It is election year for Bihar and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is feeling comfortable. The big pitch for him is the work ethic he brings to Bihar and its effect. Here, he explains how Bihar is going about the big three – investment, education and hunger – and why he thinks the Centre may not be too helpful.
Hunger in Bihar is too basic an issue to be kept aside. We saw a family cooking and eating the skin of a goat. How long will you take to reach this Bihar?
There is great poverty in Bihar. More people live below the poverty line here than what the Central government claims. We have made our assessment and it shows 1.4 crore destitute in Bihar. The Centre says there are 65 lakh people below the poverty line in Bihar. If we have to reach the hungry, the biggest thing is to have clarity on poverty.
So, how long before the starving get food?
Let me explain how it works. Our teams go by names in the list of families below the poverty line. We say 1.4 crore names must be on the list. The Centre says there are 65 lakh people. How can I reach these people when we cannot agree on how many destitute there are? The states don’t run the PDS. It all depends on the Central government. If the poor are to get subsidised food so they don’t eat animal skin, we must agree on who to reach. We are the sufferers. I wrote to the Centre on a food security law.
I told them to identify the BPL families if they are not satisfied with our surveys. But, it cannot be that the Centre takes the credit for a food security law and we get the abuses because people say their names are not on the list of BPL families.
Fresh investment can infuse life into an underdeveloped economy. Bihar is making a serious pitch but the big investors don’t seem to be coming. Why is this so?
Big investors are interested in two areas in Bihar: thermal power and ethanol. Thermal power plants cannot come up without coal. Coal needs water and water is a state issue. But now, they have started a new system of seeking clearance from the central water resources ministry. This ministry has said that the Ganga basin water will not be available for coal. In Bihar, there is only the Ganga basin. What else is there?
If they object to water for thermal plants, how can investments come? Likewise, the proposal to make ethanol from sugarcane is pending with the Centre since 2007. Things are not moving because of the Centre.
Investors say land is a problem in Bihar. They also say you are too cautious a chief minister to help.
Why should I acquire land for them? We are acquiring land for roads, railways and bridges. We are offering heavy compensation for that. We are acquiring far more land now than in the past for public purposes. As far as private investors are concerned, we ask them to negotiate on their own. If we get into the picture, there will be two issues. One, the land cost will be more because we acquire after paying a hefty compensation. Therefore, our land will include the charges we pay for acquiring and the development cost. Secondly, we can only offer land on lease. If the private investors negotiate on their own, they can get the land title on their name. Besides, [West] Bengal is next door. Haven’t Nandigram and Singur happened there? You may have met the window shoppers, who are not really interested. They look for alibis. No real investor has asked us to acquire land. Only the non-serious investors are complaining.
Education is another primary issue. You grew up as a child in Bihar. How is it different for children now?
The biggest change is that we are sending children to school. There were 25 lakh children out of school when we came to power. Now, that figure has come down to less than eight lakh. The second change is that we are trying to offer them quality education once they are in school so that attendance improves. We must have good midday meals and good teachers to improve attendance. So, we are focusing on teacher training and management of midday meals. We have just begun training 40,000 teachers with the help of IGNOU. You must remember that I don’t have a switch that I can press and make things happen. We can only tackle things one by one.
Things are better than in the past, but we have to do far more. We have been successful in getting girls into schools by giving them school dresses and money. We began giving bicycles to high school students, boys and girls. All students between Classes 3 and 5 are given Rs 500 a year, whichever community they come from, for school uniform.
Once in school, the intelligence levels of children become a factor. There appears to be a lack of intellectual capacity in Bihar today.
This is not a Bihar-centric problem. You will find it elsewhere also. The whole country lacks intellectual depth. But, the children of Bihar are ahead of others in learning languages and math. I’d like to remind you that we have only now begun to work in Bihar. People had lost the habit of working. Now, they are starting to work again. So, don’t look for solutions everywhere. You can’t do third and fourth stage evaluation now.
Our priority was to see that no children stay out of school. We have opened 15,000 new schools and recruited two lakh teachers. Yet, there are eight lakh children still out of school. We found that five lakh are either from Maha Dalit families or from the Muslim community. They need special care.
We have opened centres where we keep these children and prepare them for school. All this requires constant effort. There was no effort all these years. It has only begun now.
The branding of Bihar appears to be getting stronger outside India. Are you opening up Bihar to Mauritius? Is this a new trend for Bihar, tying up with a foreign country?
We are doing a lot with Mauritius. They will have a consulate here. We are willing to provide land and they are willing to open an office. Close to half the people in Mauritius are of Bihari origin. I have told the central government all this. The External Affairs Ministry now has to take the initiative with protocol.
How will it play out?
People from Mauritius want to trace their roots. We are ready to help them. The Mauritius Prime Minister came here and opened schools and hospitals.
Family plays a disproportionate role in Indian politics. The way you deal with family is different from many other politicians. How does it work with you?
Everyone has their way of looking at family and politics. I am also a perfect family man but what has that got to do with anything? When you get into politics, you must treat everyone as a family member. There isn’t a human being on earth without a family. But how does that matter? We have to be faithful to the duty and the opportunity we have got. I think many people have a sense of insecurity. They feel they will be secure only if their family gets empowered. I have no insecurity. I know death is imminent in everybody’s life. Why get insecure?
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 05, Dated February 06, 2010