Voices Monday, June 08, 2015 - 05:30
  Anywhere else in India even the poorest of people lovingly embellish their constricted abodes with flowerpots to affirm their need for nature’s greenery. However, if a state has to have an insignia, for Bihar it would be a thorny cactus planted in a broken plastic bucket, displayed in solitary splendour on the highest ledge of a shabby cement structure. Almost all houses, small buildings, shop and establishments across the state of Bihar display a dust-covered unfriendly cactus plant, for a unique reason. The rationale is that it prevents someone from coveting their space. If they had attractive flowerpots the reason for offering ugliness to ward off envy would not be achieved.   Travelling from Sahibganj station to Belua, then Bhagayya in Jharkhand, and then on to Bhagalpur by road is a study in how both the people and the government do not care if development does not happen. If Lalu Prasad Yadav responded to criticism of the condition of Bihar’s roads in the late 90s by promising to make them as smooth as film actor, now BJP Member of Parliament Hema Malini’s cheeks, she would now have to hide her face in shame. From the Samata Party campaign from 1995 till the RJD government was defeated in 2005, leaders like George Fernandes travelled along such roads in old Ambassador cars with no air conditioning, delivering speeches along the way about how it took three hours to travel 3km on Lalu’s roads. Today, there are 4-wheel SUVs for everyone, but the time taken has not changed, the potholes are bigger and the bumps just as bone rattling.  There is much talk in India of aspiration, and that Narendra Modi’s campaign tapped into it, but this brings a curious outcome in Bihar. In Beguserai, the constituency of Giriraj Singh, known for infamous remarks, the condition of the road further deteriorates as the town approaches. Elders on cycles struggle to negotiate ditches filled with slush. There is barely space for two SUVs to pass each other between the shops and hovels on either side. Ask why the roads are not repaired here; the answer is the local Bhoomihars have refused to let it be repaired, they are demanding a flyover instead. The space is so narrow that even the central columns of a flyover would find inadequate space. But people would rather survive in a state of demand than in comfort.   A curious story is played out on the four-lane highway between Bakhtiyarpur and Patna. This is demonstrably Nitish Kumar territory with a shining power plant towering over the populace to demonstrate his commitment to development. As you drive along the highway you arrive at a traffic jam because vehicles from the opposite lanes are diverting towards you. The reason? A protesting farmer who claims he did not receive compensation for his land has refused to give up his portion to the National Highways Authority and continues to cultivate impressively tall stalks of maize on half a kilometer of what should have been two lanes of a four-lane highway. While enforcing his democratic right to carry out this unique protest, there is no explanation as to who is in the wrong and what can be done about it. The might of democracy has conquered both state and centre.  Having driven through a 1000 tractor, 500 truck traffic blockades for seven hours from Bhagalpur and finally coasting freely on the modern highway, you find yourself confronting his maize field on the middle of the road.     At a meeting called to assess the status and problems of handloom weavers in Bhagayya and Pureini every weaver accuses the other of dishonesty, they in turn will allege that the local association has swallowed funds, and together they will accuse the government of taking bribes, favouring their own, and playing favourites according to caste and religion. No one is happy yet no one is prepared to trust the other to unify and organise them.   By far the most prominent abomination in Bihar is the garbage. Here, Swacch Bharat seems to begin and end with the whiteness of politician’s kurtas. Kilometers of refuse and plastic bags, mountains of debris, filth, and black sludge make it impossible to find clean spaces to move, either by foot or by vehicles whether in villages, towns or in Patna. Toxins from these ever-present mounds are ingrained in the lungs of all who live among them. Children, cows, goats, pigs and dogs rummage together in these heaps. Outside bus stops and railway stations you cannot tell the difference between a sleeping animal and a human covered in shredded sheets since they all sleep side-by-side in urine and worse. No one cares to react, let alone object to their own miserable human condition.   Having engaged closely with the politics of Bihar for over two decades one wonders how fertile soil regularly enriched by silt from the River Ganga, aesthetic traditions of Mithila painting, sikki grass weaving, a variety of beautiful handloom textiles, a once strong and competent administrative structure, and a great sense of history could have been overwhelmed by so much lethargy and human suffering. Ask about development now and people of every caste will answer with a sense of resignation, “Earlier it was slightly better with Nitish Kumar and the BJP. Now that Lalu and Nitish are coming together we are back only to caste.” .   Jaya Jaitly was Spokesperson,  General Secretary and then President of the Samata Party between 1995 and 2001.

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