On March 2000, Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister of Bihar for seven days and had to resign after failing to prove majority in the State assembly. In 2005 when he became Chief Minister again, many saw it as a defeat of Lalu Yadav and not as his victory. In the next five years, Nitish government transformed Bihar from one of the most criminalised, corrupt and impoverished state to the second fastest growing state in India and won virtually unopposed in state elections of 2010. In this exclusive interview, Nitish Kumar talks to Anurag Acharya and Navin Jha about the success and challenges of his government as well as Bihar's unique relationship with Nepal.
Nepali Times: Bihar has undergone tremendous change since your government came to office. What were the key interventions your government made to bring about this transformation?
Nitish Kumar: Having lived and seen what Bihar has gone through, it is not difficult for me to understand the problems here. When I assumed office in 2005, I was concerned about poverty, growing inequality and crime in Bihar. The task was tedious, but one has to start somewhere, and I stuck to the basics and looked to address fundamental problems and knew that if I can address them then most of the secondary problems would be taken care of.
Let me give an example. Poverty in Bihar has its roots in lack of access to state distribution of basic services like education and health. I wanted to make sure that every child in Bihar goes to school. We realised that large number of children, especially the girls stopped going to school after class four or nine. There was a reason for this. Either, there was no secondary education facility and they could not travel, or the parents married off their daughters early. So we took immediate steps to address this, 14,675 primary schools were upgraded. Students from class three onwards are provided with cash every year for school uniforms. The class nine students are given bicycles as an incentive to continue their education. But the biggest decision we took was to open a fixed deposit of Rs 2000 in the name of a girl child belonging to BPL (Below Poverty Line) family which is paid to the child when she turns 18. This provides an incentive to the parents to educate their daughter and not worry about their marriage.
In the health sector, we launched the New Generation Health Guarantee Program under which children up to 14 years and adolescent girls are provided a health card for medical check-ups and treatment free of cost at government hospitals. This mega health scheme checks malnutrition, anaemia and childhood reproductive problems. Our aim in future is to provide health insurance to every citizen for which we are studying various health insurance models adopted by other nations.
You have announced that Bihar will lead India into the second Green Revolution which will be different from the first one. How will Bihar accomplish this and in what way will it be different?
Yes, we want to lead India into a second green revolution. Bihar is blessed with fertile land and climate here favours cultivation throughout the year. We have a healthy agriculture sector. So all we need is investment and good technology to kick-start this revolution.
When the first green revolution happened in the 1960's, it was fuelled by use of chemical fertilisers and Genetically Modified Seeds. Initially it led to increase in the production. But in the long-run, the soil productivity deteriorated due to excessive use of chemicals. The seed market monopolised by the multinational seed industries increased farmer's input cost as the seeds required more water and chemicals. Besides, the first Green Revolution was limited to grains like rice and wheat. But the Rainbow Revolution will be different. It will be based on the organic technology of farming and integrated development of agriculture sector to include cultivation of grains, vegetables, fruits, animal husbandry, fisheries and agro-based industries. I want to set a trend and prove that organic farming is cheaper and more profitable in the long run because it enhances productivity, protects the soil health and is environmentally sustainable. Too much use of chemicals has led to severe health hazards among humans and the animals. Organic farming will not only protect our health but also preserve biodiversity. So we are making huge investments and focusing on developing better technology to enhance organic farming.
In the last five years, Bihar's GDP has grown at an amazing rate of 11.3 percent. From the least developed state in India, Bihar now ranks among fastest growing states in India, second only to Gujarat. But your critics say it is a lop-sided growth fuelled by massive central government spending, and call it a government of "denting and painting". How do you respond to that?
Firstly, I disagree with us being compared to Gujarat. Our experience is completely different from that of Gujarat. They already have a healthy infrastructure in place and their growth is mostly fuelled by multinational investments especially in the industrial manufacturing sector. We started from the scratch. The entire state was in ruins when I took over and the economy had slumped to negative growth in 2003-2004
The growth in Bihar today is the result of massive state expenditure. I agree that Central government's budgetary allocation has been crucial to us, but it is also a fact that this huge investment has led to creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The planned expenditure of Bihar which was Rs. 3,196 crore in 2004-05 increased to 14,179 in 2009-2010. Today most of the remote areas of the state are connected to Patna by roads and railways. The schools have started to function and public health posts are providing services. The revolution in transport system in Bihar has had a huge impact on agriculture as farmers from remote areas can now easily transport their produce to the nearest market. Last year alone, we constructed 312 bridges connecting most inaccessible areas to the district headquarters. So yes, we are actually "painting" a picture of Bihar as the opposition calls it, but certainly a better one than what they managed after 15 years in office.
