Nitish Kumar is back in saddle. As he returns to Bihar, after generating a hope for the better for the average man on the street, I am reminded of what a former Finance Minister of Pakistan and a distinguished economist the late Mehbub-ul-Haq had once told me. As Pakistan’s Finance Minister in the 1960s he was able to generate a growth rate of seven per cent. “And still people voted us out,” he acknowledged.
“It was a rude awakening for me. I then realised that a high economic rate of growth is no indicator of human development." Mehbub-ul-Haq then gave me the memorable gem: “We were wrongly advised that we should take care of GDP and it will automatically take care of poverty. This is not correct. We need to take care of poverty and it will automatically take care of economic growth". This is exactly what Nitish Kumar did. And true to what Mehbub-ul-Haq had predicted, people of Bihar have voted him back to power. He invested in the people, and the people paid back.
A high growth rate of 11.5 per cent between 2004 and 2009 is not the reason why Nitish Kumar has been voted back. Restoring the right to freedom by demolishing the extortion industry was certainly the first step. Simultaneously he followed it up with various development initiatives, which mainline economists would wrongly classify as populist measures. Providing bicycles to school-going girls, and reserving 50 per cent seats for women in panchayats and local bodies was part of the social engineering that he undertook. With the foundations now well laid out, the challenge Nitish Kumar faces in his second term are not only formidable but if attempted in a more realistic and holistic manner can even chart out a new future for the country.
Unlike most other political leaders, I found Nitish Kumar to be more receptive and sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalised. While the Bihar verdict amply demonstrates his willingness to improve the lot of the masses, I still recall the brief meeting when he asked me several years back as to what I thought was the major reason behind farmer suicides. I am talking of the year 2000-01 when he was for a short period the Union Agriculture Minister.
This was the time when farmers defaulting the banks and private moneylenders (with petty outstanding dues) were hauled up and put behind the bars. Thousands of farmers in distress preferred to commit suicide rather than to face the humiliation that comes along with indebtedness. When recovery agents come and confiscate the land or take away the tractor of a defaulting farmer, for instance, he feels let down in the eyes of the fellow villagers. Farmer’s pride goes for a toss, and he prefers to die.
When I explained that defaulting farmers are put behind bars is because we follow a draconian law that continues from the days of the British Raj, Nitish Kumar was taken by surprise. I told him that between 1904 and 1912 the British had framed a Public Demand Recovery Act, under which farmers could be jailed for defaulting the State for a paltry sum. So much so that even the jail expenses were to be borne by the farmers. The next morning, he shot a letter to the chief ministers (since agriculture is a State subject) to repeal the obsolete law. But such was the callous apathy that none of the State governments even cared to respond to the letter.
With 81 per cent of the population involved in farming, Bihar’s future revolves around agriculture. While Bihar has attained self-sufficiency in food production and produces surplus of milk, the fact remains that the BIMRU State has a large proportion of population living in hunger and faced with abject poverty and malnutrition. The challenge therefore is on how to bring a synergy between agriculture and food security; on how to turn agriculture economically and ecologically sustainable in a manner that it does not lead to farmers committing suicide and at the same time provide food and nutrition for the masses. A healthy agriculture is also the first line of defence against naxalism.
Bihar therefore needs to discard the Green Revolution approach. It has to stop poisoning its soils, contaminating the water bodies and the environment and pushing more and more farmers out of agriculture. Bihar needs to shun the industrial model of farm growth, and build an ecologically sustainable farming model driven by a futuristic vision. Agriculture has to be re-designed and linked with its own traditional time-tested public distribution system – better known as gola – where the communities have been in control and have managed the food needs in a village. Moreover, instead of providing its surplus milk to Assam grid, Bihar should encourage milk intake by integrating animal husbandry with farming. Improving the local cattle breeds by cross-breeding those with some of the best domestic milch breeds like Gir and Kankrej, and providing an assured income to dairy farmers is a sure way to pull farmers out of agrarian distress.
Instead of chemical fertilisers, vermi-composting as a cottage industry has to be encouraged on a massive scale. This will restore soil health, increase crop productivity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also generate more rural employment. Chemically pesticides need to be eliminated. Bihar can learn from the ‘Non-Pesticides Management’ system of agriculture from Andhra Pradesh. No chemical pesticides are applied in over 20 lakh hectares in Andhra Pradesh, and yet the crop yields are very high. Driven by its increasingly successful adoption by farmers, Andhra Pradesh plans to raise the area under no-pesticides agriculture to one-crore acres by the year 2014. If this can happen in Andhra Pradesh, there is no reason why Bihar cannot learn from its success.
Bihar cannot repeat the mistakes that relatively developed States like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu had committed. Once the role model for the country, these States are now faced with sickness and may soon slip to the BIMARU status. Bihar can create history by showing a development path that is not only sustainable in the long-run but also brings prosperity and happiness to the masses. Nitish Kumar can surely create history by showing the world what true development means. And his time begins now.