theindialog

October 23, 2009

Meeting the Bihar Government

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Economics,Education,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 12:09 am

RCP Singh

Mr. Singh is the Principal Secretary of Bihar. He has immense responsibility on his shoulders as he is responsible for executing the state government’s plans. We met him at his chamber which is located next to the chief minister’s office.

When we walked into his office, Mr. Singh was sitting with members of a tribal group who had come in with a list of demands. The CM is due to visit their village in a month and is likely to announce a set of steps aimed at economically empowering the community. Listening to the conversation, we learnt about various interesting facets of the state and got a sense of the precepts of the Bihar government.

Cash Transfers

The government of Bihar believes in direct cash transfers to the beneficiaries of a proposed scheme. It trusts the people more than the bureaucracy and believes that leakage is minimized as a result of this practice. According to Mr. Singh, there is a 10-15% chance of misuse of funds when such transfers take place and this outcome is better than relying on governmental agencies for procurement or dissemination of goods. He highlighted the success of 2 schemes as a testament to his mantra – the ‘Bicycles for Girls’ scheme and the ‘Uniforms for Girls’ scheme. Girls aged 11 and upwards are given money for procurement of a bicycle and school uniforms. This has, apparently, reduced dropout rates among girls by alleviating the financial burden on their families.

How Footballs Are Changing Lives

According to the villagers and Mr. Singh, football has had a transformational impact on certain youngsters in the state. In Mr. Singh’s words, “1 football keeps 2 dozen young men busy.” In the absence of a recreational activity that keeps them gainfully occupied, these men would have been vulnerable to Naxalism – an epidemic in this part of the country. The game does a world of good to their stamina and induces them to apply for positions in the Indian Army and other security forces. A number of young tribals in the region have chosen law enforcement over agriculture as their profession. In fact, while we were in Kashmir, we had met a young tribal jawaan from Jharkhand. The government is planning to endow a number of villages with the necessary equipment for them to enjoy the game.

This, we think, is an amazing story of a small investment having a tremendous impact.   

NREGS

While in Punjab, we had heard industrialists lamenting the loss of cheap labor from states like Bihar and UP. They blamed NREGS for their loss. Accordingly, we were hoping to find NREGS eulogies in Bihar. To our surprise, we were told that NREGS has, in fact, not been as effective as it is made out to be, due to leakages in the elusive ‘system.’ Wage rates in Bihar are as high as INR 150, corroborated by our conversation with Chotey, our mason friend. Demand for labor – both skilled and unskilled – has risen in the recent past due to the infrastructural work in progress. Thus, the migrant labor pool has shrunk.

Law & Order

Mr. Singh also informed us about the CM’s Durbar, which has been a cornerstone initiative of the government led by Nitish Kumar. Every Monday, the chief minister meets citizens of his state and listens to their complaints. Each Monday has a different theme ranging from law and order to health to infrastructure. Officials from the concerned departments are encouraged to attend the durbar so that the process of resolution of matters is kick-started. It appears that this been a great learning exercise for the administration since it notifies the officials of the systemic issues that need attention.

According to Mr. Singh, the greatest numbers of grievances come in on the first Monday of every month when law and order problems are entertained. Hence, the government has focused on resolving issues related to law order ever since it came into power. It boasts of a robust speedy trial system which has convicted wrongdoers at a record pace. This seemed like a reasonable way to address the multifaceted problems of Bihar as sound law and order is a prerequisite to any sort of economic activity.

Nitish Kumar

We got a chance to meet the chief minister himself, albeit briefly. He beamed with avuncular pride as we explained our travels. He appreciated the initiative and spoke about the cultural affinity that Indians tend to have with the railways. As opposed to the ex-chief minister, Laloo Yadav, Mr. Kumar was genuinely interested in our story and gave us his undivided attention. He was very approving of our idea to blog our experiences. Here he cited the example of Xuanzang who recorded his visit to Nalanda. That account has been extremely helpful in understanding one of the world’s oldest universities. The chief minister urged us to visit the Patna museum and the Khuda Bakhsh library, 2 stellar monuments.

After meeting the 2 most important figures of the Bihar government, we certainly felt that they are sincere about fixing the state. It is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of their actions. For that we’ll have to wait till the assembly elections which will be held next year.

October 22, 2009

Tryst With Lalooji

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Humour,Politics — loggers @ 11:46 pm

Over the past 3 months, we have had encounters when curtailing laughter has been extremely difficult. Our tryst with Lalooji was one such occasion when we struggled to maintain a straight face. His fortress at 10 Circular Road is over-guarded by sleepy sentry. It is always overcrowded as animated party workers throng their chief’s residence to get a glimpse of the man who has been one of the longest serving chief ministers of an Indian state and has, allegedly, transformed the Indian Railways. We arrived at his residence at noon but were told that we were late as Mr. Yadav had retired for his afternoon siesta. We were asked to return at 5pm.

