.
The calculation goes as follows – ‘if one assumes that the supposedly approximately 8-10 m Bihari migrant labourers send an amount of Rs 1000 home per month, how much remittance does Bihar receive every year?’ Now if you go backwards in time to the mid 1970s when out migration among Bihari labour began acquiring its tidal scale, you are left with a sense of the immense magnitude without coming to a clear figure. And why was this calculation never made during the many decades? Because, data is not available? Well, reality doesn’t owe us hard data and yet life must be made sense of to whatever extent manageable!

The notable thing here is the teeny amount of Rs 1000 – with some exceptions this is no gulf labour or the Silicon crowd! And yet, the steady trickle for over four decades has indeed made a vital difference to Bihar. What is this difference, really? In what I term the ‘trickle economy’ here, the time period is of essence! This is especially true because trickles of money do not follow the same cumulative logic as significant inputs. To use an example, if you received fifty extra rupees everyday, it will not make a visible difference even to your modest middle class budget. But if the amount increases to say Rs 300 per day, you may find that a good part of your house rent is taken care of.  But in a depressed economy, where a family tills one meager acre of land, it is a constant struggle to ward off exigencies like starvation and illness – an infusion of say even Rs 700 cash every month over time suddenly allows a family to visit a doctor, buy seed or food grain! This minor but long-term greasing of the economic engines over time ends up making a 1-2-acre economy a very viable one indeed, even if most of it is share-cropped. Part of the family takes care of the land and the rest earn money abroad, creating a happy buffer for bad times. And well, life goes on with money to spare for medical treatment, nutrition, agricultural investment and education in differing order. With large numbers of labour missing, work in the village becomes more lucrative due to labour shortage. This is not a picture of great well-being, but one where despair has a simple and well-known remedy – run, migrate!

The homely portrait drawn above is however not backed by solid data at macro level which is why the professor from Delhi did not want himself mentioned in an official bibliography. But the warm human being inside him did share what should have been an over-arching concern to all the local and global intelligentsia busily seeking a defining equation for poverty.

A less homely portrait of the migrant economy will complete the above tale more or less. During the massive Kosi floods in Bihar in 2008, a number of newspaper reports mentioned how entire villages from regions like Saharsa refused to make the briefest stops at the teeming relief camps and instead headed for Patna railway station where they boarded trains for Delhi with a sense for utter purposefulness#. Even under great stress, the villagers had a clear mind – Delhi is where daily bread will come from and returning to sand-carpeted fields is no solution. These people wanted nothing of the gloom-ridden relief camps, since the idea was not to fill up bellies on dole for the day but to seek a future.

After the aforesaid seminar, with both the scenarios fresh in mind, I tucked away what I thought was a monumentally significant estimate of Bihar’s growth even though it came to me as a ‘back of envelope’ calculation done as if by a grocer in hurry! Somewhat later, I found a crucial link in an argument worked out by Chirashree Dasgupta where she demonstrates decisively that soon after splitting with Jharkhand, Bihar was on a road to growth recovery as early as 2002, seriously predating the arrival of Nitish in 2005.  Navigating through a statistical-interpretive mess created by the Central Statistical Organization [CSO] and the Bihar government with added inputs from over-zealous journalists, she performs the highly unpopular task of demolishing the thesis that Sushasan and economic growth have any significant causal correlation as far as 2009 [Dasgupta 2010].  This demolition job suits my own speculative formulations quite well and I will state them as both question and hypothesis.

My hunch is that as Bihar moves close to 1990s, the long history of remittance, the 4-decade old ‘trickle economy’ begins to reach a critical point, displaying its full cumulative potential. The reason I call this hunch speculative is that ‘back of the envelope’ calculation may apply to the present or at best some recent years as there is no available method or data to get even a guestimate for the growth gains made during the four slow moving decades since 1970s that begin to show acceleration and liveliness in the 1990s. Newspaper reports occasionally give some idea of the current state of remittances – in one case, an 8-year-old child told a reporter he is able to send Rs 2500 home per month – an indication of the chaos of figures one is dealing with. In brief however, the trickle has acquired significant force only after decades of steady inflow. An additional problem is the separation of Jharkhand in 2000 that creates further complications even for a professional econometrician.  

