Tuesday, September 25, 2012

India # 9: Patna, Bihar, Part One: A Road Jammy, Politics and a Life Change

Dear Blog Buddies, this is the first of three posts from a two day visit to Patna, Bihar.  It’s a bit long and political so if you’re short of time, feel free to skip. But you’ll meet some interesting people today.  Tomorrow’s post is one I hope to get right, since it was a memorable experience..      


Last Thursday I step off in plane in Patna in the state of Bihar, leaving behind modern India and setting foot in historic India.  The air is hot and heavy.  Far more bicycle rickshaws than scooter rickshaws ply the streets.   The Ganges is nearby, overflowing its banks in an ancient cycle of renewal.   

Before we get on the road, however, a few words about Bihar, the state which has a population of 83 million, almost entirely rural, for which Patna serves as capital.  It has been the most maligned of India’s 28 states, I’ve learned, its people accused of backwardness and evil ways and its economy near the bottom of all states for decades.  For example last week in Mumbai, Bal Thackery, the powerful leader of a right-wing Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian party called Shiv Sena, insisted that all Biharians be thrown out of Mumbai.    Thackery has stoked anti-Muslim passions for years, triggering numerous riots and deaths and is a dangerous man.  (A former chief minister of Bihar said Thackery should be the first to leave since his people came from Bihar long ago—apparently  true.)

One of the great modern writers about India is William Dalymple.  His 20 year old book, "The Age of Kali"--with "Kali" being a word for blackness--India is in bad shape and the heart of India's blackness is Bihar.  It has seen the advent of caste politics, with untouchables making noticeable gains in government jobs and legislative representation.  But Bihar has become ungovernable because it is literally and nakedly governed by criminals.

“The Bihar Miracle”

However Bihar has earned an opposite reputation since 2007 when Nitish Kumar took over the government.  A widower, he is said to work virtually non-stop following a religious practice.  Harvested food rots before getting to market all over India but particularly here, so rural road building has become a priority.  Education and the empowerment and literacy of women have shown strong gains. He may be best known for promising a bicycle to every girl who stays in school.  He has strengthened the tax code, the judiciary and Bihar has been declared “the least corrupt government in India.”

Bihar has grown at nearly 12 percent a year since Kumar took office.  Crime has been tamed.  Remarkably, he was the showcase partner cited by Greenpeace India when I visit its national office, which is in my Bangalore neighborhood.  Kumar has strongly supported the use of solar power for irrigation wells through Greenpeace.  Another Kumar partner is Husk Power, which creates village-level electricity using rice husks.  “For the first time in 50 years Kumar has brought real hope to Bihar,” writes Columbia University professor Arvind Panagarlya in the September 15 Times of India.

Bihar nonetheless remains one of the poorest places in India and on the earth.  This is why ACCION’s recent investment of $2.5 million in Seija, a young  micro-finance institution,  impresses me as consistent with its historic commitment to aiding  those “at the bottom of the pyramid.”  Coming here was important for me and I’m glad to have been invited.

Big Week in Politics

However after we land, my seeing Saija in the field must be put off for reasons that take us to the heart of Indian politics.  Last week Bangalore was caught in a “road jammy” because of a bus employees strike, making traffic even worse than usual.  This week there is a nationwide protest strike against reform policies announced by India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The architect of India’s remarkable progress since l991, Singh has been widely criticized at home and abroad recently, not only for corruption in his administration but for stranding the economy through inaction.  Last week he announced that a 51 percent foreign investment would be allowed in airlines, insurance and retail--the most controversial sector.   WalMart India does not sit well with a nation of shopkeepers. 

To partially offset a mounting deficit from subsidizing  energy, he also raised the price of diesel fuel by five rupees and limited subsidies on compressed gas for cooking food. 

So our party will spend an indefinite time in the airport restaurant until protesting strikers permit traffic to move.  Included are Siddhartha Chowdri, who launched ACCION-India seven years ago and pushed for the Saija investment.  He’s responsible for my being in India and thus a great guy. Then there is Hannes Manndorf from Berlin who head’s ACCION’s global business development and the Saija leaders, all here for a board meeting.

Everyone takes being stranded in stride and for me it’s fortuitous because I get to hear how Mr. Shasti Ranjan Sinha and Ms. Rashmi Sinha came to found Saija and partnered with ACCION.

Shasti was raised in privilege, on a large farm and in the only house for miles not made of mud.  “We thought the lower castes were meant to live as they did, that mosquitos didn’t infect them or pain hit them as it might us--they were that different. For example, when six of our family went to the railroad station ten kilometers away, 100 men took turns carrying us in chairs slung between their shoulders.  As reward they were given a single glass of tea.”  He is 58 so this was not that long ago.

He lived in this bubble through 25 successful years in the real estate and insurance business in Delhi.  Then, while visiting the shrine of Sai Baba, a Hindu saint to whom he and Rashmi are devoted, he suddenly knew he should be doing something else with his life.  It took time and addressing objections from his family more time but his direction became clear:  he and Rashmi would return to Bihar, which he hadn’t visited in decades, and work for the least fortunate.  That brought him to microfinance and an eventual alliance with ACCION.   “When I learned they’d been in business for 50 years, I knew ACCION was right  for Bihar and us,” he says.

The name “Saija” combines two phrases, one from Sai Baba and the other from the founder of Sufiism, the mystical branch of Islam.   A name like that is apt in Bihar which has one of India’s richest spiritual histories.  Buddha found enlightenment here, Jainism was born here and the world’s oldest university, Nolanda, flourished for 600 years, spreading Buddhist scholarship until extinguished by a Mughal invasion in the 14th century.

Finally, at four o’clock, the roads clear and our purpose in Patna can finally get under sail.   





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