You recent visit to China comes at a time when India has been expressing concerns over "growing Chinese presence" in the Himalayan region. Interestingly while you were holding talks with the Chinese in Beijing, your deputy was talking to the US envoy in Patna regarding American investments in Bihar. Is this a shift in Indian diplomacy, where economy seems to have outweighed traditional geo-politics?
I went to China on a goodwill visit. The central government had been asking me to lead a delegation to China for sometime now because this year India and China have jointly declared as an "year of exchange". Personally, I was curious as to how a big and populous nation like China could consistently achieve high growth rate over the last decade and I must confess I was thoroughly impressed with their zeal and love for work. They respect labour and are sincere about what they do. It is their commitment to execute what they set out to do, that has made China what it is today. We have lot to learn from the Chinese and you (Nepal) must learn too. However, the Chinese experience cannot entirely be replicated in India. We are different nations with different governance systems. India has paved its own path to development but we can certainly learn from their technological advancement, culture of hard-work and sincerity.
As far as foreign investment is concerned, Chinese or the American, it has to be seen as an investment in India and not merely in Bihar. The Chinese have expressed their interest in investing in hydroelectricity in our state but it is ultimately for the Government of India to decide.
Every year, with the onset of the monsoon there is danger of flooding in Bihar from rivers like the Kosi and Gandaki in Nepal. Is there a durable solution to this problem?
Yes, we are better prepared this year with 57 relief centers in districts that are vulnerable to floods. But the way the Kosi has changed its course in the past, there is still lurking danger. Honestly, the problem in finding a durable solution to flooding problem is neither lack of solution, nor the absence of mechanism. It is the trust deficit. There is a serious misgiving, especially in the Nepali media regarding India's intention. For some reason, they feel that India wants to protect its areas from floods at the cost of submerging Nepali villages. But this is not true. Nepal is our neighbour and we would never want our neighbors to suffer, not because of us. We want to see Nepal develop. I can say for certain that if Nepal harnesses its hydropower potentials, it can become one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Forget about the dams, invest in run-of-the-river projects. You have a guaranteed buyer next-door.
The other day I was reading a report on Kosi embankment in one of Nepal's newspapers. I was shocked that the report made imaginary conclusions and baseless remarks. People should visit the area first, and see for themselves that the embankment is well inside our own territory and poses no threat to Nepali villages. But the fact is, although Bihar is most affected by the flooding, it cannot directly be involved in finding a solution. It is a bilateral issue between India and Nepal which needs comprehensive negotiations and strong political will to implement whatever is mutually agreed upon. The last time both sides sat for talks, Nepal had agreed to 1.4 km pilot channel to be built in Nepali territory although India had proposed 14.3 km. The purpose of the pilot channel is not to divert the Kosi water but to protect the embankment. But even that is being delayed as the Nepal government has not directed the local authorities about its decision.
India has often complained about the fake Indian currency being smuggled into its territory through Nepal. Then there are concerns about growing "terrorists" infiltration from Nepal. But India has never bothered to address Nepal's repeated requests to check the growing activities of armed groups freely operating from Bihar that are involved in abduction, extortion and assassination of local businessmen and politicians. As a Chief Minister of Bihar are you aware of these concerns, if you are, what steps have you taken to prevent use of your turf by these groups?
I have not been formally informed by the central government regarding Nepal's concerns. The border security is the central government's jurisdiction, so I cannot comment on it. As far as my government is concerned, we do not shelter any anti-Nepal groups here. The open border certainly poses a challenge for both sides and it has to be addressed at bilateral level.
There have been reports in the Indian media that you have been prevented by the central government from visiting Nepal. Is it true?
Yes, I have wanted to visit Nepal for sometime now. Once I wanted to go there to encourage and see what our engineers are doing to control Kosi floods. On other occasion I expressed my desire to visit Nepal to pay my last respects to the late GP Koirala. I am a socialist and have been very close to socialist leader like BP Koirala when he along with his brother GP Koirala lived in exile in India. GP Koirala even participated in India's independence movement. So that is a kind of intimacy and it was quite natural for me to want to go to Nepal to pay my respects to the great leader. Unfortunately, the central government did not approve of it.
Going the Bihar way, EDITORIAL
Glimpses of Bihar, ANURAG ACHARYA
When there is so much to do to catch up, progress can be slow
Winds of change, ANURAG ACHARYA and NAVIN JHA in BIHAR
Bihar is on the right track, but it still has a long way to go
What they don't tell you, PRAFFUL KUMAR SINGH
The Nitish Kumar government has indeed transformed Bihar in the last five years. But we have to de-construct this success story.