One State, Two Stories: How the River Ganga Creates a Social Divide in Bihar

In Bihar, to the north of river Ganga flow rivers Baghmati, Burhi Gandak, Kamlabalan and Khiroi, seasonally wreaking havoc in the districts they flow through. The past few months have been no different. According to the State Disaster Management Department bulletin, more than 75 lakh people have been affected by the worsening floods. There have been at least 24 casualties- 10 in Darbhanga, 6 in Muzaffarpur, 4 in West Champaran, and 2 each in Saran and Siwan. Floods in northern Bihar recur every year, and the lack of preparedness by the state results in the poor residents facing the brunt of the worst of the floods. They become victims of not just natural disasters, but of systemic institutional failures as well. 

South Bihar on the other hand is left with very little damage. In some ways river Ganga is the Laxman Rekha, beyond which disasters are forbidden. This natural demarcation seems to not only limit the effects of natural calamities, but also of poverty, and by extension of poor health and poor education.

Evidence from Census of India

This difference can be seen in the following figures which plots the percentage of literate individuals in the villages of Bihar as calculated from the Census of India, spanning from 1991 to 2011. If you see carefully you’ll notice a peculiar trend- the villages south to the river Ganga are relatively more literate than those to the north, as evident by the relatively darker pixels in the south. This difference is harder to observe for the 2011 figure due to the significant rise in absolute literacy rates between 2001 and 2011. The literacy rate for India went up from 64.83% in 2001 to 74.04% in 2011, showing an increase of 9.21 percentage points, although for Bihar it was much lower at 63.8%.

Evidence from National Family Health Survey

The  National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4) gives us more recent estimates, having been conducted last in 2015-16. NFHS is a large-scale, multi-round survey conducted in a representative sample of households throughout India. In many of the education and health indicators provided by NFHS-4 we find similar differences, in-fact more starkly than to those of Census literacy data- south Bihar does comparatively better than north Bihar. 

In the above figures we see district-wise plots of different indicators of female education which follow the same trend of the north-south divide. The districts to the south of river Ganga have darker pixels than those in the north- an indicator of higher average literacy rates. To be precise, 44.86% of women are literate in the northern districts, as compared to 53.72% of women in the southern districts. Similarly, while in northern districts 54% of women aged six years and above have ever attended school, around 60% of women in the southern districts have done so. Similarly for the attainment of at least 10 years of schooling, southern districts do better with 27% of such women as compared to almost 19% in the north, a difference of over 40%. The story is similar for male literacy; average literacy rate in the north for men is 74.24%, whereas in the south it’s 80%.

These differences aren’t limited to just education; a few health indicators also seem to be following the same pattern. In the following figures we can similarly find a north and south split. 41.57% of pregnant women in the south received antenatal check-up in their first trimester, as opposed to 32% in the north. The northern districts also do worse off in cases of short term morbidities, as can be seen by the figures for acute respiratory infection (ARI) and  for diarrhoea. On an average 3% and 1.5% of respondents are reported to have symptoms of ARI in the 2 weeks preceding the survey in the north and the south respectively. Similarly, for prevalence of diarrhoea the numbers were 12% and 7%.

The relative backwardness of north Bihar raises many questions- Why are the northern districts doing so poorly? What different conditions do they face, or have faced in the past, that has made them more vulnerable to poor circumstances than the south? They are governed by the same government, have similar cultures and follow similar traditions, then what creates this divide? 

Persisting Impact of Extractive Institutions

A possible explanation is the floods. The sheer impact scale of the disaster, with millions being displaced and some cases resulting in death, in addition to the frequency of floods, will understandably increase the likelihood of the region being less developed. However, I’d like to offer another explanation, not necessarily as an alternative, but one that could also possibly account for the north and south divide. We find interesting answers when we study the kind of institutions these two regions have faced in the past, and the impact, if any of these institutional differences persists even today. 

