Democracy Lab

The Battle for Bihar

Sleaze still plagues India. But one place is fighting back.

For decades, Bihar was a byword for all that ailed India. This fertile northern state enjoyed a reputation as one of the most corrupt places in a country plagued by sleaze. Bihar's politicians, police, and criminals fused into a malevolent nexus. Venal politicians and officials siphoned off development funds to fill their own coffers. Young people moved to richer states in search of a better life. The only thriving industries were kidnapping and protection rackets. At sundown, traders shuttered their businesses and people hurried indoors as armed gangs took over the streets. Poverty in some parts of the state resembled that of sub-Saharan Africa.

That was then. Today Bihar boasts the fastest growth rate of India's 28 states. Its economy is expanding at an astonishing rate of over 14 percent, far ahead of the national average of about 7.5 percent. And that's no flash in the pan. Between 2005 and 2009 the state maintained a steady expansion of about 11.5 percent each year -- a sharp improvement on the 3.5 percent in the half-decade before. These days Biharis throng to shopping malls and restaurants. Movie theaters again draw late-night crowds, and real estate prices are on the rise -- two reliable indicators of growing public confidence.

There are many components to Bihar's success. But surely none of them is quite as dramatic as its war on corruption. "Undoubtedly corruption has taken over India," write economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari in their just-released book, Corruption in India: The DNA and the RNA. "It rules over the country with its stranglehold in every aspect of the state and consequently in all aspects of life of citizens." But perhaps their most startling conclusion is that Bihar -- once that bastion of graft -- is now "the least corrupt state" in India.

That claim comes at a moment when the national self-confidence of the world's biggest democracy has been blighted by the stain of malfeasance. The term of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, personally honest and but utterly ineffective, has yielded revelations of one massive scam after another. Pressured by public attention and alert courts, at least three members of Parliament, including a cabinet minister, and several high-ranking officials and corporate executives, have been sent to prison for allegedly looting taxpayers' money. They might have gone scot-free had not millions of outraged Indians come out onto the streets in support of an anti-graft movement launched by a septuagenarian Gandhian named Anna Hazare. "No one gets punished for corruption in our country," Arvind Kejriwal, a leading activist of the India Against Corruption movement and a top aide to Hazare, has written. "[T]here is not a single anti-corruption agency that is independent of the government or has the complete powers to take action."

Against this dismal background, Bihar stands out. While the sources of its success may be dramatic, they aren't particularly mysterious. They are rooted -- as has so often been the case in other successful anti-corruption fights around the world -- in a simple ingredient: political will.

It all started in 2005, when Nitish Kumar, a now 60-year-old former engineer with a reputation for simplicity and uprightness, took over as the state's chief minister, unseating a scam-tainted politician named Lalu Yadav and his wife, Rabri Devi. The couple, surrounded by hordes of scheming relatives and caste loyalists, had ruled the state for nearly 15 years and left it at the bottom of virtually all development rankings.

Kumar, who started his political career as a young activist in a nationwide anti-corruption crusade in the 1970s, was determined to show the state's 103 million people some results. With an unwavering determination rare in India's opportunistic and fractious party politics, Kumar launched initiatives on several fronts -- from getting girls to school with free bicycles to putting lazy, corrupt government officials on notice to shape up or face punishment. "Nitish Kumar has shown that with a clean image and strong political will, one can bring about steady improvement in the life of citizens," says anti-corruption crusader Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information. "He strengthens democracy and stands out among all the other politicians in India."

Soon after taking over as chief minister, Kumar declared that his first priority was "to establish the rule of law with justice and then root out corruption from the state." He started by issuing a public declaration of his own modest property and demanded that all his cabinet colleagues do the same. He brushed aside murmurs of protest and recently extended the diktat further to encompass nearly half a million civil servants and police. Now both citizens and tax officials can easily keep an eye on who is getting richer.

To promote transparency, all complaints of bribery will soon be uploaded to YouTube, making for a palpable shaming effect. The government is also offering whistle-blowers a cash reward of nearly $10,000 if any such tip-offs result in conviction of a corrupt official.