Our excitement to see Lalooji ensured that we returned at 4.30pm, only to figure out that he was still asleep. Finally, at 4.50pm he emerged from his makeshift bedroom which is located adjacent to the waiting area. Half a dozen staff members emerged from nowhere and waited for orders as a sluggish Lalooji made his way to his throne-like chair which looked undersized compared to the silver spittoon abutting it. He rubbed his eyes and proceeded to scratch vigorously before he uttered his first word for the evening – chashma. One of his helps ran to procure his spectacles which were cleaned and presented to his highness. He proceeded to glance at the waiting area and asked everyone he didn’t know to present their case. A significant portion of this communication took place in sign language. As one of us began to explain our presence he proceeded to utter 2 other words, paani and khaini (tobacco mixture). Water was brought to the table and khaini was manually refined and offered to Lalooji who took a pinch of it and placed it strategically behind his lower denture. While all of this was happening, a poor logger was supposed to deliver an explanatory speech!

Finally, he delivered a whole sentence. It was not a response to our introduction. He spoke of the excruciating heat of the summer months and of the soporific lunch which compels him to sleep endlessly. 3 party-men seated beside him nodded passionately. Of course, they understood. Lalooji proceeded to acknowledge our presence and lauded our initiative before he asked us how long it would take for us to finish our excursion. We were just about getting into a conversation when one of his lackeys interrupted us to announce the arrival of another group which wanted to meet Lalooji. After a short, pointless debate on the duration of the proposed interaction the group was sent in. Lalooji looked at the obviously diverse group which had young and old, Hindu and Muslim members and said, “Right combination.” He turned to us and wished us the best for our future endeavors. We told him that we had a few questions for him and would be grateful if could answer them. He said, “Anytime. I am here now. Come in the morning.” Satisfied by his mannerisms, we made our way to the parking lot.

Mr. Yadav can be moody. In Patna, we met a Lalooji who was distracted and tired, perhaps characteristic of a politician who has been out of power for a few months now.

The Bihar Buddha Trail

Filed under: Bihar,Leisure,Religion — loggers @ 11:23 pm

After a night in Patna, we pushed off for an excursion to the Nalanda and Gaya districts- centers of origin for Buddhist and Jain philosophies. Our first stop was the ancient Nalanda University, a monastery and educational institution, which dates back to the days of Buddha and Mahavir (6th century BC). The institution represented that of a modern-day liberal arts college as it offered courses ranging from Philosophy to Grammar to Astronomy. With living quarters for the monks and designated lecture grounds, and even had international students enrolled from China and Persia at its peak in 5th century AD. While the 5th, 6th and 7th levels have been excavated, much of the ruins remain underground and are yet to be seen dug up by archeologists.

Campus ruins

Campus ruins

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

From Nalanda University, we drove about 40kms to the city of Rajgir. One of the first things we noticed were signs pointing to a Japanese temple. We later found that the presence of East Asian countries with heavy Buddhist influence would only increase as we gained proximity to Bodhgaya, the city where Buddha attained enlightenment. We topped off the evening with a sunset ropeway ride down from the World Peace shrine (also built by the Japanese), which is perched upon a hill where Buddha spent time meditating.

The World Peace shrine

The World Peace shrine

PA130115

The following day, we took another short road trip to Bodhgaya, where Japan, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Thailand have all erected their own respective Buddhist shrines with unique ethnic flavors. The town is also home to the sacred peepul tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. As a result, the town is a hotbed of tourist activity, where you can also find travelers from all over the world crowded around a snake charmer outside a Japanese temple, before grabbing lunch at a Thai restaurant- something one may not expect from small-town India.

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Local shop signs in Japanese 'katakana'

Just another shop sign in katakana

Abhayanand- Bihar’s Supercop

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Education — loggers @ 12:07 am

Background

Abhayanand is a senior IPS (Indian Police Service) officer based in Patna, Bihar. He serves as a policeman from 9am – 5pm, and spends the rest of his time teaching. At the age of 40, he decided that after having taken everything from Bihar, it was time to give back. So he started his version of the Super 30’s…the road to IIT for poor teenagers who can’t otherwise afford coaching.

Abhayanand

courtesy of abhay-anand.blogspot.com

Super 30’s

Through Super 30’s, Abhayanand provides coaching to underprivileged IIT aspirants in Bihar. Students are taught via video conference in classes of 30 or less, and Abhayanand has maintained a ~90% success rate in getting his students into IIT (which has an acceptance rate of ~2%). The programs, which after starting in Bihar have now expanded to new locations in Uttar Pradesh, are completely funded by the communities themselves. Formal social audit is conducted regularly to keep track of the students’ accounts, and the program sustains itself as long as the community sees it as a worthy investment.

Targeting the Poor

Abhayanand shared his thoughts with us as just after wrapping up an evening lesson at 6pm. An integral aspect of his philosophy is to target poor Muslim communities, which approached him some time ago saying that their education conditions were worse than those of shunned Dalit societies in Bihar. He finds that Muslim students are the most vulnerable to social evils, as misled youth have ample channels of fundamentalism and terrorist groups to turn to when deprived of opportunity. Abhayanand brushed off questions of social backlash due to segregation, stating that he will continue to do his work for the Muslim community and that people can criticize his philosophy all they want.

