I4I Guest Editor Karthik Muralidharan (Associate Professor of Economics, University of California, San Diego) speaks with Anjani Kumar Singh (Chief Secretary, Government of Bihar) during the IGC Growth Week
in London, on issues ranging from the successes and challenges of Bihar in the past five years, constraints on industrialisation, skilling, spatial distribution of development, to frequent transfer of bureaucrats and role of research inputs in policymaking.
Karthik Muralidharan (KM): Welcome to ‘Ideas for India’, a policy portal run by the IGC. Basically, it’s meant to provide a platform for academic researchers to summarise our technical work in non-technical ways for policymakers to access. So, we are delighted to have Shri Anjani Kumar Singh, who is the Chief Secretary of the state of Bihar - just about a 100 million people for those of you who are viewing from outside; pick your favourite European country and Bihar is bigger than that in population. So, it’s a very onerous responsibility. Let me just start by saying that it’s a great privilege for us at IGC to interact with policymakers and we hope that we contribute to policymaking in terms of the research and the ideas. So, what brings you to Growth Week? What was the most important thing you were looking for when you came here?
Anjani Kumar Singh (AKS): The IGC is working very closely with the Bihar government and with the research organisations that are located in Bihar. So on various developmental and socioeconomic issues, whatever schemes we run or policies we have formulated, we want a validation and academicians provide that. Suppose, we have a scheme for empowerment of the girl child and then it gets substantiated by research, say by IGC or by someone else - we get a big boost that we are going in the right direction. So even at the government level, when we are formulating policies, we take these research inputs - to know how things are happening in other places and whether we are going in the right direction or not. IGC has been working very closely with us and these research inputs are very beneficial. So, we love to come to such gatherings and we learn a lot.
KM: I worked closely on the cycle project and it was a great satisfaction to see that the programme had such a big effect. One thing that academicians can do is to study the impact of policies that the Bihar government has already done, and the other thing we can do is to advise on future policies in terms of what we have learnt. What are the institutional mechanisms that the Bihar government has to get this kind of intellectual input? For example, the Government of India has the Planning Commission that brings in experts and does that kind of convening of ideas. But in the policymaking process of the Bihar government, what is the role and places where academics can come and contribute?
AKS: We started a few institutions like the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) and A.N. Sinha Institute. These type of research organisations, they give us support. We have a planning department and also an outside body of retired government officials, politicians and academics. Interaction has started but it was not happening earlier. If you see the last 7-8 years, earlier it was mostly the government; they will make a plan, they will make a budget and they will see which scheme has been successful, what has not been successful, what are the political priorities, what are the social priorities - they will take all these things into account and they will devise the schemes. Now we have some advantage because we have some research organisations working in Bihar and we are able to interact and have developmental workshops and seminars; those inputs help us in devising better schemes because we know when we get these inputs that we are not striking blindly. We know that if we move in this direction, there are high chances of getting outputs and returns.
In the cycle scheme you mentioned, our only idea in the beginning was to provide mobility to girl child because their secondary schools were 4-5 km away and the girls were not going to secondary schools. We thought if we give mobility to them, they will go to school. But many more things happened on which we have research input now. For one, child marriage was affected. Now girls are not getting married at an early age. We have evidence that if girls complete Class 10 or Class 12, their fertility rate goes down - and we wanted to check our population growth rate. These things were not known when we launched the scheme. I’ll give you another example of starting a secondary (with Classes 11 and 12) school in every panchayat. This is especially important for the girl child because we want all girls to fully complete school education before getting married. If the marriage age is shifted, that affects fertility and many other things. So these things we have learned from research and academic inputs.
KM: So, suppose there are professors viewing this video from all over the world, who are doing research on development that they think might be relevant for Bihar. What is the most effective way to channel that kind of input into the government? Should it come through institutions like ADRI or are there aspects or areas of government that are explicitly set up to collect this kind of input. What would you recommend? Let us say we have a global viewership (readership) of researchers and they want to provide ideas - how should they reach the Bihar government?
AKS: We will require both. We will need something that is academic input from a third party outside the government. And also something in close association with government and policymakers - when we are devising policies, they should actively participate in that process. But there should be third-party validation - somebody looking at it critically. Once you become a part of it, you are not critical. So we want those institutions to remain outside and critically examine what we are doing and provide positive suggestions.
