Like remoras to a whale, narratives cling to every state. They persist long after they stop being true. Punjab is the state of cancer, drugs and the Green Revolution. Tamil Nadu has excellent public delivery of healthcare and education. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar is Sushasan, Good Governance, Babu even though the State remains absent.

This void does not stay empty for long. Society steps in, creating imperfect replacements to the State.

In Bihar, one of them was local strongmen. In When Crime Pays, the political scientist Milan Vaishnav writes about Anant Kumar Singh, the leader from the bhumihar caste in Mokama near Patna and bahubali, local strongman. Despite the many criminal cases against him, people voted for Singh as he got their work done in a town where the government functioning was weak.

Then, there were market actors, like the Career Plan Coaching Centre. Located in Geetwas, a small village near Araria in northeastern Bihar, it was not much to look at – a tiny room, perhaps four by three metres, tightly packed with benches and desks, housed in an unplastered brick structure whose other half was a garage. It offered tuitions for students between classes eight and twelve.

But, as Gautam Kumar, a mathematics graduate in his mid-twenties who set up the centre after failing to qualify for a junior government post, explained, he did not merely provide supplementary education to students lagging in one or two subjects. He taught the entire school curriculum. Bihar’s education landscape was packed with entrepreneurs like Gautam Kumar. They operated a wide range of establishments, from teaching institutions located in village shacks to coaching centres in towns and cities to plush air-conditioned schools.

A third set was non-governmental organisations. The WHO and the union government’s IDSP kept tabs on the state’s disease burden. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was working on fertility, malnourishment, and IMR and MMR reductions. Others like the international NGOs Engender and Jhpiego worked on family planning and population stabilisation.

The resulting outcome, a matrix of State failure and imperfect alternatives, shaped everyday life in Bihar.

Bahubali and its unending sequels

Take the strongmen. Not only did they perform some of the functions the state government should have – from resolving small disputes to ensuring that the administration listened to the locals – but also ensured their caste or region got the resources it wanted, to stay locally dominant. As Witsoe writes, a strong territorial undertone runs through the electoral politics of those who claim to be caste leaders. Control over local resources – “agricultural fields, roads, marketplaces, polling booths or any other place with economic, political or social importance” – is key.

In their quest to protect caste interests, however, bahubalis also ended up skewing access to government support and control over local resources in favour of a small number of people. The rule they established was often majoritarian, if not entirely lawless.

As for the market, running on profits, it was limited in scope. It found education attractive but not garbage disposal, as the piles of rotting waste in the towns and cities of Bihar showed. It also delivered uneven results. At the lower end of the education sector, the quality of teaching in the coaching centres was uncertain.

At the higher end, where schools followed accredited syllabi, parents complained about high fees. Shyam Jaipuriyar, a BJP member I met in Banka, spent half of his monthly income of Rs 20,000 on school and transport fees for his two children. ‘We only manage because we live together as a large family.’ Market interventions in healthcare were similarly high-priced, cutting off most residents of the state. The poor who could not access charitable institutions simply died, said Ghosh. Private hospitals were beyond their grasp.

Lacking the profit motive, NGOs worked in areas where markets would not enter. One instance was disease surveillance. These organisations, however, came with their own suboptimalities. They had their priorities and organisational constraints, focusing on chosen metrics, like IMR, over wider improvements in community health. Their reach was limited to the regions they served. In those parts of Bihar where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was active, work on population stabilisation was underway. Not elsewhere. Kala azar was being fought, but dengue was going unchecked.

It was a patchwork quilt of coverage that was anything but uniform across the state.

Shoots of hope in the informal economy

What are the largest changes you have seen in the last five or seven years?’

In every state, this question had yielded sharp answers. But not in Bihar. The only substantial change I found was the rise in communal tensions. Other processes – migration, State functioning, disease burden – seemed to be playing out as ever.

I found large changes only when I looked at the informal economy. With a small formal economy and a poorly functioning government, Bihar’s haats, bazaars and their attendant value chains supported most people. It was here that deeper shifts, in livelihoods and mass sentiment, showed up.

Sudhanshu ran a small strip of shop on Patna’s busy Boring Road. Ten metres long but just two metres wide, it housed two personal computers, both loaded with music and movies downloaded from the internet. This was his livelihood. Boring Road, with a government college and several dozen coaching centres, was a beehive of students. Every day, several of them visited the shop to purchase the latest movies and songs for their phones and pen drives.

Downloaders like Sudhanshu could be seen all over Bihar. Some sat in shops, like him. Others operated from pushcarts, with batteries hooked to laptops. Yet others sat in village bazaars, with laptops perched on fruit crates. All of them were surrounded by a welter of phone cables. The entertainment they provided was affordable. At Geetvas village market near Araria, downloaders charged Rs 10 for one gigabyte of music. Sudhanshu, who did not look a day older than twenty, charged Rs 10 for a film.

The ‘Madrasi’ factor

One sleepy afternoon in March, I asked him about the current hit films. He opened a folder on his computer and started clicking on files to highlight their names even as he listed them out: “Akhil: The Power of Jua, Heart Attack, Businessman 2, Shivam, Viraat, The Return of Raju…” Each of these was from south India, mostly in Telugu, dubbed into Hindi for audiences in the north. “We have more people coming here for Tamil and Telugu films than for films in other languages.”

South Indian films had been soaring in popularity across Bihar since 2011. The people in this Hindi heartland identified better with these films rather than Hindi or even Bhojpuri cinema. At Sudhanshu’s shop, a class eleven student, preparing for the entrance exam to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at a nearby coaching centre, walked in. His parents lived in Patna, but he stayed in a small rented room near the coaching centre. Apart from attending coaching classes, he studied for six hours every day.

When there were no classes, he would watch movies, mostly south Indian films. “I like these stories. There’s one with junior NTR, where the son wants to fulfil his father’s dreams,” he said, referring to the popular Telugu actor NT Rama Rao Jr. In Tamil Nadu, since 2000, new directors had come up who, reported the Hindu, went “back to their roots in the villages and [told] stories of their land, far away from the culture of studios or sets”. Some of these stories pivoted around vigilante justice. Others talked about aspirations. Yet others talked about caste.

Youngsters in Bihar identified with these stories. Bollywood no longer represented their lives. This trend transcended Bihar. According to Debjeet Sarangi, a Bhubaneswar-based activist working on sustainable farming, youngsters in Odisha too were gravitating towards hyper-violent films from the south. “The local youth have a lot of anger about the lack of opportunities in their life,” he said. Later, on reaching Ahmedabad, I asked the two young men working at my hotel about the movies they watched.

“Madrasi,” they said.

Despite The State: Why India Lets Its People Down And How They Cope

Excerpted with permission from Despite The State: Why India Lets Its People Down And How They Cope, M Rajshekhar, Westland Publications.