PATNA - Even a confirmed atheist will become a believer after travelling on the road from Bhittamore on the Nepal-India border to Patna. The road is so bad, drivers say that they simply cannot drive on it if they are sober. So they get drunk even before they get behind the steering wheel. That makes things even more difficult when the bus has to give way to huge trucks passing by at breakneck speed on a single-lane road where drivers have stopped avoiding pot-holes because there are just too many of them. That is why you see many rusty carcasses of buses and trucks that didn't make it. There is a curious term the Indian media uses to describe it: trucks there "meet with a mishap" and "turn turtle" while driving at "breakneck speed".
After such an adventurous journey through the badlands of northern Bihar, Patna is a bit of a disappointment. The city wears a hopeless, desolate look. Everybody has a sense of foreboding about the fate of the state after its mineral-rich southern half became a separate state on 1 January. The new state of Jharkhand takes away about three-fourth of the revenue of the parent state, and nearly all industrial units and most electricity generating plants of the erstwhile Bihar were in the south. Nepal borders this rump of Bihar, and there is an opportunity for Nepal to get a better deal for the surplus electricity we provide to India through the power exchange system. A delay in arriving at revised rates may prompt the power-hungry Bihar to go for more thermal power stations and pollute the whole region even further.
But wait a minute, does Bihar need any more power at the moment? Probably not. This, despite the fact that very little electricity is presently being generated by outdated thermal power plants that need not just overhaul, but total replacement. A Patna industrialist offers an interesting explanation for this: power outages are a sign of good times because they show that electricity use is on the increase as demand outstrips supply and shortages occur. This could, the reasoning goes, spur investment in electricity generation and distribution.
Contrast that with a situation where there is enough electricity and there is no use for it because industry is stagnant, and the purchasing power of the general public is too low to create further demand. After all, there is chronic shortage of power in India's "garland states" of Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat but relatively stable conditions in Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. Calcutta, once notorious for unscheduled power-cuts, has ample electricity simply because most industries have fled the state.
It is the same in Patna. When this place was doing a little better, power shortages were so acute that local entrepreneurs built kerosene-lanterns with an improvised top to accommodate a mosquito repellent tablet. These days, stand-by diesel generators are still there, but blackouts are less frequent. Perhaps prompted by this, a new battery-powered bicycle has entered the market, that can run 30 km on a single charge.
Maybe because Biharis often travel on roads like the one I travelled on, they have firm faith in the Supreme Being. This state, despite its poverty and squalour, has the lowest rate of suicide in India. According to Professor KK Verma of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, only those people are prompted to commit suicide who have high aspirations. Those who expect nothing are never disappointed, so they continue to thrive in any environment.
Professor Verma compared Biharis with cotton and sugarcane farmers in Andhra Pradesh who committed suicide by the hundreds when prices of their cash-crop crashed. They were afraid that they would not be able to repay their loans if the selling price didn't recoup even the cost of production. A similar situation didn't arise in Bihar because bank loans are considered income! Most Bihari farmers never take a loan with the intention of repaying it. If the bank comes calling, they simply close the traffic on the main highway and force political leaders to waive the loans. So maybe we should think twice about selling power to Bihar-they may never pay us back.
At the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Bihar Working Journalists' Association, both the "puppet" Chief Minister Rabri Devi and her husband and puppeteer Chief Minister Laloo Yadav graced the inauguration ceremony. Rabri inaugurated the meet and went away, but Laloo stayed throughout the session. It is clear who holds the real power over here-speakers spread fragrant grease on Laloo but didn't even have a passing reference for his wife the Chief Minister.
Another major worry in Patna today (and one that can have repercussions in Nepal) is that around five million Bihari labourers will be rendered jobless as soon as the Delhi government complies with court orders to shut polluting industries in the Indian capital. Prof Verma is as complacent as only a sociologist could be: "They all will go away to Bombay or Ahmedabad, you see. What will they do here?"
I asked Bihari journalists if there was a way out of the present morass for Bihar. Considering that pessimism is the hallmark of their profession, I was surprised to see that some of them were quite optimistic. They felt that if New Delhi supported Bihar in improving infrastructure and agriculture, there is no reason why it can't regain its past glory. When journalists of a state which seems to be in an even worse shape than us can be so full of hope, why should we in Nepal despair? Bihar is like the land in a popular marketing anecdote-for a determined salesman, nobody has shoes, whereas for the more complacent, nobody wears shoes. Talking of shoes, there is no reason why we should not be able to sell some to Bihar given the condition of the roads there.