Ear to the ground

What’s common between coaching classes in Bihar and its bahubali leaders?

Both flourish as the state fails to deliver services. They are imperfect alternatives with poor outcomes.

Career Plan Coaching Centre is not much to look at. It is a tiny room, tightly packed with benches and desks, housed in an unplastered brick structure, one half of which is a garage.

A board advertises the services offered by the centre, located in Geetwas, a small village near Araria in northeastern Bihar: tuitions for students between class 8 and class 12.

But, as Gautam Kumar, a mathematics graduate in his mid-twenties who runs the centre, explains, he does not merely provide supplementary education to students lagging in one or two subjects – he teaches the entire school curriculum.

Career Plan is a homegrown response to the larger crisis of public school education in Bihar.

Said Owais Alam, whose son studies under Kumar: “We send our children to these places because there is no teaching in government schools.”

The government school at Geetwas is unable to teach well because of the usual reasons. The school should have 15 teachers but have just nine, said a senior official at the school. Even these nine get pulled into government work – election duty, for instance – which eats into teaching time.

Last year, the government asked the school for information about its students – their names, bank account numbers, the number of days they were present, their parents’ names, about 30 fields of data. The nine teachers, working together, took 15 days to put the information together.

Such demands come at least three or four times a year, the official complained. The school loses as many as 45-60 days of teaching each year. “About 25% of the syllabus gets left out,” he said.

This hurts school attendance. Of the 600 students enrolled at the school, no more than 300 attend regularly. Many students enrol in private schools or rely on places like Career Plan Coaching Centre.

The board on a road passing through Geetwas village advertises the services of Career Plan Coaching Centre.
The board on a road passing through Geetwas village advertises the services of Career Plan Coaching Centre.

When the state fails, who steps in?

Coaching centres like Career Plan operate in the vacuum created by the state’s inability to provide children with a good school education. This inability extends to other crucial governmental functions – like combating arsenic contamination of groundwater and containing the spread of infectious diseases like dengue. As previous stories have shown, the reasons for the state’s poor performance range from low administrative capacity and caste dynamics, to how politics is funded in Bihar.

Needless to say, this lack of performance is not unique to Bihar. Previous stories in this series have highlighted the same trend in every state we reported from – like the collapse of tax collection in Punjab and weakening healthcare delivery in Tamil Nadu. The decay is partly due to political neglect, partly due to the bureaucracy’s failure to handle increasingly complex problems.

What happens when the state fails? In Bihar, a motley bunch of actors – businessmen, NGOs and local strongmen – have stepped into the spaces where the state is weak.

This raises an important question: when individual actors start taking over the functions of the government, what are the outcomes?

When the market steps in

Education in one area where the market has filled the gap in government service delivery.

Bihar’s education landscape has seen a flood of entrepreneurs in recent years. They operate a wide range of establishments, from teaching institutions located in village shacks to plush air-conditioned schools.

The primary reason for this boom is profitability.

At the higher end of the education market, a school with 3,000 students, charging Rs 2,000 as monthly fees, could notch up an annual turnover of more than Rs 5 crores. At the lower end of the market, the fees fall, but so do the costs. As this news report notes, some schools operate out of rented buildings. Said Shyam Jaipuriyar, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Patna, who sends his two children to a private school: “There is a saying here that if a school gets 100 students, it will make money.”

This economics has resulted in a couple of striking trends. As the previous article in this series reported, several of the new schools coming up in Bihar are owned by politicians or former bureaucrats. Politicians started entering the school business in the 1990s, said Jaipuriyar, partly to meet their need to generate cash for elections and campaigning, and partly because schools found it useful to have politicians as partners. “Instead of giving money to 10 small extortionists, it made sense to tie up with one big one and give him a share,” he said. Since then, politicians have entrenched themselves in education. Some started schools from scratch. Others, Jaipuriyar said, “became franchisees of national school chains like Zee’s Mount Litera”.

Coaching classes operate at the other end of this spectrum. Amitava Kumar writes about their ubiquity in his book about Patna, A Matter of Rats: “There were entire streets taken over by hoardings announcing such classes.”

Hoarding of coaching centres take over a street in Bhagalpur.
Hoarding of coaching centres take over a street in Bhagalpur.

Shashi Bhushan, a senior reporter with Dainik Bhaskar, said their numbers started to rise from 2005. He gave three reasons for their growth. First, the quality of teachers in the government system fell. Second, parents’ incomes rose and they could afford to pay more. Third, they offered employment to young people who were unable to find jobs. Gautam Kumar, who founded Career Coaching Centre in Geetwas, had a BSc degree in mathematics. After he failed an exam for a junior government post, he turned into an education entrepreneur.

When NGOs take charge

Like education, Bihar’s health sector has also seen the mushrooming of entrepreneurs running private hospitals and clinics. But higher-end functions that traditionally fall upon the state health department – like disease surveillance, immunisation and disease eradication – are now being handled by NGOs and others.

Take the World Health Organisation. Around 1995, when its global campaign against polio was underway, the international agency, concerned at the poor state of health administration in many Indian states, decided to manage India’s polio eradication programme on its own. District-level offices were set up across the country.

