Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s recent positioning as a candidate for the top political job in the country has drawn mixed reactions. Does he have a model for India? Is what he did in Bihar replicable across states? Can it work across the country? Hard questions—all of these. But before answering them it is best to take a close look at his record in Bihar.

When Kumar came to power in 2005, over two-fifths of Bihar’s population, larger than Germany’s, was below the poverty line. Its literacy rates and at 90:1 in primary schools, its student-teacher ratio were the worst in the country. The state had just over one in 10 children being fully immunized in 2000. Of the 69 most backward districts in India, 26 belonged to Bihar, more than two-thirds of the state. Only 13% of Bihar’s households had an electricity connection, the lowest in the country. The state needed help. Ironically, it also had the lowest utilization rate for centrally funded programmes, forfeiting a full 20% of central plan assistance during 1997-2000.

It was also outright dangerous to be in Bihar during that time. Kidnapping for ransom had become an industry. Women avoided venturing out after dark even in the capital, Patna. Politically protected gangs brazenly roamed streets in jeeps, with firearms in open view.

All that now seems like a past nightmare. Patna is more like a normal Indian city now, complete with its traffic snarls and crowds. The recently built Eco Park is thronged in late evenings by young couples as well as families. The price of land in the Patliputra Industrial Area has shot up from Rs6 lakh per acre to Rs2.5 crore.

What did Bihar do right? The nuts and bolts of change came from innovative solutions from within the bureaucracy and police. Take Bihar’s Achilles’ heel, law and order, for instance. Three major innovations—“speedy trials" together with a focus on the Arms Act, the contractual hiring of retired Armed Forces personnel to create the state auxiliary police (SAP) and the tireless and non-partisan prosecution of criminal-politicians (bahubalis)—marked the turnaround here.

The length of roads built in Bihar has increased almost 10-fold from 385km in 2004-05 to 3,474km in 2009-10. A few changes brought about by the state’s roads secretary R.K. Singh (currently the Union home secretary) made a big difference. Simplified contractor registration rules helped bring in new contractors to break the road contractor cartel that could hold the government to ransom. A revised bidding document created incentives for contractors to finish projects early and helped speed up project completion.

If roads were bad in Bihar in 2005, health services were virtually non-existent. Doctor absenteeism was rampant as was the widespread lack of faith in the medical system itself. Free medicine, cash incentives for institutional benefits and strict monitoring of doctor attendance with a call centre operated by a BPO company, all resulted in a rise in the average patient footfalls in Bihar’s healthcare facilities per month from below 50 to close to 5,200. Institutional deliveries increased from about 45,000 a year (of Bihar’s roughly 2.7 million births) to 1.25 million, and the immunization rate among children rose to 67%, better than the national average.

Similarly,the now-famous “bicycle for girl students" scheme—not the first in India but perhaps the most successful—and monitoring of school teacher attendance and hiring of temporary teachers helped. This led to a drop in the number of out-of-school children by 85%, the drop-out rate to one-sixth of what it was in 2005 and raised the teacher-student ratio by 40%.

For these unique problems, all of the above turned out to be appropriate solutions. Did Nitish Kumar have a key role in it? Does it even constitute a model for India as a whole, for other states to emulate?

The answer is an unhesitating yes. Kumar did not turn Bihar around with the drama of picking up a broom or a policeman’s baton before a barrage of cameras. What he did was to breathe life into the same old bureaucracy that had mutely witnessed Bihar’s gradual slipping into lawlessness for the previous decade and a half and got it to deliver.

He created an environment where officers felt secure, indeed under pressure, to innovate and find local solutions or adapt best practices elsewhere to respond to local challenges. The chief minister’s office that empowered senior civil servants, even earning the blame from some quarters for unleashing afsarshahi (officer reign), also monitored them ceaselessly through fortnightly detailed meetings. At the end of the day, each state will have its unique challenges and solutions, but the overall governance approach has to be the same to deliver results.

Nitish Kumar has transformed Bihar, achieving close to the highest growth rates in the nation and with unquestioned commitment to secularism. But can success at the state level—his or that of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi—guarantee replication at the national level? That issue requires a separate look.

Rajesh Chakrabarti is executive director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy at Indian School of Business’s Mohali campus.

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