But I do have indirect support for the above argument from my several years’ ethnographic work in the field of culture and entertainment in Bihar since 2003. The leads borrowed from these fields do point to a general growth of the economy and earnings. Considering the general dearth of relevant and reliable data, it seems permissible to draw a parallel between rise in general income/expenditure and a somewhat sudden growth of regional [Bhojpuri, Maithil, Magahi etc] music industry in the late 1980s, and a similar spurt in Bhojpuri cinema in the 1990s.  Before going into details, the central point of my argument goes as follows – if the magnitude of the entertainment industry is taken as a robust indicator of increased incomes of the clientele concerned, you begin to get an idea of the general growth of the Bihar economy. The assumption here is expenditure on entertainment indicates luxury spending in the specific context and also savings. The suddenness of the growth [for music late 1980s, for Bhojpuri cinema 1990s, for live concerts 2000s] that is startling by any standards also enables you to get a sharp idea of the time lines involved! The scale of this luxury of course will only be in tune with a modest ‘trickle economy’ and should not evoke vivid TV images of consumerist orgies.

To come back to the growth story, while the Bhojpuri music industry was based in Delhi, the film industry of course grew in Mumbai as a poor country cousin.  But there are two remarkable aspects to such growth that fortify my argument further – first, they were both almost entirely backed by the Bihar- eastern UP migrants and second, they led to an even more massive live concert market in the region.  Very broadly, if at this point the Bhojpuri film industry has a turnover approximately of Rs 100 crores, the music CD industry is around 10 times bigger and similarly the live concert industry may be 10 times bigger than the music CD industry. These are figures arrived at after year long field work done in 2009-2010 and repeated consultations with members of the trade – the only data source available.  

To distil the argument and to simplify the meandering chain of reason into something linear- was Bihar’s hasty march towards Sushasan preceded by a critical phase in the cumulative story of a trickle economy at work right since the 1970s? Economic growth caused by remittances over decades and a spurt in political will should seem a potent combination when yoked together. But I will not answer this question definitively and instead move on to a much-neglected aspect of culture, consciousness and acculturation. I do this since there is no necessary link between remittance and economic growth story on the one hand and the emergence of the Sushasan theme and only something like rising public awareness may provide the missing link here.  But let me make the claim that there is a vital story that remains untold – the story of migrant remittances which no one wants to tell for a variety of vested interests, ideological pretexts, political excuses and plain blindness to the utterly obvious! Despite oodles of anecdotal evidence, a macro study on the subject is yet to be carried out – this is not about underestimation but total and cold neglect!

A well-known Untold story II: migrant learning
The second untold story concerns the hugely underestimated learning that villagers from remote Bihar have been through in the past forty years. This is not a perfunctory point I am making here. The amount of information on industrial and agricultural growth of different parts of India you can get in a typical Bihar village may seem incredible to an outsider or even a middle class Bihari. You need to put yourself in a migrant’s position to appreciate this.  

Imagine a family conference in rural Bihar where a decision about sending a fifteen-year-old boy to earn abroad has to be made. The family checks on different alternatives available locally through migrant networks – Kolkata, Assam, Delhi, rural and urban Punjab, Leh, Rajasthan, Surat, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore or well Cochin. Information is gleaned, analyzed, bargained and argued over for weeks and months. Options are weighed on the basis of access to the migrant networks available locally. Which is why even an impressionistic survey in a Bihar village will reveal that a whole row of homesteads have for example, sent their children to a single destination, say Surat in Gujarat. You move on to the next bunch of homes and NOIDA, Delhi seems to top the charts.

Migrant networks have been studies all over the world not simply as functional entities with one end at home and another reaching out to close and distant destinations. The networks are also channels of information and daily, weekly and monthly consultations about how to cope with the new life and the changing circumstances at work. In fact social networks like the Facebook model may give you some idea of how migrant networks operate across distances, eve though unlike Facebook, they are a lot more people ‘involved’.

