Kanwar jheel is a freshwater lake spread over 6,311 hectares in Bihar’s Begusarai district. Till the 1970s, the lake used to attract as many as 100,000 freshwater birds each year. But, in recent decades, it has been under attack. Landowners from the Bhumihar caste have been draining Kanwar jheel to farm on its lakebed. This has resulted in protests from local fishermen, belonging to an extremely backward caste called the Sahnis.

What is telling, said Arvind Mishra, an environmentalist who lives in Begusarai, is the government’s reaction. Despite an order by the Patna High Court and appeals from the Sahnis and environmentalists, it has not intervened.

The fallout: Sahnis, who are seeing their fish catch fall, are hunting birds instead. Between that and the habitat loss, the number of birds coming to Kanwar jheel has fallen to 4,500-5,000 each year, he said.

What explains the lack of government response?

A state of paralysis

Since 1990, Bihar has been exclusively or partly ruled by parties supported by the poorer sections of society.

The social justice plank, comprising Dalits, Muslims and other backward castes, put Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav in power between 1990 and 2005. He was followed by Nitish Kumar who led the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition supported by, respectively, extremely backward castes and upper castes. Since 2015, the state has been ruled by a coalition of extremely backward castes and backward castes led by Kumar and Yadav. And yet the state’s performance on issues important for these voters is very weak, as previous stories in this series have illustrated.

The case of Kanwar jheel further shows a curious paralysis of governance.

The reasons for this underperformance go beyond the usual explanations of inadequate financial resources or improvements needing time to show up. More structural forces are at work.

The nature of the state economy

At Independence, Bihar, given its fertile Gangetic plains and the mineral riches of what is now Jharkhand, had the potential of becoming a mixed economy like Punjab or Tamil Nadu. But this did not happen. The policy of freight rationalisation – to ensure industrialisation across the country by subsidising the cost of mineral transport – hurt Bihar’s capacity to attract engineering units despite its proximity to mines.

Nonetheless, like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar could still have created its own industrial sector by ploughing farm surpluses into industry. Instead, wealthy people in Bihar invested outside the state or used farm surpluses to buy more land.

In states like Punjab, agricultural modernisation created its own industrial boom. Small engineering units came up to meet farmers’ demand for modern farm equipment. Bihar did not see much of this either. With land concentrated in the hands of a few zamindar families that gave out their land to sharecroppers, its agriculture stayed pre-modern.

Over time, due to factors like weakening rule of law and inadequate power supply, the state saw an exodus even among the industrial units that had come up.

There was a flurry of interest in Bihar after Nitish Kumar came to power in 2005 but, as NK Singh, who headed the state’s planning board during the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance, said, most of those units struggled to find land for their projects. The state has large landholdings but most of it is held as benami or proxy ownership.

The agriculture sector, despite abundant water and cheap labour, is beset by problems of dipping soil quality, increasingly unpredictable rainfall and poor farm-produce marketing. The stranglehold of sharecropping has kept farm yields and incomes low.

The only economic boom in Bihar is in services. This is partly local consumption (hotels, restaurants, shops, communications and the like) and partly spaces where the government is weak (education and healthcare). Two trends are particularly notable here. First, a mushrooming of tiny businesses in the service sector. Second, a rising number of the larger businesses – schools, colleges, hospitals and malls – are owned by politicians.

This model of low economic activity has affected government functioning in a very profound way.

Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav at the swearing-in ceremony of the new JD(U)-RJD-Congress coalition government in Patna, on Nov 20, 2015. Photo Credit: IANS

Sources of political funding

As in the rest of India, politicians in Bihar need increasingly deep pockets.

To become a member of the legislative assembly, candidates have to spend as much as Rs 3 crore-Rs 4 crore, sometimes Rs 10 crore, said Devendra Nath Ray, who heads the Dainik Bhaskar bureau in Muzaffarpur.

Around India, political parties and candidates raise cash in a number of ways. In Tamil Nadu, they operate mafias to control natural resources like sand and liquor. In Punjab, they extort money from industrial units.

But Bihar neither has many large companies nor industrial clusters. Over the last two decades, the state has seen the withering of old cash cows. The famed kidnapping mafias lost ground because the law and order improved. The creation of Jharkhand in 2000 took away the coal mafias. More recently, after prohibition, cash-flows from liquor vends have dried up as well.

So where does the money for politics come from?

One source is politicians’ own businesses. Unlike states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, where businessmen enter politics and become MPs and MLAs to further their economic interests, things work differently in Bihar. Politicians invest money in businesses, said Shaibal Gupta, the founder of Patna’s Asian Development Research Institute, to make profits that can be pumped back into politics. “The primary objective for these investments is always politics,” he said.

Agreed Sanjay Paswan, a senior leader of the BJP in the state: “People look for power. And power, in Bihar, comes from politics. Not business. That is possibly due to the feudal nature of the state.”