In their book Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson put forward a theory that aims to explain why some regions move towards prosperity, and others towards poverty. They define two kinds of institutions– inclusive and extractive– that go on to determine it. Inclusive institutions are those that encourage economic activities by creating incentives for people to make the best use of their talents and skills. To be inclusive, the authors say, institutions must have “secure private poverty, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provides a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it must permit the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their careers”. On the other hand extractive institutions are “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset”. Usually the “extracting” subset are a small group of elite individuals who exploit their subordinate masses to enrich themselves at the cost of the subordinates’ development.

It has been found that such extractive institutions can also have persisting effects much later into the future. One of the prime examples that the authors discuss in their book is that of Peru’s mining mita. The mita system was an Inca labour institution which was later revived by the Spanish colonial rulers that functioned between 1573 and 1812. It was a forced labour system in which one-seventh of the male inhabitants of a defined catchment area, called reducciones, were required to work in the silver mines. Acemoglu and Robinson note how Acomayo, a region within the catchment area, is much poorer than nearby Calca, a region that was not. A study by Melissa Dell finds that the districts which were subject to the long-run mita system have household consumption reduced by one-third and childhood stunting increased by around five percentage points than the districts which were not subject to the long-run mita system.

Acemoglu and Robinson, and Dell in their respective studies conclude that the effects of the institutional exploitation of indigenous labour through mita have  persisted even today. The poor conditions of residents of reducciones can be traced back 100 of years to an exploitative labour system. Is it then possible that similar institutions created a divide between north and south Bihar?

North Bihar faced a major extractive economic institution during the British colonial rule, that of the Indigo plantations. Indigo plantations in Bihar can be traced back to 1778. Similar to Peru’s mita system, the Indigo plantations created an exploitative labour system that some historians deem equivalent to slavery due to the extensive abuse faced by the farmers. 

In his paper The Political Economy of Indigo Farming in India and Champaran Satyagrah, Bhanu Pratap Singh of Mahatma Gandhi Central University explains the economic and political structure of Indigo cultivation in Bihar. He notes that Champaran, Saran, Muzafarpur and Darbhanga in north Bihar, collectively known as the Tirhut, were the four major indigo manufacturing regions. Interestingly, these are also the districts that have been hit the hardest in the floods, and with the highest casualties.  

Singh explains that the zamindars gave large tracts of lands to the planters on both temporary and permanent basis. Under the system which came to be known as the Teen Kathiya Sattas, the planters forced the tenants to grow indigo on 3/20thof their lands. In case of failure in doing so, the farmers had to pay Tawan, a penalty of Rs. 100. Singh notes that the prevalent land settlement system exploited the farmers wherein all profits accrued to the zamindars, planters and Britishers, leaving nothing for the farmers. The planters also misused military power to maintain status quo, and after the invention of artificial indigo they also shifted the losses on the shoulders of the farmers through coercive measures such as arbitrary increase in rents, fines, and seeking compensations in case the farmer switched cultivation to a different crop.

The striking similarity between the labour exploitation under Indigo plantations in Bihar and the mining mita system in Peru, with similar patterns of divide between the regions which were the victims of long-run extractive economic institutions and those which were not, begs the question- did the Indigo manufacturing in Bihar result in persisting poor education and health outcomes for north Bihar? 

The Way Forward

A lot has to be studied and controlled for before we can conclusively draw a relationship between the persisting effects of institution of Indigo cultivation and the relative backwardness of north Bihar. The reader should thus maintain caution, this study at present is at an exploratory stage. This essay simply seeks to motivate a further engagement with rural Bihar, and to explore possible explanations for the north-south difference. 

It is often easy to blame circumstances beyond our control, in our case the floods, when the tasks at hand seem unsurmountable. It is true that exogenous shocks like natural calamities indeed cannot always be foreseen and thus controlled, however many states in India including Bihar experience these disasters on a frequent basis. We do have the capacity to pre-empt them, and prepare necessary safeguards for the millions of lives that are affected every year. And it is despicable to see that it is the same story of government indifference. Thus this engagement becomes important because the poor people of Bihar are the unchallenged victims of institutional failures, possibly not of Indigo plantations, but of state government authority certainly. 

Rishita Sankrit is a Teaching Fellow for Economics at Ashoka University. All the figures have been created and their respective statistics calculated by the author herself to the best of her knowledge. Any discrepancy is unintended. 

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