KM: In terms of the Bihar story, from 2005 to 2010 - this was a well-documented miracle. The foundation of the turnaround was law and order, roads, infrastructure and girls’ education. In the period from 2010 to 2014, what would you consider the two or three bigger successes of the Bihar government?
AKS: Agriculture was one which was very significant. The other was women’s participation in work - earlier you hardly saw women cycling in the rural areas. Now you see that 50% of the teachers are women; in police 35% of the constables and police officers are women. Earlier when you were tackling a problem affecting women, then male police officers were doing it; now female police officers are available in the stations. People feel more confident to lodge complaints and get their problems redressed. These changes that have come in rural and semi-urban areas are very positive things. Education is also bringing dividend now.
KM: In this period, if you were to identify one or two challenges or areas where you feel that not adequate progress has been made, what would those be?
AKS: That will be upgrading the skills. What is happening is that both at the Government of India and state level, skill is being taken care of by 16 departments, labour being the nodal department. If you see holistically, health education, agriculture, and labour - all the welfare departments should work together. Bringing them into one platform and in a holistic way is a tough task. Now we have a very high-level committee under our Chief Minister comprising all these departments. Earlier they were also doing tidbits on their small schemes, training 500-1,000 people. But now they are under one umbrella.
The challenge for Bihar is that there is a young population and they are going out for jobs and livelihoods. Given the huge population, whatever development takes place, all these people cannot find work in Bihar – some will continue to go outside. If they get higher skills, they should go where they is utilised. Our aim is that they should get better wages, so skilling them is our very high priority and a great challenge.
KM: Let me ask the other side of that question. The other part of providing employment and empowerment is to bring investment into the state. We know that Bihar is mainly an agricultural state and 80-85% of employment is in agriculture. So the most natural industry will be agriculture/ food processing value added. What is holding back the big Indian companies like Godrej, Parle, Amul, etc., and whichever others have capacity to bring in the food processing value added in Bihar? Is there a focused attempt to bring in the domestic Indian investment into the food processing industry and if it has not yet worked, what is holding it back?
AKS: We had problem of infrastructure, electricity was one problem; power, energy continues to be a problem and that’s why we have giving it high priority. Land is another issue because the density of population is highest in India and all land is fertile so it is very difficult to take out land out of agriculture or farming. Luckily, in the last five years, a lot of investment has come to this sector, although it may not be big-ticket investment. You will be happy to know that we are the largest producer of vegetables; there is a huge market for fresh vegetables. But for that you need infrastructure – cold chains, marketing etc. These things will take time to establish. These are the types of areas in which one can bring in big-ticket investment. Some investors have started showing interest in coming to Bihar and buying land.
KM: Is there any plan of setting up dedicated industrial areas for say food processing, where you can guarantee 24-hour electricity and basic infrastructure - connection to transport, connection to the major stations and ports. Given the spatial spillovers, is there any plan to have a concentrated industrial path to development strategy?
AKS: Yes, in fact there is a scheme of Government of India in that direction; they provide some incentive for doing it. We have identified two or three places for doing this. At one place, the work has started and has reached an advanced stage; there are some big players coming in. We want value addition to happen in Bihar.
KM: Exactly, and the only way that’ll happen is if the investment will come because that is how the growth will come. In fact, Chang Tai-Hsieh, a leading growth economist, came to Bihar five years back and he made an interesting statement - when you go to the lobbies of the top hotels in Bihar, most of the people you see are from NGOs and development agencies; the day you know Bihar has really arrived is when most of these people are from the private sector because then they are bringing investment as opposed to aid money. So I think that is a very important next step for the state.
AKS: It has started happening but it will take time because businesses require infrastructure; they are businessmen and they have to make money. They would like their investment to get a good return. So it would take time for that kind of investment to come.
KM: One criticism that is often made of researchers is that we sit in our Ivory tower, we write our papers and we are not connected with reality. But some of us have worked very closely with governments in different parts of India; for example, I have worked in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh (AP). Probably the single biggest challenge I have faced, and I think many researchers face, is the continuity in the government. The rate of transfers of officers is so high that often, you start a project, it gets stalled, and then you start again - and it gets stalled again. The same problem will apply to investors. He will have come and done all the clearances with one official and then there is a transfer. So two broad questions: First, why is there such a high frequency of transfers? Second, if you look at the better governed states, such as AP and Tamil Nadu - there is stability of tenure for two or three years. Why do we have such high rates of transfers, and what can researchers and people working with the government do to insulate their projects and their engagement from this kind of frequent turnover?