More intimately, imagine a single room packed with ten migrant men in the age groups 15-42 somewhere in the Okhla Industrial area in Delhi with conversation, home food and music the only means of relief in a life of drudgery – you begin to get an idea of information exchanged, tips and tricks offered, questions asked and answers given. Next time when the 16 year old boy comes home, he is full of worldly wisdom since he knows how life in Okhla in Delhi ‘works out’ along his chosen professional pathway. The educated middle class has a habit of underestimating this form of learning among the ‘ignorant masses’ till it begins to show a dramatic impact on politics or electoral results. But when you walk along the village lanes in Bihar, you may hear tales from distant Amritsar, Pune, Tinsukia, Kolkata, Cochin and incredibly even Nagaland.

It is however when you focus on migrant learning and relearning of life values - ethical, aspirational and otherwise that you may really begin to appreciate why Bihar seems to have changed so suddenly. The fact is there is nothing sudden about the change of popular mentality in Bihar. The entire process has been akin to our good old ‘trickle economy’, a school of ‘trickle learning’ over the numerous decades, which is now displaying rather dramatic consequences.

Let me illustrate the above point through two anecdotes from the ten days I spent in my native village in East Champaran district of Bihar in April 2011. But before I do that another personal anecdote must take precedence - way back in the late 1980s I had this ready joke aimed at my Malayali friends – one day, some day I used to say, the Bihari migrant will beat the itinerant Kerala migrant’s mobility when the first man from my village will reach the tip of the Indian peninsula, namely Kerala to find work. It seemed a weak joke even to me but I just liked the idea of it in all its unlikelihood in the 1980s!  But this April I found three Yadav families in my village who have sent altogether five boys to Kerala, all of whom work in a sago factory. Talking of migrant learning, these boys gossiped with me why it was a bad idea to go to Ludhiana hosiery factories where the lungs get clogged with fine fabric or industrial paint fumes, and why the 4-day train trip to Cochin is absolutely worth it! Also, can there be a better exposure for a Bihari peasant than the militantly egalitarian unionized work atmosphere in Kerala!

Second, apart from the Cochin group, every family among the thirty or so I chatted with from Chamar, Brahmin, Potter, Yadav, Kurmi and Bania castes were second and very often third generation migrants.  Does this begin to give you an idea of the learning happening in situ, just staying at home and listening to tales across generations that get told at your doorstep and receiving things from distant markets? This is why I coined the term ‘vicarious migrant’ for the village Bihari who stays back to attend to the land while the brothers or sons send money and stories from Hyderabad, Kolkata or Surat. To put it briefly, even at a fairly low rung in the society, you get to see all of India sitting at home in Bihar. I had used the term ‘vicarious migrant’ to emphasize the converse as well – wherever he may be, the laboring Bihari unlike the middle class Bihari creates a mental cocoon of home around himself and don’t you ever accuse him of being away from home! More downrightly, to connect with an earlier theme, it is after all the migrant Bihari labour and not the upper caste/middle class IAS aspirant in Delhi who has proved the chief patron of the music CD and movie industry in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.  This is why, it is better to talk of the typical Bihari labour as a composite resident- cum- migrant to grasp his state of mind and awareness. If you wish to emphasize the migrant’s angst, you may say he is neither here nor there, but if you wish to emphasize the brighter side of his existence, you may say he is here and there simultaneously!  

A well-known untold story III: Laloo + Nitish & Laloo vs Nitish
Let me begin the third tale with a claim that would seem bizarre to many. I would like to claim that Laloo in his role as the ruler of Bihar in fact willfully put a brake on development of any kind in Bihar for a reason that may seem quite bizarre today. With hindsight, I would now like to pose Laloo as a leader paralyzed by the fear that any development initiative in the state will be hijacked by the educated middle class [read upper castes] – after all it is the bureaucracy at different rungs that runs the everyday life of development. Laloo insisted that the upper castes should be kept miles away from the handles of power, if the lower castes hoped to do any catching up at all. His philosophy of social change thus depended vitally on developmental freeze.

