The devastating floods in Bihar remind us of the states special importance in India. Straddling the countrys heartland, and home to one of its largest and poorest populations, Bihar is the crucible in Indias battle against poverty. In many ways, Bihars journey on the road to development will play a major role in shaping the India of tomorrow.
In response to the peoples aspirations, the state government has begun to set the stage for rapid economic development. It has undertakensweeping policy reforms, sometimes moving ahead of the more progressive states in the country. Major initiatives have been taken to streamline the administration, attract industry, ensure easier credit and better prices for farmers, and to lay the foundation for bringing modern e governance services to the people. Challenging popular perception, women have won more seats in the states recent panchayat polls than were reserved for them. By all accounts, law and order has improved, and informal surveys show that many people see a change for the better.
Bihar already enjoys many natural advantages and opportunities. The River Ganges flows through its heart, bringing much needed water to its fertile farmland, especially during the long dry season. As the birthplace of the Buddha, the state has the potential to become a hub of world class tourism. Gaya already has an international airport, and Nalanda is slated to become a new university, reviving its ancient heritage as a renowned seat of learning. And, Bihars people, working in the public and private sectors across the country, are a valuable resource for the country as a whole.
With the stage now set for development, the World Bank has resumed support to Bihar after a gap of many years. A recent project for US$63 million, aptly called Jeevika, aims to light the spark of empowerment to help rural women start productive new livelihoods. The project will cover 4000 villages in Bihars poorest districts. Improving economic opportunities for poor and disadvantaged communities is particularly important in a state like Bihar where more than two thirds of agricultural families have little or no land whatsoever.
Yet, formidable challenges remain. Bihar is still the poorest state in the country with a per capita income that is half the national average. Forty percent of its 90 million people live below the poverty line, making it home to one of densest concentrations of poor people anywhere in the word. And as we are seeing again this year, Bihars northern areas are prone to recurrent flooding, while the southern areas suffer from frequent droughts. The state also compares extremely poorly with the rest of India on critical infrastructure issues road transport, urban infrastructure, and power all of which are essential for development. Huge investments are needed. And, although the vision for development is strong, state institutions that must implement this agenda need improvement.
While Bihar has a lot of catching up to do, there are signs of hope. If the current momentum for progress can be sustained, the state can hope to bring prosperity to its people. The road to development will now need the combined efforts of the state and the central government, the private sector, civil society, Bihars migrant population, as well as the international community.
The World Bank stands ready to help. Apart from our new rural livelihoods project, we are already partnering with the Government of India on implementing a number of national projects in the state including the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan which aims to enroll all primary-age children in school by 2010. Bihar also receives a significant share of three national highway improvement projects that are supported by the Bank and we will soon be helping the state to build a network of rural roads as part of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.
The Bank has also been helping the Government of Bihar to build technical capacity in a range of sectors, from public expenditure management, to the reform of the public distribution system. A Development Policy Loan to help the state implement its broad development agenda is also under preparation. Given the devastation wrought by the recent floods, we are looking at ways to expand our on-going technical support to the Government of Bihar for flood forecasting and management. And, as we move forward, we are working closely with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the United Kingdoms Department for International Development (DFID) to define a joint framework for a coordinated approach to our assistance.