Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I`ll set Bihar all right`

I`ll set Bihar all right`

DINNER WITH BS: Nitish Kumar

Aditi Phadnis / New Delhi January 17, 2006

Nitish Kumar

The new chief minister on his plans for the state

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s New Year started on a dismal note. On December 31, one of the star winners of the Janata Dal (U)-BJP alliance in the Assembly elections, Navin Chandra Sinha, died of a heart attack. In his 50s, Sinha had won from Patna and had the highest margin among all the MLAs in the Assembly. As a sitting MLA, he was entitled to a state funeral. Kumar ordered that all the arrangements be made, including a five-gun salute.

Picture the scene. Sinha’s relatives were sobbing. His supporters stood grimly as the body lay in state, awaiting the salute. Five guns were required to fire in the air. The first round went off perfectly. But in the second round, three rifles jammed and merely responded with an empty “click” when fired. Policemen scurried to get rifles that would work. In the third and fourth round, only two rifles fired. In the fifth round, all the rifles jammed so bystanders saw, rather than heard, the rifles firing. “I felt so terrible. Many in the crowd of mourners were laughing at the spectacle,” said Kumar recounting the event. This was only one of the stories we heard about Bihar over dinner, writes Business Standard.

Dinner was at a common friend’s home. Our host’s wife, who belongs to eastern UP, had insisted the cuisine would be Banarasi. So accordingly, there was methi-aalu (fenugreek greens cooked with young potato) bathue ki puri (tiny puris kneaded with a kind of green only available a few months in the year), peas and potato curry, arhar daal and a fiery coriander chatni redolent with garlic. Also on offer was fragrant aged rice (new rice, as Kumar explained to us, is merely starch. The older the rice, the more nutritive and fragrant it is).

Kumar was animated and keen to share his dreams for Bihar. His first priority, he said was to smash the kidnapping industry. Just the previous week, an industrialist had been hustled into an Ambassador car and had vanished and despite extensive combing, the police had not really got any clues. “They will find him,” said Kumar, sounding more reassuring, than I suspect, he felt. Police reforms top his to-do list. Recruitment for police, frozen for years, is to begin.

But it is on economic reform that Kumar is most bullish. Very quietly, work has already begun to straighten finances of the state government. “The biggest problem in Bihar is: I find no one takes any decision,” he said. For instance, to spend anything above Rs 25 lakh, a department has to get the decision passed by Cabinet. Kumar has raised this to Rs 10 crore. He said his government would present a full budget that would be passed before March 31. The government will introduce a Fiscal Responsibility Act.

“I want money,” he declared as the first batch of sizzling puris was brought. “I am ready to give anyone any concession so long as they fill my treasury.” Transporters, for instance, had been getting their vehicles registered in neighbouring Jharkhand because the levels of taxation were much higher in Bihar. Kumar has announced a clutch of incentives for them. Had some feasibility study or revenue assessments been made to justify the incentives? “True, initially there will be a revenue loss, but at least those who’ve gone out of Bihar will return to do business here,” he said, attacking his food with a gusto. Kumar intends to raise the excise revenue from Rs 300 crore to Rs 1,000 crore, mostly by addressing pilferage.

We talked about the power sector. Just the previous day, state electricity board employees had gone on strike protesting unbundling of the power sector. “I haven’t said anything to them but they should understand. Transmission and distribution losses in Bihar are 60 per cent. The state electricity board has 16,000 employees. If they want to, they can return to work. Otherwise, frankly, Bihar can manage without them,” he said, with complete detachment. Plans are afoot to augment power availability in the state by setting up a hydel power project in Kaimur that will produce over 2,500 MW power. If that happens, Bihar, currently a net buyer of power, will be in a position to sell power to the eastern grid.

Bihar’s economy works on subcontracting: a village teacher “sells” the job to a substitute and they share the salary. The result is, no one is obligated to actually teach. Kumar has a solution. Through an act, he is going to create Vidyalaya Shiksha Samitis in every Panchayat. These will have panchayat representatives and the children’s guardians, preferably their mother. “This hasn’t been tried anywhere, but I will do it in the Budget session. There is no better social reformer than a mother. Let these committees be set up. Then let me see how a teacher doesn’t come to school....”

This reminded Kumar of his own mother. “She is such a guppie [talkative] person,” he said fondly. “My father was an ayurvedic doctor. He went to jail in the 1942 movement. Our home was the centre of Congress activism. That’s where I learnt about life’s values. But I was influenced by Lohiaji so I became a socialist.”

Land redistribution is central to the contradictions in Bihar. “We are setting up a land reforms commission. There is no consolidation and entire families have been ruined trying to pay bribes equivalent to the value of the land to prevent losing it. Bhudan land has been encroached upon. I am going to set it all right,” he said with quiet determination.

In the midst of all these projects is the absence of any worthwhile chief minister’s secretariat. “When I walked into my office, all I found was some old Remington typewriters and moth-eaten paper. There was no carbon paper so I wrote my first order by hand and copied it out by hand. I have asked my office to be computerised. Then you will see the results,” he said.

By now it was midnight. Kumar showed no sign of getting up. Some cups of steaming tea were brought to help us stay awake. Reluctantly, we had call the dinner to a close, Kumar’s words ringing in my ear: “I will make policy. And everyone should remember: I will never do anything under pressure.”

Aditi Phadnis
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