The Bihar caste survey tabled in the legislative assembly on Tuesday paints a dismal picture of one of India’s largest states (population of 104 million as per the 2011 Census; it sends 40 representatives to the Lok Sabha). It gives a detailed breakup of the castes in the state and their socioeconomic profile. Accordingly, 63.13% of the population belongs to other backward classes (OBCs), of which the extremely backward classes (EBCs) account for 36.01% and backward castes make up 27.12%. According to the survey, 34.13% of 27.6 million families in the state earned less than ₹6,000 a month — the benchmark to be classified as poor — and only 3.9% earned more than ₹50,000. Another interesting data point is that only 4.8% of the workforce is employed by the government. Simply put, poverty is rampant in Bihar and is prevalent across all caste groups — for instance, 27.58% of Bhumihar (a landed and socially empowered community) households are poor.
The first reaction of the Nitish Kumar government to the survey findings has been to propose increasing reservations to 75%. This reflex response does not address the elephant in the room, which is widespread poverty. While social justice politics and caste-based quotas have done a lot to empower the non-upper caste population politically, the state may need to look beyond the paradigm of caste empowerment to raise incomes. Reservation is no magic pill for all the inequities in society. Moreover, reservations are enforceable only in the public sector, which is not a big employment provider — only two million people in Bihar have a government job. The organised private sector has a minuscule presence in Bihar — 1.59 million employees — whereas 10.7 million work as farmers or agricultural help and another 21.8 million describe themselves as labourers. Clearly, quotas alone cannot facilitate a radical transformation of one of the country’s most backward states.
As Bihar CM for the most of past 18 years, Kumar has done well to enforce the rule of law and address legacy issues such as the lack of roads, electricity, schools and so on — but more work remains to be done. The state has to expand its economy quickly so that the vicious cycle of poorly paid farm work and seasonal migration makes way for better-paying non-agriculture work. It has to attract private investment and create jobs in the organised sector. The focus has to be also on expanding the economic pie rather than sharing even thinner slices.
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