Laloo in his conversation with journalists openly and repeatedly claimed with a sense of utter obviousness that the Bihari peasant ‘did not want any development, can’t you see’? He in fact presumed that he was ‘protecting’ the ordinary Bihari from development and the further tightening of the hold of the upper castes it may lead to, instead of liberating them from upper caste dominance! This limited and limiting view of development is what caused Laloo’s downfall after a fifteen year reign when his own caste gave him the ditch and rejected the road to developmental impasse.  But Laloo’s intuition was not wrong – left at the mercy of development driven by the upper castes, the poor in Bihar would have indeed been much worse off. Imagine upper caste oppression further empowered by the muscles of development and the crushing of the lower caste morale it would have entailed! At any rate, Laloo is yet to get over the surprising revelation that the common Bihari did hope for development nevertheless and expected a ruler to deliver it.
Much later of course in the 2006-2007, Laloo learnt to employ and wield the bureaucratic engine as a railway minister to good effect since the bureaucracy in Delhi no longer seemed threatening in a non-Bihari context. Nitish was fortunate in inheriting from Laloo an upper caste with a badly bruised ego and a willingness to be led by a middle caste CM.  But this unavoidable bending took all of one and half decades even if commentators including Nitish count it as lost time for Bihar. The changed psychological climate among the upper castes and their new-found docility now allows Nitish to march ahead as the great leader. These changes are now visible at the ground level even in the context of the panchayat politics in Bihar where the upper castes scamper for positions wherever possible without complaining too much.

This uneasy caste alliance also lies at the basis of the edgy equation between the JD [U], a party with Gandhian and JP lineage with the Bihar BJP that tamely follows the great leader Nitish - an ideological mystery that is often too easily resolved by using labels like ‘political opportunism’. If anything the ideological opportunism of the BJP fully reflects the opportunism and the new found flexibility of the upper castes in Bihar, who must despite their utter unwillingness, learn to share power with the middle and lower castes.
For all the above reasons, Laloo and Nitish need to be understood as both complementary as well as contradictory forces – complementary in the sense that without Laloo’s decade long demolition job, it’s difficult to imagine the rise of a Nitish. On the other hand, unlike Laloo’s pause and freeze, Nitish is very much a politician in the fast forward mode. Unlike Laloo who hated the sight of files on his table, Nitish works for fourteen hours a day, driving a selected team of bureaucrats willing to work even longer hours.  

Conclusion: Nitish, the manager-cum-politician
Despite the due emphasis on the Bihari masses throughout, it would be silly to pretend that Nitish is just a sum of various historical forces. Nitish is probably the only politician in the country at the state and the central level who has managed to combine the mental sharpness and efficiency of a manager-technocrat with the qualities of a caring politician. You may look at the two extreme qualities as a combination or reciprocally moderating traits. Nitish builds roads with amazing speed but he also sits for hours in his Janta Durbar listening to the woes of stray individuals from the interiors. As we all know, politicians in India can be fairly neatly divided into two types – the man of the masses and the technocrat-manager. But Nitish rises above this binary.

Unlike the inscrutable peasant cunning of Laloo, Nitish is perhaps an easier person to figure out despite being a very lonely man who is not known to blindly follow other’s advice. He is also impatient with his garrulous colleagues who tend to shift Bihar’s development talk entirely into the future tense mode in alarmingly lyrical rhetoric – it is also incredible how much news Bihar newspapers carry on what will happen or come to be in the near or distant future – roads, bridges, municipal works, what have you like rainbows on a gray horizon. Raucous ‘hoga, hoga, hoga’ […will happen, …will happen] is how the numerous news headlines go and show how even Bihar has again begun to look at a future it had nearly given up on. Such future-orientation can also be a big relief from present discomforts, especially as the simple everyday changes in Bihar do keep impinging on your senses on a daily basis.

1. Dasgupta, Chirashree  ‘Unravelling Bihar’s ‘Growth Miracle’   (25th December 2010), Economic and Political weekly  
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5. Jones, Richard C. 'Remittances and Inequality: A Question of Migration Stage and Geographic Scale', Economic Geography, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 8-25, Clark University
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8. Sharma, Alakh N. People on the Move: Nature and Implications of Migration in a backward Economy, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, 1997.
9. Skeldon, R. 2008, “International migration as a tool in development policy: a passing phase?”, Population and Development Review, 34(1): 1-18.
10. Tripathy, Ratnakar, ‘Emergence of Vernacular identities: Music mania in small town Bihar’,
11. Tripathy, Ratnakar, Identities in ferment: reflections on the predicament of Bhojpuri, music and languages in Bihar’, in Indian Mass media and the Politics of Change, ed by Batbyal et al, 2011, Rutledge India
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Dr Ratnakar Tripathy is Editor,

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