Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Lalu Prasad may pose major challenge to Nitish Kumar’s development agenda

Experts say that for Nitish Kumar it would be important to carry out structural reforms to push his agenda and also to improve the use of central funds

Bihar’s Vikas Purush (development man) Nitish Kumar has had a healthy track record when it comes to development, but with the state still counted among the most backward regions on social sector indices such as literacy, the chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader has his task cut out.

However, experts said that Sunday’s impressive show by the Rashtriya Janata Dal, run by Kumar’s alliance partner Lalu Prasad, may end up posing a major challenge to the former in implementing his development agenda. Prasad is infamous for his so-called jungle raj rule in Bihar from 1990 to 1997.

In 2005, when Kumar was sworn in, Bihar’s state gross domestic product (GDP) as a percentage of GDP of all states and Union territories was a mere 2.5%. In the ensuing decade, this figure grew steadily to clock a healthier 3.1% in 2013-14. Other statistics, too, hold up well to scrutiny, be it per capita income as a percentage of the all-India per capita net national income (29.2% in 2005-06 and 38.9% in 2013-14) or the rate of poverty reduction.

Under one of Kumar’s more popular schemes, the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana, around four million bicycles were given to schoolgirls, a move credited with reducing the dropout rates of girl students drastically. The infant mortality rate has also come down during his 10-year rule.

In a previous article (mintne.ws/1I3Yhxf), Mint pointed out that much of Bihar’s high growth indices could be attributed to its low base. But now with voters placing their faith in Kumar again, albeit with Prasad, it is time for the development man of Bihar to take his agenda forward, but this time on the actual ground.

For instance, one of Kumar’s lasting legacies is the impressive highway system built in Bihar, but it has failed to fuel the local economy. So, in spite of all these strides, the real story in Bihar remains that of poverty.

The literacy rate for men and women remains a low 73.39% and 53.53%, respectively. And only 23.06% homes have a toilet, indicating widespread open-air defecation.

Thus experts say that for Kumar it would be important to carry out structural reforms to push his development agenda and also to improve the use of central funds.

“There has been a lot of improvement in Bihar under Nitish Kumar as compared to Bihar under Lalu Prasad. However, it is still far behind other states when it comes to important indicators like poverty, use of central funds, literacy, etc.," said N.C. Saxena, a former bureaucrat and member of the erstwhile National Advisory Council. “To carry out the developmental work, Kumar must bring structural changes. He will need to address the overall institutional problem and create facilities for fulfilling his development agenda."

Improved spending of funds, especially central funding, and filling positions like those of doctors, policemen and teachers are the key areas identified by Saxena.

“Bihar has not been able to spend central funds. For instance, there are around one crore poor households in Bihar, but the total spend on NREGA (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, given by the central government) is around 1,200 crore only, compared to 3,900 crore by Tamil Nadu for around 17 lakh poor," he said.

In his first post-victory conference on Sunday, Kumar affirmed that development, as defined by the common programme of the Grand Alliance, will remain his priority. This includes the promise of electricity, clean drinking water pipelines, sewage facilities and ridding the state of open defecation.

Law and order was one of the key issues highlighted during the election campaign. Modi in his campaign speeches repeatedly invoked the fear of lawlessness while seeking to appropriate the development plank for his party. He urged voters to choose between vikas raj and jungle raj referring to the lawlessness in the state when Prasad was in power.

“There is a strong worry as to how Kumar and Prasad work together, and what their working equation will be. I am not very sure that Prasad will leave Bihar and go to national politics, and that will be a one major challenge for Kumar to carry out the development agenda," said Amitabh Kundu, former dean (social sciences) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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