Rising Bihar Asks for “Special Category” Status

The Indian state of Bihar has long been noted for its poverty, corruption, and lack of social progress, ranking last in most Indian developmental indicators. But Bihar now has one of India’s fastest growing economies, and its levels of corruption have recently plummeted. Less pronounced gains have also been made over much of northern India. As a result, the impoverished BIMARU region (BIhar, MAdhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) is now considered to be defunct.*

Despite its recent gains, Bihar is still one of the poorest parts of India, with low levels of social development (as can be seen on the Urbanomics base map used here). Its popular Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, trumpets Bihar’s recent gains, yet he insists that his state’s poverty makes it eligible for “special category” status, which would allow it to receive financial benefits from the central government. Kumar recently rallied his massed supporters by declaring that, “We are prepared for a longer battle ahead. We will now organise a rally in the national capital, sometime in March, to press for the acceptance of the special category status demand.” Kumar’s call has attracted widespread attention across India, in part because he would also like to see such “special category” status applied to other backward Indian states.

To qualify for the category, Indian states must fit several criteria based more on physical geography and culture than on poverty and lack of infrastructure. Rough topography, substantial tribal populations, and low population density are the key factors. Bihar, in contrast, is a densely populated lowland state with few tribal people. Kumar, however, waves away such obstacles, arguing that the problems of the uplands spill into the plains of Bihar: “Though Bihar is not a hill state, the river emanating from the mighty Himalayas is creating havoc in the state through flood every year…It is the responsibility of the Centre to talk to Nepal to find a solution to recurring floods. It has failed to fulfill its responsibility.”

The Times of India contends that Kumar’s approach is “arousing sub-nationalism” among the Bihari people, which it sees as a basically positive development, arguing that sub-nationalism can generate the social cohesion necessary for economic growth. Elsewhere in India, however, Bihari assertiveness is often regarded with contempt and suspicion, as are Biharis. As the Times of India reported in September of this year:

Bihar is on the receiving end once again in Mumbai. Biharis have been termed “infiltrators” — and to hear the words of a self-appointed guardian of Marathi sub-nationalism in Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city in India, they might be run out of the state.

Bihar-bashing has become MNS chief Raj Thackeray’s favourite pastime in recent years. In the process of espousing a grotesque form of sub-national regional and linguistic fundamentalism, he has acquired a larger than life image such that the governance of the city appears to be ‘outsourced’ to him.

*It should also be noted that the geographical designation of BIMARU changed at the beginning of the new millennium when the new states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand were hived off of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh respectively.

** The designation of special category states on the map posted here is not definitive; I was not able to find a map showing the states so designated, and different textual sources place different states in the category. Some sources, for example, list Sikkim and Uttarakhand as well.


Uneven Economic Development in India

India’s map of per capita GDP conforms relatively well to the general patterns of Indian development outlined earlier this week, with higher figures in the south and far north, lower figures in the north-center, and mixed figures in the far northeast. A few deviations from this basic configuration, however, are worth noting.

In the areas deemed “progressive India,” several states, most notably Jammu and Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh, show lower than average levels of per capita GDP. In Jammu and Kashmir, the depressed showing can easily be attributed to perennial insurgency and civil strife. Andhra Pradesh is rather more complicated. This state contains some of India’s most technologically advanced areas, notably the city of Hyderabad (nicknamed “Cyberabad”), as well as some deeply impoverished rural areas. Such disparities have contributed to a movement to split the state. In terms of social development, however, Andhra Pradesh as a whole has made marked progress, rising to near the top in some measures of well-being.

The economic map posted above also deviates slightly from the basic developmental pattern in its pronounced east-west division, with western India posting substantially higher figures overall than eastern India. This configuration results in part from the strong showing of the western state of Gujarat, which ranks much higher on per capita GDP than on most measures of social development. Along with neighboring Maharashtra, Gujarat is India’s main center of heavy industry; it produces 39 percent of the country’s industrial output and 67 percent of its petrochemicals. Although a number of its social indicators lag below those of southern India, it has recently made steady progress in enhancing basic human well-being as well. But Gujarat is also noted for its Hindu nationalism—and Hindu-Muslim tensions. A strain of Hindu puritanism runs strong here; among other indicators, Gujarat is India’s only completely “dry” state, having banned the sale of alcoholic beverages.

In India’s poor north-central region, West Bengal stands out for its relatively high per capita GDP figures, which come close to the average for India as a whole. As we shall see over the next week, West Bengal has a number of relatively high social development indicators as well, making its placement in the “languishing India” category uncertain. Like Gujarat, it is noted for its heavy industries, and it is beginning to make a showing in high tech as well; it has also long been one of India’s main intellectual centers. But West Bengal still has huge disparities of wealth and pockets of pronounced deprivation, despite the fact that it has usually been governed by Marxist political parties. A major divide in the state currently pits market-oriented communists—who want to follow the Chinese path of development by courting international investment—against their more traditional comrades. Meanwhile, labor unrest may be stalling economic growth. The Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest production car (with a base price of $2,160) was scheduled to be built in West Bengal, but violent protests led the company to transfer production to Gujarat.

Bihar comes in last in per capita GDP, as its does across a range of social and economic indicators. Numerous reports indicate that Bihar has at long last turned a corner, reducing its notoriously high levels of corruption and making progress on a number of fronts. The 2008-2009 data actually shows Bihar as having India’s fastest growing economy, its GDP surging 11.44 percent. Some observers, however, remain skeptical, noting that most of the gains have resulted from infrastructural spending by the central government. Doubts also persist in regard to the basic data. As one recent report concludes, “Relying on the state’s data to rush to any conclusion would call for a heroic leap of faith.”