I am a native of Patna. I was born and brought up there, doing my schooling at the best that the state could offer. It was in 1982 that after doing my Intermediate Science (equivalent to the present day 12th) from B N College that I took the train to Varanasi to do my engineering. For the first few months, I would run back to Patna at least once a month just to be at home. Later, as I got into a job and started living farther and farther from Patna, the visits became less and less. It was not just the distance, but it was also the psychological thing. Two of my friends had their dad kidnapped for ransom. People of my father’s generation who had left the best of positions abroad to be in Patna for the sheer love of the city started to migrate one by one. On the personal front, my wife lost her father in an unfortunate air crash in 2000 and the connection with Patna on the in laws side of my family became tenuous. So we quietly started to wind up, leaving just the house where my parents stay. My brother and I started to insist that my parents stay with us more and more. Our dear house at Patna where I grew up and which would be teaming with relatives with difficulty in even finding a place to sleep, became deserted. Thus, though being a native of Patna, the visits to my beloved city became rather infrequent over the last decade or so.
One Bihar Team with Naveen Sharma,Rahul,Chandan,Rajeev and TV Sinha
Fed with the continued usual stories of ‘the lawless state’, ‘the state of darkness’, and the like, my expectations from my visit to the Global Meet were rather modest. The expectation was first raised when I heard that Lord Meghnad Desai would be one of the speakers. Then I received the list of topics that were slated to be discussed and finally the news that the President of India himself would be coming for the meet.
Pre meet events
I was rather disappointed when I heard the schedule would be rehashed due to the Presidential visit. Many of the seminars that were on the agenda would perhaps be cancelled, I thought. The spirit was further dampened by the rather prominent headlines about the kidnapping of two school children at Mokameh on the eve of the meet. So it was with mixed feelings that I went to Hotel Maurya Patna to pick up my registration kit. As I was holding the registration bag which I must say was of a good conference quality, a person gently told me that we were all invited for a lunch at the CM’s residence. With remarkable agility and showing the native Bihari ‘jugad’, a disappointment had quickly been turned into an opportunity. We had a wonderful pre event networking meet that would be the envy of the best event managers of the world. The welcome was done by the CM himself with all his humility. The mild afternoon sun of December in Patna on the lawns of the CM residence proved to be the perfect setting.
I must say the chief minister or whoever looks after his household has excellent taste. The infamous khatal is gone. In its place I saw wonderfully maintained lawns with the famous Patna doob. There is a beautiful permanent chatri in a corner which must presumably be used for outdoor meetings. The décor is simple and the furnishings are understated. There is absolutely nothing gaudy there.
Over tasteful food including varities of native Bihari items like the Bihiya Puri, I bumped into the Dy CM and the Roads and Tourism minister and had rather useful interactions with them, but more about that later.
I also had a short meeting with Ravi Verma, a remarkable first generation Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running an offshore software development centre at Katihar for the last few years. When asked by Nitish Kumar about how his call centre business was doing; Ravi said something which is a good insight into the Bihari psyche. He said that what he runs is a software dev centre and not a call centre. The reason is that while a call centre employee has to have a less inquisitive but cool head, Biharis are rather hotheaded with high IQ – characteristics more suitable for running a software development centre. And I thought, it is precisely the lack of this type of appreciation of the Bihari psyche by our Delhi based planners that is perhaps the root cause of the under development of Bihar.
Inauguration by the President
We came back from the CM’s residence and took a walk in the evening sun to the dome shaped SK Memorial across the historic Gandhi Maidan. For those not from Patna, Gandhi Maidan is the grounds from which many agitations were launched for India’s independence struggle. This was also the main public meeting ground during the JP movement of seventies. The grass of the Maidan, the children playing cricket and the bamboos kept there to prepare the temporary structure for the republic day parade transported me three decades back when I as a child would come to Gandhi Maidan to play from my school across the road. The Gandhi Statue put up recently is a bit of an eyesore, but thank god, rest of the things have not been allowed to change with time.
