The Schiller Institute in Bihar, India
The Results of a Fact-Finding Tour

September, 1988

by Linda de Hoyos

From September 24-28, I was privileged to be the guest of Mr. Om Prakash Paswan, the president of the All-India Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Railway Employees Union in Jamalpur, Bihar, India. Mr. Paswan had invited myself and Ramtanu Maitra, publisher of Indian Political Economy journal in New Delhi, on a fact-finding tour of the south-central region of Bihar near the Ganges River, to aid in formulating a detailed economic development program for the area.

With a population of 80 million people, Bihar is the poorest state in India, despite its arable land and considerable mineral wealth. The state has never recovered from British rule. From 1757 to 1947, the British looting of land resources created a vast rural peasantry, with no middle class. When the British took over control of Bihar, it was a rice-growing and textile-producing state. But the British forced the peasantry to grow only indigo, and then opium, as cash-crops for export, creating famine throughout the countryside.

Today, there is no famine, but the economic devastation and deculturation remain as the British living legacy. And the mineral and industrial production of the state continues to be drained by out-of-state wealthy enterprises, with little of the wealth going back to Bihar. The agriculture of the state continues to be dominated by landlords, most of whom live in Delhi or Calcutta, not in Bihar. As some of the photographs shown here document, many of Bihar's citizens suffer harsh economic oppression. Yet, as Maitra's outline for a development program for the state showed, Bihar--which is considered the heartland of India--has the potential to become a productive powerhouse.

  1. Santal tribe women carrying illegally cut firewood to market. This is a painful trek, covering 10-15 kilometers. Notice that one of the women is not only carrying the firewood, but also her baby. This is one of the few means of livelihood for the mountain tribes. The men stay back in the forest to cut and shape the timber. The women carry it each day to market. But few will buy the firewood, until near dusk, when the landlords' men will come to pick up the lot at cut-rate prices--15 rupees (U.S.$1.25) per bundle. The women take the low price, so they don't have to carry the bundle back. The landlord will take the same lumber to the nearest city by and sell it for 50 rupees.

  2. Santal tribe men walking poached coal to market. The sacks are so big, the miners are forced to walk their bikes. Three or four familes together have formed this illegal venture for every bag of coal. The coal is dug illegally, with the mining inspector and guard taking bribes of 50 rupees per bag. The coal will be walked to market 15-20 kilometers, where it will be sold to the local landlords for 200 rupees, one-third of what the landlord will get when he re-sells it at the larger market. At night, hundreds of coal carriers form a ghostly parade along the mountain roads.

  3. These people are sitting under the tree, because this spot of land is where they live. They have been driven off their own land by landlords. By the laws of India's land reform, no one is permitted to own more than 10 hectares, but landlords get around this law by supplying papers with false names, to disguise a single owner of hundreds of hectares. Throughout the countryside of this area of Bihar, we saw many abandoned homes; the former inhabitants had also been driven off the land. These landless families represent the pool of surplus unskilled labor crowding the countryside. In this particular area of Bihar, where mineral wealth is right on the surface, industrial parks and the building of new urban centers would provide employment and on-the-job training.

  4. The baby being held by his older brother is suffering from malnutrition. But his big head, spindly legs, and bloated belly are an uncommon sight in Bihar's countryside. Despite the extreme deprivation, there is no starvation, even though the monsoon failed to come in 1987 and India suffered a devastating drought in that year. Through the Green Revolution and the development of mechanized agriculture in the Punjab, India has been successful in the last 13 years in providing a minimum of food to its 800-million population. India's irrigated land is equivalent to the land-mass of France and the Low Countries of Europe. However, in Bihar, agriculture remains dependent upon rainfall.

  5. A dismantled steel rolling mill outside the city of Deoghar. The story behind this sad sight is as follows: The abandoned mill is the final result of a government investment program to utilize unemployed engineers. The Bihar state government gives a group of engineers credit to set up an industrial enterprise. The money given is enough for the capital equipment, but not enough to work the plant. Nor is the enterprise given a government quota for the raw materials required for operation. The electricity supply is also so erratic as to preclude operating at all. The result is that the enterprise goes bankrupt.

  6. The woman's lot in rural India is not easy. In Bihar, the literacy rate is 26.2 percent, a full 10 points below the national percentage. But for Bihar's women, the literacy rate is 12 percent. The cultural backwardness of rural life also takes its toll--1 percent of the women who were married in 1987 committed suicide in the first year of marriage.

  7. A tractor ad on a wall in an area outside of Deoghar, and the front yard of a typical rural house. The key to India's industrialization is raising of agricultural productivity. In Bihar, this means water management--that is, training the Ganges River, which cuts through the middle of the state, and its tributaries. Right now the state is at the mercy of alternating drought and flooding. The idea is to utilize the Ganges water and the monsoon precipitation to recharge the shallow groundwater aquifer. This recharged groundwater and artificially trapped rainwater in thousands of reservoirs can then be pumped out for agricultural use during the dry season.

  8. "Employment" in New Delhi. This young man, lying on the street next to his assortment of goods to sell for the day, is but one of the millions of landless unemployed from the countryside who have come to India's cities seeking work. But productive employment is not what he has found. In Bihar, the biggest brake on industrialization is the lack of electricity. Bihar's installed thermal power generation capacity in March 1987 was only 1,425 MW--little more than New Delhi consumes during the peak summer season. For both industrial and agricultural needs, Bihar should be producing 36,000 MW by the year 2000. Much of this requirement can be met with the state's large coal deposits. But this only partially solves the problem faced by India's unemployed youth. Aside from mining and large industrial enterprises, the real bulk of employment in Bihar has to be generated in developing a highly productive small-scale industrial sector, with a few people in each enterprise and advanced machine tools.