January 20, 2020
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A Dark Lining To The Shine

Bihar should avoid the folly of just looking and sounding good

A Dark Lining To The Shine
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
A Dark Lining To The Shine

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar recently alleged that Monsanto, the Union environment ministry’s genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had colluded to start trials of genetically modified maize in Bihar before clearance from the environment ministry and the state government. The charge is significant: Nitish says ICAR’s experimental farms in Bihar did not maintain the stipulated “isolation distance” from normal farmland, meant to prevent unapproved crop varieties from getting a toehold in the ecosystem. It’s a pointer to how sections of the establishment, in connivance with corporates, bypass procedural safeguards to stealthily push in what could be hazardous, even, in the process, violating the norms of scientific trial. Stealth keeps these trials below the radar of rational sceptics. The question I want to ask, however, is different: does Nitish realise that the connivance he alleges may have been encouraged by his own rhetoric of a second Green Revolution, better than the first, spearheaded by Bihar and based on biotechnology?

And I’d like to address in this column the wisdom of big-ticket policy announcements, made in a self-congratulatory tone and offered as panacea, without taking into account the experience of other countries where these methods may have been tried out—with ambivalent results. I will confine myself to examples from Bihar. But extrapolations can be drawn from them on how policy announcements by the State can be blind to practical considerations. Also, as in the Monsanto affair, how such announcements set into motion forces that tend to throw caution to the wind, especially when they are driven by the profit motive.

In the glow of the 2010 assembly election victory, Nitish has been making policy pronouncements as if they are great innovations. Many of these schemes have behind them national and international debate and experience to learn from. We are not sure if the pros and cons have been thought through before implementation in Bihar.

Take the Bihar government’s preference for direct cash transfers for social welfare and poverty reduction over public delivery of services and subsidiaries. Some policy pundits are full of praise for direct cash transfers. Offered as proof is Bihar’s direct transfer of cash to schoolgirls for buying bicycles, and the political dividends it has brought the ruling coalition. But, as Jayati Ghosh of JNU has observed in an article tracing the international history of the idea and its implementation, cash transfers prove effective in the long run only if they do not replace the public provision of goods and services and instead supplement it.

Brazil’s ‘Bolsa Familia’, a grant provided to families with less than a threshold monthly income on condition of attendance at government clinics and 85 per cent school attendance, succeeds in delivering healthcare and schooling only because there is a functioning public health and school system around. In Bihar’s case, this would mean that the newly bought bicycles would only bolster female education if the government provides quality schools and teachers within cycling distance. We know the ground realities in the state in this regard are still far from satisfactory.

A similar development is the signing of an MoU with the UID Authority of India for implementing the project in Bihar. The preamble says, the document has been signed because “the state government would like to enhance efficiency in the delivery of government benefits and services through accurate identification of beneficiaries”. It says the government wants “uniform standards and processes for verification and identification of beneficiaries”. As many economists and activists have pointed out, UID would identify beneficiaries only after they have been selected, but corruption corrodes the selection process, leading to grave errors of exclusion of the deserving and inclusion of the undeserving. UID itself won’t make poverty alleviation more successful. More importantly, the debate about UID’s implications for the privacy and civil liberties of citizens has not yet been settled as Bihar hastens to sign up.

The Right to Service Bill mooted by the Bihar government, fixing the responsibility of government functionaries for delivery of specific services and setting deadlines, has been welcomed by many. But most of the services stipulated, like delivery of electricity bills, providing various licences and such, largely benefit the middle class. They do not address the entitlements of the poor and the delivery of essential goods, public services and civic amenities for them. It’s time for the state to move on from the idea of ‘Bihar Shining’, which appeals largely to the middle class, to a more hard-headed battle against backwardness.

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