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1 September 2008

Letter to Bihar

People talking to me last week have commented on why I am sounding low as normally I am quite a sunny positive person. Quite simply - watching the news on TV has not helped. The utter devastation that the floods have left in Bihar has etched pictures of the helpless and poor people stranded as the waters have wiped away their homes, lives and everything else.

Any person interested in Web 2.0 has to only see two glaring examples of social media, ICT and disaster management - the Gustav tornado and the floods in Bihar (no link obviously) as a case study.

A large part of my online time last week has also been simply researching the topics related to Bihar. I have been curious if there are any blogs/bloggers from Bihar who write and debate its issues and while I have found something, there has been nothing that was new. Mostly posts to do with the glorious past of Nalanda and Takshila and Buddha and Magadh. Needless to say no twitterer too. (All that Ho ho ho what an idea sirji ad is hogwash and makes a nice story board). During the Mumbai riots and floods, the work done by the MumbaiHelp bloggers is still remembered by the many who were assistted by it and recently, China earthquake and Bangalore blasts were trending topic due to the many twitter denizens who posted updates.

Identifying as I could with floods after the 26/7 that Mumbai faced, I was tempted at first to simply take out my 2005 post on Mumbai and do a find/replace of all words Mumbai in the post and replace it with Bihar, because fundamentally it is about public apathy and poor administration and politics of money. But then I realised how wrong it could also be to do so.

Bihar has always been in the news for all the wrong reasons for the past many years. In a shining India story, it stands as the dark side of the country. While other parts of the country are pockets, Bihar as a state has been a whole bag. Migration/brain- drain, lack of development & any significant industrial investment, poor, backward, caste-ridden, corrupt etc etc. Now these are to some extent true of all states in India so how has the story of Bihar gone so horribly wrong. Other states have yet managed to post some success stories and invited and invested in people and projects. Even as the news, media, politicians continue to post on various theories and topics I am stunned by how similar all the sound bites sound as the blame game continues.

So here is my two bit to contribute- which basically holds the same proposition as my other posts on India and development. Stop attributing blame and assume & accept responsibility.

1. On mythology and the curse of the river

Stories are nice and I love our mythological even more than any others. Man whether in any country of the world is completely helpless against the fury of nature. But simply to attribute it as a ‘curse’ is to turn a blind eye to any advances we may have in the fields of environment and geological studies where science offers solutions to problems in the fields of development of natural resources. To quote the curse of Kosi in a time of natural disaster is ludicrous. This article on Rivers and Water is more than five years old and quite simply the situation of rivers in other states too is no different. A river flooding especially at monsoon times can see a repetition in any state that is not prepared for it. We’d need a lot of mythological archives to rationalise our constant neglect.

2. How about curse of illiteracy

What hurts me more than seeing the victims of the flood is watching how poor and helpless they are; their houses are but small thatched huts; their clothes are tattered and their bones are sticking out of their bodies. Quite like the very pictures India hates that ‘foreigners’ project about India. It could well be characters from a Satyajit Ray movie (of the sixties) instead of the Jaane Tu and Rock On people (of this millenia). I am puzzled, have the floods only affected the poor and left out the rich or is it that there are no rich at all in these areas. There is no city or towns, forget high-rise , not even double storey buildings where people can take shelter. In some rare case only I see a school bldg roof top where people have huddled. Quite obviously Bihar is paying the price for keeping its populace uneducated. Note : Key words ‘school’ building and huddling which means forget about getting polluted by caste restrictions.

3. Apathy and inaction of the educated

Which brings me to the other point of my angst. Consider the number of people I know personally who are extremely well educated and doing very well in all fields outside of Bihar and India. In finance, engineering, banking, academics, technology, software, economics, arts, science- many notable names that shine are from Bihar. So they are equally responsible for not contributing back to their roots. In any other state, Gujarat, All of South, Punjab- the NRI’s plough back a lot to the state. Bihar? If they do/did then maybe the situation would not be so grim.

4. Corruption and rule of might

In any private or public or government projects- the guns and the danda rule. It is an open secret and no one cares, no one acts simply because acting would mean at the risk of your life. The corruption is so rampant and all pervasive that funds meant for development, for NGOs, for education all are pocketed by politicians and businessmen alike as part of the get rich quick schemes.

5. Status of women

Ah. Where does one begin. If you want your state to develop, develop the status of the woman - at home, in society and in community and public life. At the grassroots level all the microfinance schemes in the world revolve around women, so no excuses of being a poor illiterate agrarian economy for not starting.

6. Caste (or maybe I should post CASTE!)

Of all the people I know in India, while people from other parts, quite openly state their caste and wear/display caste signs in names and person, not so if you are from Bihar simply because caste is such a huge issue in the state. It adds insult to injury. Affects all aspects of life from personal to political. Guys -allow people to marry, work and eat and live with whom they choose/want, live and learn from each other without superiority and inferiority mechanisms. Team work never meant teams formed on the basis of caste and team work is required if you want to move from being victims and developing your state. When disaster strikes, once again, it does not choose victims based on caste.

7. Poverty and development

Quite simply pertains to economic and industrial reforms and development. Be seen as a state for attracting investments, doing business, tourism. The world and rest of India has rushed aid today to the flood victims, but even they are handicapped as all routes and connectivity is lost. If there is one lesson Mumbai learnt it is -Be self-reliant as much as possible. Forget the Government is 'Mai- Baap' mentality. It only makes you puppets in the hands of politicians who use you as vote banks and when disaster strikes, reduces any chance of survival and rehabilitation.

So here is my request to media. Focus on what are the human development indicators for Bihar. How much of primary education; what is the mobile phone and internet penetration; what is the industrial investment; where does it rank on corruption and transparency; what is its claim to fame in the story of India shining (software, tourism, health services, industrial investment?). If we have a healthy, literate, active contributing population they will question the administration and demand accountability. 9 o'clock news may well lose a few breaking news headlines and the heated debates. But it will be a small price for nations security and prosperity.

On the other hand, look at the the bright side- eventually you will still be prime time news- for all the good and right reasons.

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