AKS: There are two things. One is that government is different from the private sector. In the private sector if you continue doing well, you will be there. In the government system, you have promotions - you have to find the right person for the right places. But now, even state government and Government of India have realised the problem; there is a rule that if you are transferred before your tenure, a reason has to be given. So it’s not like earlier that anytime anybody is transferred. In some departments, you get four people in three years; this creates a problem because officers need time to settle down, know about the department and the priorities and start working - so that gets affected. Now the state and central government have realised this and there is a policy; people cannot be transferred without completing their tenure. But it will not happen like the private sector where you will stay for 10 years. In the government, the system is that you get promoted and after three to four years, you go to the next scale. So you get promoted and you go somewhere else. In fact, change of officer should not have an impact – that is the strength of an institution. If a good institution is created and there is good leadership, I don’t think only the transfer of an officer should change policies; those policies should continue. Policies are not restricted to a particular officer; they are for the good of the state. So if that is the objective, even if an officer has been transferred, the next person should follow suit. There is some problem, the government is aware of it and they are trying to address it. If you see Bihar in the last seven to eight years, the tenure was quite good. I was in the education department for seven to eight years.
KM: And then there has been success in education in Bihar! AP has done a great job in rural development because the top officers were there for five years because then the officer has the capability to craft a vision, and implement it.
AKS: Yes, I agree with you. There should be minimum transfers and now, of course, it is becoming transparent. But that type of stability is required, I agree.
KM: From a research perspective, what are the areas you would like to see more research done on Bihar from the international research community that might be watching (reading) this?
AKS: First, we are growing at a very fast rate - we would like research inputs on how to continue growing that way. Our development agenda is very different - social justice is very important; development with justice. We don’t only want that huge industries should come and urbanisation takes place in a major way. We don’t want to blindly follow that model. We want Bihar-specific development; the way Bihar should develop, and not to blindly follow any model. We have to maintain many things. So what model will suit Bihar the most? That is one area where researchers can provide support.
We want to continue with agriculture. Education has been our strong point; we want to enhance that capability – how to make Bihar an educational hub? Although we have started many national-level institutions, we have a serious problem when it comes to faculty. There is a serious problem of bringing in better faculty. So what incentive policy should be there? It is important to have good faculty because these institutions are not just buildings; you need people to run it. People go for higher education outside. I want people from other states to come to Bihar the way they used to come to Nalanda University. The government is ready to do whatever is required in this area. Skilling is a serious problem – we want some very good research on that because money will not be unlimited. Whatever money we have, how should we go about spending it? That is another area for research. For example, there are a large number of construction workers – what real skills should they be given so that they earn twice as much wage in the market. Even if it’s not a very high-end skill upgradation, this is required. We would need to explore how to go about it because we have kept a very ambitious target for ourselves.
KM: Let me just make a few suggestions on that because it is close to my own area of research. One, of course, in India we are so occupied with meeting the numbers target that very often quality can suffer. So somewhere in there, we also have to make haste slowly. With regard to skilling, for example, one thing that is really missing is some external credentialing of what is the skill you have. So in the market today, one may have a certain qualification but the qualification is often worth nothing because we have no independent standards that signal that you actually have a particular skill - whether it is an electrician, welder or blacksmith. Having the credentialing becomes very important. You can have 10 million workers, but if those 10 million go and get a ‘stamp’, it doesn’t mean that they are actually skilled. For example, if you look at research on teachers in India, the ones with training are not any better than those without training. This is because we have created so many low-quality institutions that people just get the certificate and the title but that doesn’t make you skilled. So I think it is very important to focus on the independent testing and validation of credentials so that the credential itself becomes worth something.
Secondly, historically, if you look at the pattern of development, there is no way to avoid urbanisation. This is because fundamentally the process of development is not about saying that agriculture should be protected; it is to make agriculture so productive that you are able to produce the same amount of crops with fewer workers who are then freed to go on and do other things. One thing Tamil Nadu does very well is spatially-distributed development. Everything is not Chennai; you also have Madurai, Salem and Coimbatore – so you have clusters. One recommendation would be thinking about ways of distributing development outside just Patna and creating local and mini-metropolises that can develop facilities. That might be something important - to distribute the development.
AKS: Of course, that is in our agenda also - developing other districts and other big towns (I’m not even calling them cities). They have to become regional nodes.