Security arrangements by the Patna Police at the entrance of the SK Memorial hall was effective, efficient and non obstructive. In spite of my long association with Patna, this was my first visit inside the hall. I must say I found it rather depressing. The building from outside is a rather impressive dome shaped structure. But inside, partly because of the inadequate lighting, partly the dull green colour of the roof and partly the tasteless chairs, the feeling it generates is not positive.
Mercifully, the program itself managed to lift up our spirit. As we waited for the President to arrive, a remarkably well made video on the history of Bihar was played. The President’s speech itself was very well thought out and equally well received by an appreciative audience. My respect for the President went up a few notches by the affection, warmth and deep insight the President has for Bihar.
What transpired where I was sitting was no less remarkable. An old couple, Muslim by dress, were standing in the aisle, unable to get a seat in the jam packed hall. Two young chaps who had taken their vantage position in the hall having arrived at least an hour before the start of the function, and decidedly not Muslims, promptly got up and gave up their seats. Here was live evidence of courtesy that Biharis have always displayed but never given due recognition.
Coverage in Media
There was good coverage of the meet in the local media. All the local newspapers, Hindi and English as well as the local TV channels gave wide coverage to the event. The local portals, Bihar Times and others, were also pretty comprehensive in their coverage. After all, it is not everyday that the President of India inaugurates a meet like this in Bihar. For that matter, that such a meet is being organised in Bihar is itself a newsworthy item. Then there were a series of dignitaries like Lord Meghnad Desai present on the occasion. However, the coverage in the national media was rather conspicuous by its absence.
Unfortunately, busy as the national media is with the Big Brother episode, it deemed it fit to ignore the meet. It made me wonder what the coverage would have been if something had gone wrong at the meet. I could not help but think that the so called national English media of India is genetically incapable to report anything positive from Bihar. Middle classes like us have always looked for approval from the national English media and they have also not disappointed by taking up causes like the Tandoor and Jessica Lal murders. In the case of Bihar, however, we would have to seek strength for our action by seeking approval elsewhere. Mercifully, we have the internet and the blogs and web sites like Patna Daily and Bihar Times which can fill the void that the national media does not want to fill.
Business Proceedings – Day One
The business proceedings of the Global meet started the next morning with a plenary. The book “Gauravshali Bihar” produced by the One Bihar team was released by the Dy CM. This was my first occasion to share the dais with such high dignitaries. One Bihar team member Naveen Sharma made a scintillating presentation on Bihari sub nationalism as a foil to casteism. This was followed by a panel discussion on the social and economic issues where several eminent speakers spoke.
The CM made an unscheduled visit to the venue. A remarkable talk was delivered by Lord Meghnad Desai in a session chaired by VM Vyas. He stressed the need for inclusive growth. It is rather unfortunate, he felt, that the political system has not aligned quickly enough to the needs of the civil society and therefore they seem to be pulling in different directions leading to the slowing of the growth.
A series of break out sessions were organised in the second half. Remarkably, not one was on the hackneyed triple issues of casteism, criminalisation of politics and land reforms. New grounds were sought to be broken over topics such as Brand Building for Bihar, Cultivating Entrepreneurship, Tourism Industry in Bihar and many other similar ones. Discussions ranged from what went wrong to destroy the sugar industry of Bihar and how it can be revived; what can be done to kickstart tourism for the Buddhist and Jain circuits; why no big airport at Gaya, what could be the ten priorities for quick economic growth in Bihar, why the golden quadrilateral highways do not serve the cities of Bihar, why only three bridges over Ganga in Bihar while there are eight in Delhi on Yamuna, what are the psychological reasons for the backwardness of Bihar, how sub nationalism can subsume the ills of casteism, and so on.