That said, the government appears to be one of the largest – if not the largest – source of political rent. The mechanics are familiar – leaders at the panchayat level get development and welfare works allotted to their supporters, said Mukund Babu, who served as a senior bureaucrat during the Yadav years. Politicians at higher levels make money off postings and appointments, government programmes and construction.

This explains some of the suboptimality that grips government functioning in the state. Panchayat-level corruption makes it hard for people to access welfare and wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Corruption in postings results in the selection of less-than-adequate candidates. The legal challenges that often follow lead to hiring freezes that result in understaffing.

During the Yadav years, said a political observer in the state who did not want to be identified, the contractors of large projects would take public funds but not build anything. Under Kumar, he said, “some work gets done and some money gets siphoned off”.

Administrative capacity

In sharp contrast with Yadav who gave precedence to the political empowerment of the backward caste communities, Kumar believes in state-driven development. After coming to power, he has tried to run the government through a “core team” of senior Indian Administrative Service officials. But his government has struggled to make the administrative machinery work.

One reason is low administrative capacity. “Delivery is very hard in Bihar,” said an IAS official. “It is a broken state. All professions have been decimated. Whether you take engineering or education or health services, they are all broken.”

A schoolgirl in a government school in Brahimpur village in Chapra district. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

After returning to power in 2015, Nitish Kumar started something called Bihar Vikas Mission. This is a system of monitoring all departments on their progress in implementing tasks set by the chief minister’s office, said Shashi Kumar Thakur, a former officer on special duty to Yadav. The idea has gone nowhere. In large part because, as he said, “How does it help to monitor key metrics when the delivery mechanism itself has collapsed?”

Fundamental constraints, like understaffing or interference in bureaucratic functioning have not been addressed. Said an IAS official in the state: “If you want to reform something involving land, you will run into opposition from the Yadavs. If you try to fix education, the upper caste teachers will block you. We cannot move left or right. It used to make me so envious of my colleagues in other states.”

Centralisation, in the absence of defined administrative systems, is not useful. The political observer said that instead of focusing on a few key areas, Kumar has spread himself thin. “Given that he runs a centralised empire and is invested in too many agendas, it is easy to sabotage his agendas,” he said.

The role of caste

Caste continues to cripple governance in Bihar – but its contours are changing.

Sanjay Paswan, a senior BJP leader in Bihar, said people’s relationship with their caste has evolved. “In the feudal system, it was a marker [of identity]. When vanchit [deprived] classes began asserting themselves, it became an armoury [to fight back].” Now, he said, caste has become an instrument. “It is being used in service of an aspiration.”

This shows in the rising fluidity of caste alliances, he said. Before the 1990s, the political contest was between various upper castes (also called forward castes) – for instance, Brahmins versus Bhumihars. Between 1990-2005, it turned into a tussle between backward castes and forward castes. Then, in the decade starting 2005, the extremely backward castes allied with the forward castes to oppose the dominant backward caste groups like the Yadavs. But in the 2015 election, the extremely backward castes join hands with Yadavs against the forward castes again.

This trend of increasingly unpredictable caste alliances has far-reaching implications for development in Bihar.

For one, it seems to be making the state government increasingly fearful of alienating anyone. A former director of the AN Sinha Institute in Patna, MN Karn, attributed Bihar’s failure to implement land redistribution to this fear. Governments do not want to “try anything that shatters the status quo”, he said.

That explains what happened to Kanwar jheel. The government was quiet on both the lake’s draining and the hunting of the birds, said Mishra. The costs were borne by the most dispensable community – and, in this case, biodiversity.

This fluidity of caste alliances has engendered a curious flux in development policies. According to Rupesh, a human rights activist in Patna, every party in the state is focusing on caste groups they do not have. “When Nitish came to power with the BJP, he had the support of the middle castes but not the Yadavs. To woo the Yadavs, social security got an emphasis,” he said. Hence, the performance of the public distribution system of food rations and the condition of anganwadis or child creches improved.

But the focus on development was diluted once Kumar entered into an alliance with Yadav, Rupesh argued. An example frequently cited is that of the public healthcare system – Kumar focused on improving healthcare delivery in his earlier terms, but in the current term, he has neglected it since the health ministry is led by Yadav’s son, Tej Pratap Yadav.

Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and Bihar Health Minister Tej Pratap Yadav during a programme at Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Patna. Photo Credit: IANS

This has implications for Kumar’s politics. “The big question before Nitish is: how do I now get the middle class with me?” said Rupesh. That is how he began supporting demonetisation (because) the nationalism feeling is strong in the middle class.”

It is an intriguing hypothesis. Does Bihar have a greater flux in government priorities than states like Tamil Nadu? Electoral outcomes do not significantly impact welfare policies in Tamil Nadu – both the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu stick to them.

The state government did not respond to Scroll.in’s questions about these trends. This article will be updated when it responds.

This is the second part in a series on the failure of governance in Bihar. Read the first part here. Read the other parts of the Ear to the Ground project here.