Thursday, February 15, 2007

Interview with Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar.

Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar.
MUCH is expected of the Nitish Kumar government. Predictably, the Bihar Chief Minister is a man in a hurry. He knows the groundswell of goodwill that his government enjoys is not going to last very long.

On January 24, Nitish Kumar's schedule was fully occupied by the celebrations to mark the birth anniversary of Bihar's champion of social justice and former Chief Minister, Karpoori Thakur.
He launched a slew of welfare programmes at Karpoorigram in Samastipur district. Later in the evening, at his residence in Patna he gave an hour-long interview to Frontline. Before settling down, he spoke about the "enormous burden of expectations" he has to bear.
He said, "I fear that the people will not forgive me if I do not deliver at least a fraction of what they expect from me."
In this interview he speaks about his government's plans for the transformation of Bihar, particularly the plans to improve social services such as health and education and the public distribution system.
However, his sharpest comments are reserved for the manner in which the Union government estimates poverty. While the Centre's poverty estimates have been contested by academics, Nitish Kumar's is the strongest indictment coming from a non-Left political leader. Excerpts:
Has the meet helped?

This meet was organised by NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. This was a people's initiative and the government only extended support to it. This was not a meeting of NRIs [non-resident Indians]; nor was it a gathering of NRBs [non-resident Biharis].
This was meant to be a forum where all those interested in Bihar's development could discuss issues. It has been a successful meet. New ideas have emerged and a realistic assessment of Bihar's potential has been made, apart from highlighting the initiatives taken by the State government.
We have taken the meet seriously. We have already started working on some of the proposals and suggestions discussed at the meet.
Bihar has a huge backlog of underdevelopment, particularly in the area of the delivery of services such as education and health.
In your speech at Karpoorigram today, you mentioned some of the problems relating to the working of the public distribution system [PDS] and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [NREGS] in the State.In particular, you referred to the problems that the State faces because of the way the Centre has structured these schemes and programmes.
As far as education is concerned, we have told the Centre that the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan [SSA] must be extended to the secondary level. We have also said that the Centre must provide 100 per cent funding for the programme. Currently, the Centre funds it to the extent of 75 per cent but is planning to reduce the funding to 50 per cent. We vehemently oppose the move. I raised the issue at the meeting of the National Development Council. The Centre can call it by whatever name it chooses, but it must expand the scheme.
There is a shortage of good-quality centres of higher education in Bihar. We do not have any IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] here. In the field of education Bihar needs a lot of assistance from the Centre.
Of course, we have initiated moves with our own resources. But we also need help.

We have initiated a massive enrolment of teachers in schools. But we also need to improve the infrastructure in schools.
We need more classrooms in schools, and although the Centre is providing a portion of the funds for these, we have to invest substantial amounts on our own. We have also asked the Centre when it plans to proceed with making the idea of common [neighbourhood] schools a reality.
We have instituted a commission headed by Muchkund Dubey [former Foreign Secretary] to explore ways to implement this in Bihar. If we do not do this, what right do we have to talk about an egalitarian society? How can a child who from day one is only exposed to disparities grow up with egalitarian values?
In fact, if we want to achieve inclusive growth, which is the theme of the Eleventh Plan, we need to reform the school system. More importantly, the Centre must make strenuous efforts to implement, in letter and spirit, the right to education.
But does the State not suffer from lack of financial resources?

Of course, we expect support from the Centre. There are also resources that will be made available as a result of the recommendations of the Twelfth Finance Commission. But we also have our own resources to implement modern practices in education.
This is necessary to remove the dichotomy between government-run and privately run schools. I shall cite an example to show what we are doing. Children in private schools go on tours to visit places of historical interest. For the first time in Bihar, we have given grants to government-run schools to take children on educational tours.
We are also taking measures to provide sports facilities, including playgrounds, to these schools so that children undergo all-round development.
In Patna, there is a mushroom growth of privately run teaching shops.
There is never going to be a vacuum. When the government does not provide basic facilities, there is bound to be an explosion of privately run schools, which are often of poor quality.
When we implement the `common school' concept, both private and government schools will have a role to play. Meanwhile, we will ensure that the government schools give a tough competition to private schools.
We are planning to establish a model high school in each district. These schools will be for both boys and girls and will be completely residential. Children will compete for admission to these schools. These schools will offer a stiff challenge to private schools.