Of particular mention are two sessions: one on Entrepreneurship in Bihar and the other on Tourism in Bihar. In the entrepreneurship session, the myth that Biharis are not entrepreneurs was sought to be broken. We had the presence of the remarkable grass root innovator, Raghav Mahto who built a community radio centre at Raghopur in Bihar with virtually no capital and started earning a living for himself while propagating socially useful messages on his community radio. Unfortunately, he was let down by the system as what he was doing was declared illegal by the mandarins of the Information and Broadcasting ministry at Delhi. Some NGOs have sought to lobby to get the legislation changed and hopefully Raghav would be back being a job creator soon. I made a short presentation on the GI of Patna Rice and how that can be used to get better realisation for the farmers of Bihar, but perhaps my presentation style was not suited for the occasion or the time allotted to me was very limited. Either way, I did not manage to make much of an impact except to one person from a UN agency. Another remarkable presentation was by Irfan, the rickshaw entrepreneur. He has developed a model to rickshaws to rickshaw pullers so that they get life insurance besides education for their children for the same money that they are giving to their rickshaw owners today, and yet Irfan will make a profit on his venture. I can only say god speed to his venture.
On tourism, the potential of Gaya as a tourist hub was presented by Naveen. It is remarkable how Gaya compares with Jerusalem. Both the places have religious importance for three religions : Judaism, Christianity and Islam for Jerusalem as much Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism has for Gaya. The income levels of the religion holders were compared to arrive at the tourism potential of Gaya.
In the session on brand building of Bihar, journalists were grilled on being too negative in their portrayal of Bihar. Pushed to the wall, a Patna based journalist of a national media, in a moment of remarkable candour, mentioned that they are specially encouraged by their editorial bosses to only present negative news from Bihar. If they send positive news, it just does find a place in print. This is indeed food for thought for many of us.
Business Proceedings – Day Two
The concluding day had a plenary session chaired by the CM. He mentioned about the difficulties he faces because the system had totally broken down. In remarkably frank speech, he also mentioned that no society is free from crime; but the important thing is how we deal with it as a civil society. He made a brief mention of the various achievement of his government – innovative steps like involving well trained retired employees of the army and the CBI in dealing with law and order, highly improved conviction rate of the criminals and the fact that criminals do not enjoy the patronage of the political classes any more. Remarkably, there is Rs 27,000 crore of private investment already committed in Bihar since the new government has taken over. The state government has put the details on a web site and can be accessed by anyone interested. Nitish Kumar pointedly delivered a short speech saying he is here to listen, not to talk.
This was followed by a panel discussion by eminent economists: C Rangarajan, Abhijit Sen, besides several others. Rangarajan made a positive reference to the improved utilisation of funds by Bihar. Abhijit Sen mentioned about the focus of the state government on primary education which is much better than any other Indian state government and also the much better retention of education by the children of Bihar compared to other states.
The last session I attended was a break out session by Prakash Jha who is now donning the new avatar of an entrepreneur. The session was chaired by Mr SP Sinha, the MD of Maurya hotel which was hosting the seminar and is possibly one of the only public limited company from Bihar. Prakash Jha talked at length about the challenges he is facing as well as the opportunities and the rewards that beckons him to do what he is doing. Remarkably, he is trying to build malls at places like Bettiah and Samastipur besides Patna and Jamshedpur and is doing it as a business proposition, not as charity. It is remarkable how much potential is there for doing profitable business in Bihar. Indeed Bihar does not need charity, it needs empathetic business oriented thinking.
So with that I come to describe my impressions of the current environment in Bihar. To say the least, they are positive.
The Chief Minister
The politicians of Bihar in general are changing for the better. The CM is a man of many qualities. Naveen Sharma pointed out to me that Nitish Kumar has four qualities that one likes to see in a leader: Intelligence, Vision, Integrity and capacity to work hard. I would say the good news does not end here. I personally observed him on at least three times saying that he has come to listen, not to talk and saw him patiently listening. He comes across as a person with a lot of humility.
He does not believe in much sloganeering and playing to the gallery. He appeared to be goal oriented and one can expect quick results from him. In fact, in an unguarded moment when I happened to be around, he described himself as a manager who relies on instinct to judge a situation.
Small details describe a person. He preferred to buy our book even though the person at the stall was willing to give him for free. Since he does not carry cash himself, he sent his PA later to pay us the cost of the book.
