They ask for more,from a Sitamarhi mall to Chhapra school

Nitish Kumar is fighting against fatigue,loss of the BJP as ally,and systemic constraints.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Patna,sitamarhi | Published: December 5, 2013 3:00 am

Five days after Narendra Modi’s Hunkar Rally in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan,the small town of Sitamarhi,where posters announcing the BJP show still fluttered jauntily,got its first mall.

Outside the three-storey ‘Bazaar Kolkata’,raising his voice above the music and the din,Mohd Intizar,a 27-year-old tailor from the nearby village of Dervas,juggled his shopping bags. “For this place”,he gave his verdict,“this is a good mall”.

That underwhelming feeling was echoed by many others who flocked to the opening.

“I have seen better in Bokaro,” said Raja Kumar,a 17-year-old student. According to Mohd Tabrez Alam,18,enrolled in a computer course,“This mall is ok,but there are bigger malls elsewhere.” The main reason why Bihar lags behind other states is because of its government’s failure to focus on computer education and English,he said.

As it often happens in Bihar,an expression of discontent had seamlessly rearranged itself into a demand addressed to the state.

For the Nitish Kumar government,the problem in the coming days will be not just to assess the fallout of the JD(U)’s June split with its partner of 17 years,the BJP,and to see whether Modi’s challenge,amplified in BJP bastions like Sitamarhi,Nitish’s real challenge is made up of this: the break-up,that slashed his numbers from a comfortable 206 in a House of 243 to 118,and hived off an aggressive opposition of 91 BJP MLAs midway into his second term,coincides with a moment of vaulting aspirations in a state where government is still the dominant if not sole provider of goods and services.

And this comes at a time when the state’s delivery in Nitish’s second term is showing visible signs of lag,fatigue and failure. Or it is running up against constraints.

To be fair,many of the expectations have been touched off by the Nitish government’s first term achievements. Even in Sitamarhi,BJP MLA Sunil Kumar Pintu,Tourism Minister in the Nitish government till June,who inaugurated the new mall and who confesses to a grudging admiration for Nitish because “politics is about risk-taking”,remembers a more difficult time. “Till 2007,Sitamarhi would be flooded by the rising waters in the Bagmati and Adhwara rivers from Nepal that would cut it off from the rest of the state for three months a year.” Until the crucial Kataunjha bridge was made in Nitish 1.

Apart from law and order,the bridge and the road were the undeniable success stories of Nitish’s first term,abounding in evocative accounts of people connected and travel times slashed.

Today,that achievement is in battle with its own routinisation and the rising expectations. “In the name of development,there is only the road,” says Baskinath Singh,in Pehleghat village,district Chhapra. “The road is better but traffic has grown,” points out Vijay Kumar Singh,at Gola Bazaar. The good road,others lament,goes elsewhere. “We only hear about it. So how can we believe the government’s claims?” asks Chhota Ram,daily wage labourer in Parasi village in the same district.

There are other complaints about the new road — lack of maintenance and repair,or the failure to widen it. The road is cracking up,many allege,because it was “built by commissions”.

In Mozakka village on Patna’s edge,the charge is pinned on the lower bureaucracy and the contractor. “Traffic has increased and the thekedars cut corners,” says Mohammad Shahban. “How is it Nitish’s fault if the lower levels of his administration are corrupt?” asks Tanvir Ahmad. But at Kadaha village in Nalanda district,a late evening discussion that spans the daily fight for water and the village’s abandoned high school and hospital buildings,turns against Nitish. “There is vikas (development),but of bhrashtachaar (corruption),” says Mohd Jahangir Alam. “If that (Lalu’s time) was jungle raj,this is zaalim raj.”

After the BJP-JD(U) split,a pattern is emerging: for the upper castes who have visibly turned against Nitish,the worsening quality of the road is another reason to target him,while the discussion is less one-sided among lower backward groups and Muslims. But in general,on the road,there is blame to go around.

In Patna,Pratyaya Amrit,Road Secretary,insists the problems are concentrated on the national highways,where work is allotted on BOT basis and the state government’s role is limited to land acquisition. “Till 2009,the Bihar government spent its own money,Rs 969 crore,on maintenance of the national highways. It hasn’t been reimbursed till date”,he says. On many sections,even as the new alignment is yet to be completed,the concessionaire is not fulfilling the commitment to keep the existing road motorable.

A new road maintenance policy is on the anvil,but for now,he admits,“The general impression of the road in the state is formed by the national highway.” And: “The road has a life cycle of roughly three years,when a fresh carpet must be laid. In 2006-7,we planned the roads,construction was over by 2009-2010. In 2013,we’re back to the 2006-7 stage.”

Agitation about “quality” also dominates discussions on the school. In districts from Nalanda and Arwal to Chhapra,Siwan and Sitamarhi,parents complain that the quality of teaching in the government school has plunged.

Complaints about the quality of teachers have grown now that the achievements of Nitish 1 — of a large-scale recruitment of teachers,jump in enrolment and attendance of students,and regularisation of the midday meal — have lost their shine.

In the aftermath of the midday meal tragedy at Gandaman in Chhapra district in July,the khichdi has become shorthand for all that is wrong with the school. School should be for studies,not food,many say. “It has more rice than dal. There are no pulses,no eggs or vegetables,no variation in the menu,” says Mohd Rustam,who teaches in a private school in Chhapra.

The school has been a besieged institution for some time now — no longer decrepit,but struggling to meet the rising demands on it. “The villagers are always unhappy with us,” rues Shivnath Ram,principal of a school in Kalupur in the same district.

The Kalupur school was a two-room primary school till 2007-08. Upgraded to Class VIII in 2008,the 10 rooms sanctioned for it are still in the process of being built. Cooks for the midday meal were appointed in 2010,but as was highlighted in Gandaman’s aftermath,they work for 12 months but are paid only for 10,at a paltry monthly Rs 1,000.

There were three teachers when Ram joined in 2007,today there are seven. But with the number of students having jumped to more than 700,the requirement is of,at least,17.

In 2005,the primary teacher-student ratio was 1:90,points out Amarjeet Sinha,Principal Secretary,Education,in Patna. Today,it is 1:56,and needs to be brought down to 1:40 — the RTE norm is 1:35. The recruitment process for panchayat teachers,battling allegations of politicisation,has reached a crucial stage,he says,with checks having been introduced in the ongoing recruitment of 1.68 lakh teachers. For the first time,candidates are required to clear a Teacher’s Eligibility Test.

Concerns about the midday meal are valid,he says,but making it independent of teachers,as in Tamil Nadu,would cost the government an additional Rs 80-90 crore annually. Adding more and better teachers,he hopes,will cut down the stress and strain.

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