The coronavirus pandemic, ravaging the world today, started as a health crisis. But in India, it has transformed itself into something much worse – a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The situation is especially worse in the state of Bihar. Its low levels of employment, lack of basic infrastructure and unusually high migration rate exemplify this crisis that has gone beyond being just a public health disaster. This pandemic has brought to the fore the complete apathy of Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar in addressing the humanitarian crisis borne out of the panic caused by the coronavirus and the extended lockdown.
With over 33% of the state’s population living below the poverty line, Bihar is one of the poorest states in India. The lack of job opportunities in Bihar has also forced out a large part of the state’s young population, giving the state the distinction of having the second-highest number of migrants’ who have been forced to move to other states in search of livelihood. It is this poor and vulnerable population that chief minister Nitish Kumar has chosen to ignore by consistently overlooking their grim plight. Yet, he continues to masquerade as a good administrator or ‘Sushasan Babu’.
When the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh sent busses to ferry back the state’s migrants stuck on the Delhi-UP border, or brought back stranded students from Kota, all Nitish Kumar could do was criticise these actions. He has categorically rejected suggestions for helping migrants as well as students from Bihar who are stuck in other states; yet his government did not hesitate while giving permission to a BJP MLA from the state to bring back his son from Kota.
Such discrimination against the poor and vulnerable, while extending support to the privileged has been the hallmark of Bihar’s governance model under Nitish Kumar. Shocking images of poor migrants’ being held like prisoners in detention centres across India and reports of their starvation are rampant on social media. Despite this, the state government has refused to acknowledge the tragedy and continues to claim that it is handling the crisis well. Even if the government of India failed to anticipate this crisis, surely the government of Bihar, aware of all the facts, should have been more pro-active in tackling the impending crisis.
Before the coronavirus started to take its toll on employment across the country, over 40% of Bihar’s youth was unemployed as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS). Many of these youths are the ones who are now stuck in cities across the country, with little help or even empathy from the Bihar government. Those within Bihar fare no better, with the state recording some of the highest poverty rates as per the multidimensional poverty index. Even though the government in Bihar has propagated the story of good governance to win elections, it is difficult to believe claims of ‘Sushasan’ while looking at the poverty and unemployment numbers in the state. Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, unemployment rates in Bihar almost trebled, from 2.5% to 7.2%.
In a bigger indictment of Bihar’s ruling dispensation, an analysis by IndiaSpend showed that the more educated you are in Bihar, the greater the chances that you will be unemployed. Close to half of Bihar’s young population is forced to depend on agriculture for a living owing to the lack of industries and formal employment opportunities.
This has made Bihar the poorest state in India with a per capita GDP three times lower than the national average, standing at Rs 47,541 against the all India average of Rs 1,42,719. The second poorest state by per capita GDP, Uttar Pradesh, stood at Rs 68,792 demonstrating just how far behind Bihar is, economically. A much more worrisome aspect of governance in Bihar emerges when we look at the poverty scorecard in the NITI Aayog’s SDG Index 2019-20. The index scores for Bihar show that not only is the state extremely poor already, but it is also, in fact, getting poorer every year. Bihar’s score declined from 45 in 2018 to 33 in 2019, making it the state with the second-highest decline on the index.
The fact that the government of Bihar has made no real progress on transforming Bihar into a more prosperous state is demonstrated by the near collapse of educational infrastructure in the state. After 15 years of purported good governance under Nitish Kumar, Bihar has only seven colleges per lakh of population against the national average of 28.
The state has failed to address the issue of the quality of education – it has the worst teacher-student ratio in the country. Even that doesn’t capture the true failures of the government on the human development fronts in state. With political considerations, the chief minister has been filling vacancies of teachers’ with unqualified candidates and only 55% of teachers at the secondary level and 40% at the higher secondary level are professionally qualified today. No wonder, students with any enterprise and resources migrate outside to seek their future.
As per the Economic Survey of 2017, between 50 lakh and 90 lakh annually, people migrate within India. More than half of these migrants, the survey states, belong to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There is no official data on the exact number of migrants’ in India, but if to bring in consideration the estimate made with the help of the Census (2011), NSSO surveys and the economic survey, the total number of interstate migrants in India at 6.5 crore, of which 33% are workers.
Bihar alone accounts for 14%. The present round of crisis for Biharis is all about the human crisis brought about due to years of neglect by the state government in building social and industrial infrastructure, ensuring livelihood opportunities and providing prospects to stay locally for the citizens. Like a whirlwind, the outbound migration has had changed the original characters of Bihar’s villages and urban spaces. Notwithstanding the state’s high stake in top-end jobs, a large section from the state is forced to migrate for mere survival. These migrants’ bear the brunt of the suffering with the strategically-weak lockdown.
The state government, therefore, must, on the one hand, take immediate steps to safely bring back the migrants’ from wherever they are stuck or take care of them wherever they are. The chief minister cannot shirk his responsibility in the matter. If other states can do it, surely Bihar also can if it has the will. Resources should not be an issue now that the RBI has allowed a bigger headroom as ways and means for the states. But the matter does not end here. The state government should look beyond just the current crisis, realise its failure in providing livelihood and education to the people of Bihar and start taking the corrective steps for finding long-term solutions.
Yashwant Sinha is India’s former Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004). Atul K. Thakur is a Delhi-based policy professional and columnist.