When asked how he manages to restrict admission to the poor, Abhayanand said that it is impractical and inefficient to use family income as part of his admission criteria. However, he also mentioned that the housing that he provides under the community-funding scheme serves as an effective weed-out mechanism. Rich kids in the area would find it near impossible to share a common toilet and put up with the living conditions, even if it gets them into IIT. This social segmentation, in addition to a highly competitive entrance exam, decides who gets a seat in Abhayanand’s Super 30.

Wrap-up

Abhayanand is a modern-day super hero. A senior police officer-by-day, he starts teaching as soon as he is off-duty to help underprivileged children, from a different social background than his own, get into IIT. It’s not every day that we find stories like this, but when we do find them, they are an important reminder of the innate goodness in people. We maintain that this upright minority is what can bring about the justice and development that India desperately needs at the moment.

Another Train Ride: A Microcosm of India

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Transport — loggers @ 12:06 am

To add to our previous mishap involving getting the Delhi stations confused, we recorded our second rail-related gaffe en route to Patna from Jamshedpur. While trying to find out whether our train was delayed through the railway hotline[i], we entered the train number of the ‘up’ train instead of the ‘down’ train. As a result, we thought that the train was running 3 hrs late. Upon reaching the station, the TC and police officer in charge couldn’t hold back their laughter when we told our story. No more trains were going to Patna that evening. Not wanting to lose any more time, we returned early the next morning and bought the first available tickets: unreserved seats in non-AC chair car.

Co-passenger Killing Time

Co-passenger Killing Time

What followed over the next 12 hours was one of the most exhilarating, educational and eventful trips we have taken thus far. The train turned out to be a ‘slow’ one, stopping at almost every station along the way. As a result, we encountered a variety of passengers who were on board for only brief periods. These ranged from sadhus to drunkards to laborers to farmers carrying produce (our seats were eventually taken up by sacks of grains). We couldn’t resist but to strike up conversations with some of them, to get a pulse on the lives of the ‘aam admi’.

Between the Bogeys: Reserved for the Aam Aadmi

Between the Bogeys: Reserved for the Aam Aadmi

Through a conversation with laborers from Jharkhand, we were able to get valuable anecdotes on one of our research topics, labor movement. In attempting to break the ice with the leader of the crew, it felt like a shy dance proposal from 7th grade. Once Chotey got talking, though, there was no looking back. He and his crew were contract laborers returning from Kharagpur, who had left their work because the company was paying them less (Rs.100/day) than what was originally promised (Rs.160/day), and because the accommodation provided was ‘not even fit for animals to live in’. As a result, work on the site had come to a complete halt, and the contractor was calling him endlessly to bring them back on the promised rate. They do this kind of work all over the country, from Orissa to U.P. to Kerala, sometimes for rates as high as Rs. 250/day in the metros. His family owned land and everyone except him were farmers, but he found it more lucrative to do this work and because there was already enough help. We exchanged numbers before parting, and I promised to inform him of any jobs I came across in Mumbai.

An exchange with a Bihari student who was studying in Patna gave an insight into the mindset of the locals, and a possible explanation for the lawlessness that has so often plagued the state. While we hesitated in sitting on the footstep of the door since there was a notice suggesting a fine of Rs.500 and or/imprisonment, he coolly sat there and stated that ‘rules don’t count for anything’. He also claimed that almost none of the locals on the train traveled with a ticket. The chain to stop the train, supposed to be used only in case of an emergency, is used frequently if the train is not expected to stop close to their village.

View From the Train

View From the Train

On the train we also met the underbelly of India in the form of a 10 year old beggar, Ajay. As he approached us, Ajay’s detached eyes provoked us to talk to him. Upon enquiry we learnt that various beggar mafias participate in an unofficial auction for deploying their kids on various rail routes. Railway police officials are bribed by various gangs for their tacit approval to conduct such an illegal and inhuman activity. Ajay accumulates approximately INR 200 daily, the majority of which goes to his supervisors. Whatever he saves is spent on whiteners, his preferred beverage. He told us that he despised schooling and that he does not intend to work in order to earn as he doesn’t mind the life he leads. This heartbreaking narrative prepared us for the many tales of suffering we heard in Bihar.

Ajay

Ajay


[i] Dial 139. We have used this service extensively and deem it to be excellent. Another feather in the railways’ cap

October 18, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Patna)

Filed under: Bihar,Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 11:17 pm

Photon wins Patna.

Location: Nirvana Cottage, White House complex

Netconnect:

NS_Patna

Photon:

patna

October 13, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Rajgir)

Filed under: Bihar,Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 9:50 pm

Netconnect takes Rajgir.

Location: Circuit House

Netconnect:

NS_Rajgir

Photon: Not working

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