The agency, said a WHO official in Bihar who spoke on the condition of anonymity, began pulling back from most states around 2009 as polio cases started to fall. But it decided to stay engaged in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. When the polio programme tapered, it expanded its focus elsewhere. “From 2013 onwards, we looked also at kala azar and immunisation,” said the official. “From January 2017 onwards, we have begun focusing on what we call neglected tropical diseases” or communicable diseases which are prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical parts of the earth.

Like the WHO, the Union government’s Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme is also tracking Bihar’s disease burden. When they first came here in 2009, said a senior epidemiologist in the team, they found the state was not collecting health data. “For diseases like measles, diptheria, chickenpox, acute diarrhoea and tetanus, there was no data at all,” he said. “No cases of dengue or chikangunya were reported to us.” The programme started collecting its own data from 2009, trying to put together a health profile of Bihar. “Disease surveillance is the backbone of disease prevention,” said the epidemiologist.

In the last 15 years, Bihar has also seen a spike in the number of NGOs working on healthcare delivery. Some of these are trying to improve the state’s performance on specific fronts. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, is focusing on reducing the infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, fertility and malnourishment, said Sridhar, the technical director of NGO Care-India’s healthcare work in Bihar, who works with the Foundation in the state.

Other international NGOs like Engender and Japiego, said Shakeel Ur Rahman, who runs a non-profit clinic in Patna, are working on family planning and population stabilisation. Yet others are trying to figure out answers to the state’s healthcare problems. World Health Partners, for instance, is running pilot projects in Patna and nearby areas that use private sector services to reduce fatalities – a social franchise model for healthcare.

The strongmen move in

In his book When Crime Pays, academic Milan Vaishnav talks about Anant Kumar Singh, the leader from the Bhumihar caste in Mokama near Patna. Singh is a bahubali leader or local strongman. Despite the many criminal cases against him, he keeps returning to power from his borough of Mokama in central Bihar. Why do the voters there vote him back?

As Virendra, a local reporter in Mokama said, government functioning is weak in Mokama. When people go to Singh, he gets their work done. “Is aadmi ke naam ke bhay se afsar kaam karte hain. Kayi baar unhoney peeta bhi hain.” Officials do the work he tells them to. In the past, he has beaten up those who did not follow what he said.

Bahubalis serve two main purposes. They step in to perform some of the functions the state government should – from resolving small disputes and ensuring that the administration listens to the locals. Second, they ensure their caste or region gets the resources it wants to stay locally dominant. These are not abstract battles. As academic Jeffrey Witsoe writes in Democracy Against Development, a strong territorial undertone runs through the electoral politics of politicians who claim to be caste leaders. In Bihar, as he writes, local groups are struggling to gain control over local resources – “agricultural fields, roads, marketplaces, polling booths or any other place with economic, political or social importance”. He added: “That is another reason why people like Singh get voted in – they can ensure caste-group control over these spaces.”

Agrees Vaishnav, “In contexts where the rule of law is weakly enforced and social divisions are rampant, a candidate’s criminal reputation could be perceived as an asset. In the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics, where there is a dynamic pattern of competition between rival social groups, voters just might value politicians who are willing to engage in extralegal tactics to protect the status of their community.”

Unsatisfactory outcomes

How are each of these players shaping Bihar?

Start with the market. It is limited in scope since it looks for profits. It finds education attractive, but not garbage disposal, as the piles of rotting waste in the towns and cities of Bihar show.

The towns and cities of Bihar have piles of rotting garbage.
The towns and cities of Bihar have piles of rotting garbage.

Even in education, the market delivers uneven results. At the lower end of the education boom, the quality of teaching in the coaching centres looks uncertain. Operating in an unregulated space, a couple of unemployed graduates have taken the place of government teachers.

At the higher end, where schools follow accredited syllabus, parents complain about high fees. Jaipuriyar, the BJP member, said he spends half of his monthly income – Rs 20,000 – on school and transport fees for his two children. “We manage because we live together as a large family,” he said.

Market interventions in healthcare are similarly prohibitively priced for most residents of the state. In this story on arsenic poisoning, Dr Ashok Ghosh, who heads research at the Mahavir Cancer Sansthan, explained what happens to the poor who cannot access charitable institutions – they simply die. Private hospitals are beyond their grasp.

Health NGOs are an imperfect replacement as well. They come with their own capabilities, priorities and organisational constraints. They focus on certain metrics – for instance, the infant mortality rate – rather than wider improvements in community health. Their reach is also limited to some geographical pockets.

As for the strongmen, in their quest to protect caste interests, they end up skewing access to government support and control over local resources in favour of a small number of people. In addition, the rule they establish can be often majoritarian. Often, their constituencies have the worst indices for development. Take Siwan, the stronghold of Shahabuddin, RJD leader and bahubali. It has just one one government doctor for 100,000 people – the worst ratio in all of Bihar.

It is this matrix of state failure and imperfect alternatives which shapes everyday life in Bihar.

All photos by M Rajshekhar.

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

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