For Bihar, the Key to Economic Development is Infrastructure

September, 1988

by Linda de Hoyos

Mrs. de Hoyos, a Loudoun County resident, the Asia Editor of Executive Intelligence Review magazine.
From September 24-28, I was privileged to be the guest of Mr. Om Prakash Paswan, president of the All-India Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribe Railway Workers Union in Jamalpur, Bihar, India. Mr. Paswan had invited myself and Ramtanu Maitra, the publisher in New Delhi of the magazine Indian Political Economy to the central-eastern section of Bihar. For four days, we traveled in this area of India, the heartland of the "Hindi belt'' that lies along the Ganges River.

The state of Bihar, cut in half by the Ganges, has a population of 80 million people--that is, a population larger than most nations of the world! That population size is itself evidence that a once-great civilization was present here in ancient times, which has existed with some degree of continuity since. Indeed, the capital of Bihar, Patna, formerly called Pataliputra, was the great capital of the ancient Maurya empire of 300 B.C., and later of the Gupta renaissance empire of 500 A.D. And, as Mr. Paswan pointed out in the rallies that we addressed in towns in east-central Bihar, just over the hills in Gaya, Gautuma Buddha had founded the Buddhist religion, now the religion of millions of people.

Patalipura, at the confluence of the Ganges and Sona rivers, was the "greatest city'' in India in 500 B.C. Nine miles in length and a mile and a half wide, the city was ringed by a wall with 64 gates crowned with 570 towers.

Today, the ruins of Patna's past empires and a yoga school are the key attractions for foreigners. But these landmarks bear no relation to the lives of the state's millions. Today, the city of Patna has been degraded into a rubbled city of 7 million people living in extreme poverty.

The Condition of Bihar

The poverty-stricken condition of Patna is coherent with the state's economic statistics. In the official statistics--and what I saw indicated that the reality is far worse--Bihar has the lowest per capita income in India.

And even these statistics lie. For example:

- Unutilized Potentials -

My friend Mr. Maitra and I had been invited to Bihar by Mr. Paswan, who has built a grassroots organization throughout the eastern part of the state. A member himself of the scheduled caste (that is, "untouchable'' or "harijan'': ``children of God'' as these lower castes were renamed by Mahatma Gandhi), Paswan has worked throughout the region to increase industrial employment and to bring young men from the most deprived parts of the state to Jamalpur to work in the 10,000-man railway workshop there. With him and 20 of his men, we traveled nearly 900 miles through east-central Bihar, speaking at rallies, meeting with local press and organizers.

Although the southern half of the state is dominated demographically by lower-caste Hindus, Paswan's organization encompasses all castes. Nearly everyone, no matter what caste, is desperately poor. The focal point of the organizing was the necessity to mobilize Biharis around an economic program for development. Upon Mr. Paswan's request, Ramtanu Maitra had outlined a preliminary program for Bihar.

- Bihar Economically Devastated -

Bihar was economically devasted by 190 years of British rule. When the British took over the state, which was then appended to the states of West Bengal and Orissa, Bihar was a rice-growing region with its population heavily dependent upon spinning, weaving, and other handicrafts. The British changed all this. First, the British tore down Bihar's home industries--not to be revived again until Mahatma Gandhi organized the khadi movement for homespun during the Congress Party campaign for independence. Second, as the International Monetary Fund did with Sudan in the 1970s and 1980s, the British forced the farmers to stop growing rice, and to grow "cash crops,'' in Bihar's case opium and indigo.

Famine-stricken Champaran, across the Ganges River from Patna, was the site of Mahatma Gandhi's first campaign and first arrest in India upon his return from South Africa, as documented in the popular film

But even today, after Indian independence, Bihar remains in a semi-colonialized condition. The state is rich in iron ore, coal, and other metals, and the southern section of the state is a national industrial center. However, the owning and operating companies are all based outside of the state, in Calcutta, Delhi, or Bombay, with the result that Biharis are robbed of the wealth they produce. In the industrial cities, such as Deoghar, despite the concentration of industry, the wages to industrial laborers remain so low that it appears that industry has no real impact on the population. Politically and economically, power is in the grip of local mafias and landlords.

- Key to Economic Development -

The key to Bihar's economic development is infrastructure. The first task is water management: training the Ganges and its tributaries. This involves flood control, and in particular utilizing the Ganges water and the monsoon precipitation to recharge the shallow groundwater aquifers. This recharged groundwater, and trapped rainwater in reservoirs, can be pumped out during the dry season. Today, almost all of Bihar's agriculture is totally dependent upon rainfall.

The pumped-out water can also be used to keep the vegetative cover on the land intact, reducing dry season erosion and slowing down the heavy monsoon rainwater. In the central basin we toured south of Ganges, millions of acres lay fallow, as erosion had carved out a kind of moonscape of craters and hills.

While Bihar is dry and dusty through most of the year, every monsoon season there is tremendous flooding, causing millions of dollars worth of damage. Last year, there were 144 breaks of the embankments along the Ganges during the monsoon rains. The reason for this is the increasing siltation of the rivers. The Ganges has to be narrowed and dredged--forcing a flushing out of the silt. Yet, this method of stopping the flooding, although known, has not been used, as the state government relies upon embankments--which each year break.