We are also planning to extend the midday meal scheme to all children up to Class V. The government is working on a scheme to provide bicycles to all girls in schools.
The problem of illiteracy is acute in Bihar, particularly among girls. Our move to reserve 50 per cent of the seats in local representative bodies has resulted in tremendous enthusiasm among women to do more for education.
Politicians realise that they have to meet this growing aspiration for education. Otherwise, the people will curse us.
Bihar is also backward in the area of health coverage. What are the new initiatives?
We are supplying medicines free of cost to people. Initially, we started with 13 drugs but we are expanding the list of drugs that are supplied free. We are supplying generic drugs because they are cheaper but just as effective as branded drugs. This is not a small thing. We are supplying anti-rabies and anti-venom drugs in the PHCs [primary health centres], which has saved quite a few lives in rural Bihar.
We have deployed all doctors in government service in the PHCs and additional PHCs. We are in the process of recruiting more doctors, but meanwhile we have employed doctors on contract.
We are also using modern technologies to facilitate better monitoring of these facilities. For a start, we have provided all PHCs with a landline connection, so that anybody can call the centre and receive a proper response from health care providers.
If the calls remain unanswered, it means that those who ought to be at work are not available to the public. This is what I mean by automatic monitoring by the public. This is why we have not provided mobile phones (laughs).
In July 2006, we launched a scheme to provide computers at the PHCs. This will ensure the compilation of a database on morbidity patterns, the kind of drugs given to patients and other vital information.
The data will be freely available to the public. This will ensure transparency. In about a month this data will be available to everybody. Things have begun to work in Bihar.
While speaking at Karpoorigram, you said that there were grave shortcomings in the Centre's approach towards the targeted public distribution system [TPDS]. What are these and how do you plan to handle them?
The Centre has to answer for the mess it has created by the systematic exclusion of large numbers of the poor from the TPDS. Following instructions issued by the Centre, we have done a household survey to identify those below the poverty line. Using a 16-parameter scale to identify BPL families, there are about 85 lakh families in rural Bihar below the poverty line; there would be another 15 lakh families in urban areas. But the Planning Commission wants us to use a 13-parameter scale, which will imply that 75 lakh families are below the poverty line.
But what should the scale be?
A 13-parameter scale will yield a poverty line that corresponds to a bare minimum level of living. This will not be a poverty line but an index of utter wretchedness in which humans can barely survive.
This is why we decided to launch the coupon system from January 26, which will provide basic necessities such as foodgrains and kerosene to all the people we have enumerated to be below the poverty line, using the 16-parameter scale.
There is no scheme of the Union government that provides universal coverage. Having cut coverage by terming it as a "targeted" programme, it now wants to whittle it down even more. That is not acceptable to us.
Each Department at the Centre has its own "estimate" of the poverty level in Bihar.
The Department of Food says that our entitlement is for only 50 lakh families, whereas by the 13-parameter scale there are 75 lakh families that will be below the poverty line.
Last week, the Ministry of Rural Development informed us that 66 lakh families lived below the poverty line in Bihar. This Ministry appears to be more liberal because its Indira Awaas Yojana [a rural housing programme] does not have universal coverage.
We had decided to implement the coupon system so that every poor family that is entitled to essentials actually draws supplies from the local ration shop.
But we now find that the Centre will supply only for 50 lakh families. We have to make our own efforts to supply the remaining 25 lakh. We have decided to supply coupons to all 75 lakh families.
What will be the financial implication for the State?

The Centre will supply foodgrains for 25 lakh families at APL [above poverty line] rates but we will provide grain to these families at BPL rates. The State will have to pay the margin between the two rates.
We will incur a subsidy of about Rs.30 crores for one lakh families, implying an additional expenditure of about Rs.750 crores for 25 lakh families. All this talk of poverty alleviation in Delhi is hogwash.
I intend taking the issue to its logical end. I am determined to bring the whole issue of the poverty line to public attention so that we can as a nation decide in a transparent manner how we are going to determine who is a poor person. This is bound to become a public issue.
Or, let the Union government state openly that it is not willing to supply foodgrains at subsidised rates to all the poor people in this country.
The Planning Commission uses National Sample Survey data to determine poverty, which has created a furore even among academics. Instead, we have done a household survey.
Tell me, which is more accurate? A sample survey or a household survey that has been done throughout the State? Remember, even the household survey was done on the basis of guidelines laid down by the Centre.
But when it comes to implementing the programme, it backs away from its responsibilities. The Union government's assessment of the number of poor people in this country is way off the mark. It is logically flawed. But even more important, it is unfair to the poor.
What kind of problems does the State face in implementing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act?
There are lots of problems in Bihar. Each State is supposed to pay at least the minimum wage to those working under the programme. But everything in Bihar has been dormant for the past 15 years.
The minimum wage here has not been revised regularly. The other problem pertains to how much manual labour a human being can do without impairing his health. I know people are getting less than their due. Unfortunately, all this takes a lot of time because it is part of a Central law.
There are problems also in the selection of schemes. First, gram panchayats are to select schemes. Then these are to be sent to the zilla parishads for approval.
Why should this be so? Why can gram panchayats not implement schemes after selecting them? Only inter-panchayat schemes need go to the zilla parishad for approval. People have to get their job cards made and then file applications seeking work.

The entire programme has been bureaucratised, which defeats the very purpose of the programme. But we also recognise the potential for transforming Bihar. That is why although the Centre selected only 23 districts in the State, we decided that the programme would be implemented in all the districts.
I went to some villages near Patna. People complained that the work is very difficult...
Workers are expected to remove 110 cubic feet of earth in a day. That is too much work. The guidelines have been fixed in Delhi; the States have had no say in determining work norms.
The authorities in Delhi blindly tell us to allot earthwork without understanding that this is not possible everywhere. In several districts in Bihar, such work is not possible at all.
We are trying to resolve these problems, but it is taking time. We are also trying to make the muster roll as transparent as possible.
But I realise that the people who will benefit from this programme are also my target group. For these people, governance means getting foodgrains and kerosene on a regular basis and in time.
Good governance also means getting decent work at a decent wage rate, education for children and minimum levels of health care. Above all, it also means that people will not be exploited because they belong to a lower caste. If we deliver on these promises, desperate Biharis need not risk their lives to migrate far away from home in search of a livelihood.

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