Public transparency is only one of the planks of the chief minister's assault on sleaze. He has also focused on the lackadaisical justice system, a notorious problem in India, where trials often drag on for years while the accused continue to enjoy the fruits of their crimes. The chief minister set up special fast-track courts that have convicted some 66,000 criminals over the past six years for crimes ranging from murder and kidnapping to stealing public funds. Those convicted are barred from getting government contracts. Today, Bihar is far ahead of even resource-rich Delhi in sending criminals to jail.

Last year Kumar upped the ante by enacting a law that empowers the Bihar government to confiscate any ill-gotten property, pending trial, and turn it into a school or health clinic. If the accused wins the case, the property is returned (plus interest). "The basic objective ... is to instill a sense of fear in the minds of corrupt public servants," wrote Kumar on his blog. "When they see that their property earned through corrupt practices is ultimately seized by the government, they will realise the futility of amassing wealth."

Already about 20 officials, including a former state police chief, have been caught in the dragnet. Three have seen their property confiscated, sending a powerful deterrent message to potential bribe-takers around the state.

Another Kumar law, the Right to Public Services Act, imposes deadlines on the provision of around 50 government services. Officials used to delay such requests, a common tactic to extort bribes. Now officials entrusted with providing these services face penalties if they miss the deadlines (30 days to issue a driver's license, for example). Kumar has also enacted a law (the Bihar Lokayukta Act) that gives a five-member ombudsman panel broad powers to investigate and prosecute all government functionaries, including the chief minister himself. The panel is modeled on similar bodies in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, where they have played a major role in damming corruption. Meanwhile, efforts to set up a similar office on a national level -- a key demand of Hazare's movement -- have foundered.

Kumar's war on corruption has had a dramatic effect on the delivery of government services. His administration built nearly 2,400 km of road in 2011, compared with just 415 km in 2004, the year before he took over. The administration has opened 15,000 schools and filled doctors in 60-odd government hospitals and over 800 primary health-care centers in rural areas. Crime rates have plummeted. In state elections in 2010, voters (shown in the photo above) rewarded him with a landslide victory, awarding the ruling coalition a record 206 seats out of 243 seats in the state legislature. "Nitish Kumar, unlike other politicians, does not only talk, but acts on his promises," says Pradeep Arya, a businessman who regularly deals with Bihar government agencies.

Kumar clearly does not intend to rest on his laurels. He maintains a grueling daily schedule, rising every day at 4 a.m. and finishing the morning papers by 6, when he starts directly calling district officials who have drawn critical media attention -- a tactic calculated to keep civil servants on their toes. Every Monday morning he holds public audiences in his official residence in Patna, the state capital. Anybody can petition him there. Every petition or complaint is recorded, and the petitioner receives a tracking number that can be used to follow the status of the action on a government website. No less a figure than U.S. philanthropist Bill Gates has given the reforms his endorsement: "The great works being done here are lessons for other places in the world," he said during one recent visit to Bihar.

Still, Bihar faces more than its share of problems. Poverty still plagues the state. Kumar needs to create more jobs and better infrastructure. Development plans are hindered by a lack of electricity. No new power-generation unit has been set up in the last 20 years, and frequent power cuts disrupt industrial activity. For industry to find Bihar appealing, the state must provide clear land records and rights, as well as make sale and purchase of land easy and uncomplicated. For that the government needs to push for land reform, a politically sensitive subject that would invariably draw ire from the landowners who benefit from the current mess in the land titles and records. And just this month, an inquiry discovered a scam involving faked claims for free meals, uniforms, and scholarships in the states' schools -- which merely underlines the point that Kumar's zeal won't be enough unless it is buttressed by thorough institutional reform.

Yet the sense of hope is palpable. It is best symbolized by a primary school in a light-yellow, three-story modern building in an upper-class neighborhood of Patna. In the first case of its kind in India, the Bihar government confiscated the house from an allegedly corrupt senior under trial. The nearly 100 students of the school are all from poor Dalit (oppressed) castes. Their previous school was a dark, dingy two-room space next to a stinking open sewer. The students now play on the manicured lawns, study in classrooms with marble floors, and use flush toilets and hot water. The novel experiment encourages Indians to believe that unwavering political will can bring about dramatic improvements and make the country a real beacon of democracy. Nitish Kumar and his resurgent Bihar could well serve as their mascot.

DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images

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