Second is electric power. With an average of five persons per family, there are approximately 16 million families in Bihar, requiring 36,000 megawatts of power. Much of Bihar's power requirement can be met with the state's large coal deposits. Agroindustrial centers away from the mines will require nuclear power plants to supply electricity and steam to the entire complex. In this way, Bihar can eliminate transmission costs and line loss, which presently amounts to 23% in Bihar.

Third is transportation. Although the Ganges cuts right through the state, there are only two bridges across the river, and one of them was just completed. Making the Ganges tributaries navigable through dredging would also greatly benefit the state's economy.

This program means putting people to work. The construction of infrastructure will give productive employment not only to the landless laborers in the rural areas, but also to those now hustling in low-level crime on the streets of Patna. Aside from increasing agricultural productivity, the real bulk of employment has to be generated in developing a highly productive small-scale industrial sector, with a few people in each enterprise and advanced machine tools.

- The Organizing Tour -

This is the potential of Bihar, but such development is not occurring there today. For three days, we traveled through the eastern-central area of Bihar. In total, we probably laid our eyes directly on at least 1 million people. Many were Hindu, many of them lower-caste. We also traveled to the eastern side of the state, inhabited by the Santal tribe, who are Baptist Christians.

We traveled a huge circle around a large plateau, filled with mineral wealth--silicon and coal. Mr. Paswan pointed out that the region--especially because the erosion of the soil made agriculture possible--was perfect for development of industrial parks. The center of the plateau itself could be the site of a new city.

It is the lack of such industry and infrastructure that is the cause of the first impression that hits the American visitor: For the countryside, Bihar's rural areas are very crowded. We traveled a single-lane road from Patna to Jamalpur 300 miles across the state, but both sides of the "highway'' were lined with houses the entire way. Cities, based on industries that produce tools and goods to raise the productivity of the farms, would easily absorb this great underutilized rural labor.

Conditions of Extreme Deprivation

Meanwhile, the population lives in conditions of extreme deprivation that are hard for an American to fathom. Midway between Patna and Jamalpur, for example, we stopped at an enclave of huts that provided shelter to a group of harijans. This group of about 25 people had lived there for the last few years, since they were driven off their own land, they told us.

One older woman--that is, about 50 years old and under five feet tall--showed us her hut, built of twigs, dried palms, and plastic paper. Outside her hut there were some tin cooking utensils on the ground--her kitchen. She beckoned us to look inside--throwing out her arm and saying to us in outrage: "Look, look, I have nothing!'' Indeed, inside the hut, there was absolutely nothing but two dried palm leaves. This means, that after fifty years, this woman had accumulated no possessions, save her one sari, which she wore, and a couple of tin bowls. She had no bed, no bedding, no clothes, no pictures, no toilet articles, no tools, no utensils, no cloth, or blanket. All her energies every day had been devoted to simply finding enough to eat to stay alive. Despite the fact that this woman--like millions of others in India--has been forced to live in animal-like conditions, she demonstrated in her rage that she had not lost her humanity.

Similar levels of deprivation exist in the Santal tribe region. In this remote region in the mountains lying right above the Gangetic plain that goes into Calcutta and Bangladesh, the Santal tribesmen and their families subsist on the basis of poaching timber and coal. Other than that, they are employed as low-paid laborers in landlord plantations.

All along the roads on this area, there is only one mode of travel--feet. No cars, no bicycles, no animal-drawn carts, or horses. Two types of walkers predominate. First, were lines of men walking bicycles. Strapped onto the bicycles were huge bags of pilfered coal. Each bag represented the work of a group of families, organized to mine the coal and transport it to the nearest landlord-run market. Each bag of coal--taking about two days to accumulate--will sell in the market for about 200 rupees. But already 50 rupees has been given to the local coal supervisor as a bribe. The remaining 150 rupees is hardly enough to feed one family, let alone several. Throughout the night, hundreds of such men carrying coal line the roads like ghosts, their faces blackened with coal dust. The landlord in turn will sell the bag of coal for three times the amount they paid the tribal miners.

The second are lines of women, walking with loads of timber balanced on their heads. This illegally cut timber will be used as firewood in the cities. The men stay in the jungle to cut the wood and shape it. The women carry it. The expressions on their faces and the distorted way in which they are forced to walk from the weight of their load, indicate that this is a painful activity.

The walk from the jungle to the market is between 7 and 10 kilometers. At the market, the timber will not be sold, until dusk when the landlord's man will come to buy the load at the bargain-basement rate of 5 rupees. The woman will take the price, because she does not want to walk all the way back home with the load. The timber will piled unto the landlord's truck; he will sell it in the next city, at a price four to six times higher than he paid.

Nevertheless, it was a relief to see that with very few exceptions, it appeared that the Indian government had been able to ensure a level of agricultural production that had staved off starvation and extreme malnutrition.

But what of the future? What does a harijan man say to his son of his hopes for that child's future? The Baptist minister at the Santal town of Grindhaban informed us that although he had established a school, he constantly was fighting with parents to permit their children to go. Without a hope in the future, what is the point of education?, parents say.

In our departing press conference, I was asked what was my message to Biharis after what I had seen. I replied "Educate your children.'' We are not yet able to build the roads and industries that will ensure the productive future of Bihar and alleviate Bihar's dire poverty. I brought no cure with me for the old man that I talked to who has tuberculosis. Yet, if we are not committed to the future, then there can be no hope. And if there is no hope for the children of Bihar, then I know deep in my heart there is no hope of a future for our own.