The one thing that strikes you about the cramped corner housing 280 Musahars in the village of Marha, around 25km away from Bodh Gaya, a sacred place for Buddhists and till recently a hotbed of Maoist activism, is the absence of a clothes line outside homes in the area—a telltale reminder of the abject poverty of the community whose name is associated with the practice of consuming rats.
At the bottom of the social and economic ladder, there is no gainsaying that this community is overwhelmed by the daily challenge of survival. Not surprisingly, therefore, the 40-odd pre-school children in the Musahar corner could never conceive of a play-school; their status as virtual outcasts ruled them out of the existing facilities in their larger neighbourhood.
However, the children have ended up as the unintended beneficiaries of a World Bank-sponsored project, Jeevika, to improve the livelihood of the rural poor. For that, they have the energy and enthusiasm of a progamme worker to thank. The children now have a make-shift school in a space of about 8 feet by 4 feet and a teacher (on a monthly salary of Rs500) and the promise of a permanent roof from a probationary officer of the Indian Administrative Service, Kartikey Budhabhatti. While it is far from ideal, it has at least initiated, at a very rudimentary level, a mainstreaming of the community through capacity building.
Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
Similar intangibles are visible in other places where Jeevika is seeking to empower the poor through the setting up of self-help groups (SHGs) of women in eight districts—Nalanda, Gaya, Khagaria, Muzaffarpur, Purnia, Madhubani, Madhepura and Supaul—spread over north and south Bihar. At the end of February, the scheme launched in 2007 had managed to set up 17,044 SHGs with 196,000 members. It is now proposed to scale up the programme to 18 districts—significant since this was the first such progamme of the World Bank in 20 years.
This includes at one level nudging the small and marginal farmer to more productive cultivation through wheat and rice intensification and at another the creation of SHGs that will enable access to mainstream finance from banks. (According to the 2009-10 Economic Survey put out by the Bihar government, the state’s credit-deposit ratio is 31% compared with a national average of around 70%.) At the core of the philosophy behind these programmes is that the community, no matter how impoverished and marginal, is equipped to take decisions on its own—once it is empowered. So it is entirely the discretion of an individual to determine her needs and for the SHG as a group to sign off on it—which in turn is influenced by the level of participation of the concerned member. Essentially self-ordering and not something ordained by the state or any other agency.
It is not so much the tangibles as the intangibles that are a compelling part of the gains accruing from the programme. They signal aspiration for a better life.
Almost everyone anecdotally is of the view that roads, at least the main ones, are vastly improved.
The survey, highlighting the record of incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar’s regime, says that around 2,417km of roads were constructed in the state in 2008-09, compared with 415km in 2005-06—an increase of nearly six times.
The roads have not just brought markets closer to consumers or farmers, in a predominantly agrarian state, closer to the markets.
They have also allowed the state administration to deliver better governance, especially with respect to restoring law and order.
It is not that lumpen elements don’t have a say anymore; it is just that they are visibly diminished, making it easier for the government to restore public faith in its governance skills.
This is significant when it dovetails with the change being sought to be delivered at the grassroot level through campaigns such as Jeevika. It is as Bayanti, an SHG member from Kusha Bigha village, which falls in Gaya district, said: “We have got an identity.” (Unfortunately, the SHGs have been largely unable to transcend the caste lexicon of Bihar and tend to be organized among similar communities, even while they interact with each other at the village level.)
Budhabhatti, who is familiar with the project as he oversees the local block, endorsed this claim. “The programme is creating self-respecting and self-confident women.”
In a deeply conservative society, this is a potential game changer. It could, cumulatively, force a change in society as it exists in Bihar today. If socially deprived sections, whether they be the demographic of women or others, are economically and politically empowered, then change is inevitable. There is no denying the desire for change. But then this state has inspired so often in the past to only disappoint.
Since this process of transformation has coincided with regime change, it is only natural that much of the expectations and fears are built around the next round of assembly elections due before October. We know for a fact that all change agents and the new stakeholders view Kumar favourably while we don’t know as yet how others are reacting to this change.
It is too early in the game to take a political bet. Yet, it can certainly be said that Bihar is unlikely to fall back to its dubious past if there was to be a regime change. But is that good enough?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at email@example.com