SUSHIL KUMAR MODI: A new beginning
Restoring people’s faith in government is key to rescuing a failed state
For a very long time, development was all about pumping in resources into developing countries in the hope that it would raise their living standards. However, that model failed miserably. Now the focus has shifted from merely meeting the resource deficit to building institutions that can deliver development. Fixing institutions that have not functioned for decades and where development stakeholders have internalized corruption as a norm is not an easy task.
Until very recently Bihar, one of the poorest states of India, possessed most of the key characteristics of a failed state: the law and order situation was abysmal; different caste groups possessed private armies that would often kill innocent people; public infrastructure was in a poor condition; and benefits of welfare schemes for the poor rarely reached them. The state was trapped in a situation where corruption was not only tolerated but sometimes even celebrated.
Despite such a corrupt bureaucratic system and citizens who had lost hope in the states ability to deliver basic public goods and services, the present government that assumed power in 2005 has done remarkably well in overcoming these institutional barriers to undertake minimal functions of a state.
Within a relatively short span of five to six years, the state machinery has been revitalized, rule of law has been established, schools and hospitals are delivering better services, and there has been substantial improvement in physical infrastructure. The strengthening of the state has also catapulted the economy into a high growth path. It has been growing at a spectacular rate of 11% for the last six years.
So how has Bihar managed to put the state and economy back on track and what can other societies that have been struggling to build an effective state learn from Bihar? There is a large number of initiatives that have been behind Bihars turnaround, but two important steps in the state building process can be noted.
The first step in rebuilding institutions is to dispel the atmosphere of hopelessness. The present government under the astute leadership of the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, has built a team of ministers and bureaucrats that strongly believe in change. Most importantly, we have taken several initiatives to restore peoples faith in the government which is critical for the functioning of any institution. It is the people who deal with these institutions every day and if they have no sense of ownership in the system or faith that they can work, it would be extremely difficult to improve the effectiveness of public institutions. To this end, two initiatives have been instrumental in making people closer to the government.
First, the Chief Minister in Peoples Court, a programme under which the chief minister, cabinet ministers and the government officials at block, sub-division, district and secretariat level devote one day in a week to meet people and address their grievances. This programme curtails the growing disconnect between governing elite and the governed and ensures that key decision makers are aware of the kind of problems ordinary people face.
Another such initiative is the programme of Sewa Yatra that entails the chief minister spending two to three days in each district of Bihar along with selected ministers and department officials. They conduct surprise visits to different government offices and villages to gauge the functioning of the state machinery. This makes the government officials directly accessible to the people. It is not the people who have to run after the government but the government reaches out to people to listen to their problems. These visits also provide important inputs in the policy making as the key decision makers of the state develop greater awareness of the ground realities.
The second noteworthy innovation in institution building is the way Bihar has done away with the dichotomy between top-down and bottom-up approaches and focused more on the complementarity between the two. In the short run, the top-down interventions can be extremely useful in triggering a process of change that can be further accelerated and sustained if followed up with bottom-up initiatives.
While the current development discourse has seen a general shift towards decentralization and participatory development, this may be a little premature for states or countries emerging from a failed state status. This is primarily because communities tend to have very little faith in government in the beginning and are reluctant to participate in the decision making process.
The policies adopted by Bihar may not be directly applicable to other countries in their quest to build effective states, but Bihars turnaround story shows that through a series of complementary interventions under a visionary leadership, it is possible to resurrect a state within a relatively short period of time even after decades of institutional erosion. This resurrection has led to collaboration with organisations like ADB, World Bank and DFID. This has also generated interest among the international academic fraternity leading to setting up of an office of the International Growth Centre in Bihar. The state that epitomized hopelessness has now emerged as a symbol of hope.
Sushil Kumar Modi is Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister of Bihar.