Priority of the chief minister is very clear: Law and order, infrastructure and primary education are the sectors which will get direct govt funding and focus. For everything else, the govt would be a facilitator. Absence of negative feeling towards commercial success was remarkable. What is more, this was without loosing focus on working for the poor.
The even better news is that he is not the only politician with good qualities. I had some interaction with two others: Sushil Modi, the Dy CM and Nawal Kishore Yadav, the Road construction and Tourism minister. I must say both managed to impress me.
Sushil Modi is another down to earth, simple man who has the good of the state at his heart. Married to a Christian, he is a liberal person who to my mind can be trusted to work for the good of the state. While I was sitting on the stage for the launch of the book, he even helped me open the cover of the books when he saw me struggling. It is these small details that describe the character and mind set of the people.
I had a short discussion with Nawal Kishore Yadav at CMs residence when I asked him why the Golden Quadrilateral and the East West corridor, the two nationally acclaimed highways, even though passing from Bihar, would be touching only Muzaffarpur and no other towns of Bihar or for that matter even Jharkhand. His first reaction was defensive when he tried to justify the alignment. Soon enough, he caught up with the point I was making and started asking me questions about it. He shared his concern about how the central govt is only bothered about international connectivity with Nepal and slogans like From Gujarat to Assam while neglecting the interests of Bihar. He assured me that he will take the interest of Bihar very strongly when he meets the central authorities the next time and mentioned about the by pass from Dobhi near Gaya which will connect Patna and Muzaffarpur. I was also very impressed with the pride he is taking with the 3000 km of state road that is being constructed outside of the central and the grameen vikas schemes. I am sure if politicians start taking such professional pride in their work, the day is not far when we can expect a much improved state of affairs.
The Local People
People are itching for progress. In a manner of speaking, the genie of development is out of the bag and it cannot be put back. As Prakash Jha mentioned in his session, even the main opposition in Bihar is talking profits of the railways and talking management to students. So the march of progress is now irreversible.
The rancour that one earlier felt for the moneyed classes is waning. People no more want to mistrust commercial success. One felt that the earlier mentality that that “Paisa hai to be-imaan hoga” is no more as prevalent.
There is this attitude which I call the ‘raped women syndrome’ where a woman who has been raped seeks to blame herself for the fate that befell her. Quite a few samaj ke thekedaar try to encourage that too, blaming the dress of the women or her beauty or other such irrelevant things for the crime that has been committed just as the national press blames Bihar for anything and everything that goes wrong. This raped woman syndrome is characterised by self flagellation. To me, such an attitude, which was ever so present in the public psyche of Bihar, is on the wane. Confidence of the local people is palpable. The older attitude of self flagellation where one would first try to find a fault in oneself if anything goes wrong is much reduced.
In my social interaction with the people outside the meet, I met quite a few internet enabled people. A very large number of middle aged or even older people are hooked to the internet. Knowledge about limewire, advanced google search technique and other such net savvy practices was very impressive.
Several good qualities of the old Bihar, respect for the elderly, courtesy to women, non communal nature and ability to work harder than others are very much retained.
Visible signs of progress
I saw surprisingly large number of women in jobs. It is no more only the womenfolk of the poor families who are seen engaged in commerce and jobs outside their homes. I saw women employees at airport, hotels, petrol stations, shops, banks, and many others. It may be noted that women have always been present in large numbers in politics and education. I also saw many women freely driving cars and two wheelers.
There are visible progress in better road signs, cleaner rods and cleaner government offices. The airport is remarkably clean and it has very courteous staff. I saw this kiosk at the airport which mentions about the tourist spots of Bihar. This little piece of electronic equipment with a touch screen was working well. The toilets were clean. The book stall at the airport had good quality books that one would like to see at an airport book stall.
So I board the flight back to Mumbai in a very positive mood. I write my impressions during the rather long hopping flight delayed further due to traffic congestions at Mumbai. I do hope the year which is still new will usher a new dawn for Bihar, my beloved Bihar.