As Inequality Report Flags Poverty in India, Lessons from Odisha and Bihar

A C-Voter poll for Odisha and Bihar shows why good governance is key for development.

The NITI Aayog has released an exhaustive 218-page report on multidimensional poverty in India that seeks to get a more holistic and realistic measure of poverty in the country. No big surprise that Bihar leads, with an estimated 51.9% of people of the state being categorised as poor, according to the report. Instead of the traditional single parameter consumption expenditure per household, the new index has identified 12 parameters that resemble Human Development Index (HDI) parameters to estimate poverty levels in the country.

The real surprise is not that Bihar leads in terms of poverty. What should surprise at least a few pundits is that Odisha seems to have pulled way ahead of Bihar when it comes to multidimensional poverty. A C-Voter daily tracker asking voters of the respective states to rate the performance of their State governments shows that people have been consistently more satisfied with the Odisha government than the Bihar government since January 2019 till now, barring a blip around April 2019, when the Lok Sabha election campaign was in full swing.

How the Patnaik Govt Pulled Its Socks Up
An estimated 29.35% of people from Odisha are categorized as poor, according to the report, while the all-India average is 25%. Till the beginning of the 21st century, Odisha was way behind in the poverty sweepstakes, matching – and often surpassing – Bihar. But somehow, Odisha under Naveen Patnaik seems to have pulled up its socks, while Bihar under Nitish Kumar seems to have floundered. Sandeep Sahoo, a senior Bhubaneswar-based journalist, says, “Nitish Kumar was a pioneer in women empowerment and overall anti-poverty schemes. But he seems to have stumbled once he broke his ties with the BJP in 2013.”

In contrast, Naveen Patnaik has benefited by breaking off with the BJP before the 2009 elections. Political stability has helped him focus more sharply on anti-poverty schemes. Besides, he has launched schemes like Mission Shakti, which has helped 8 million women of Odisha in a big way, along with the Rs 1 per kg rice scheme that has curbed malnutrition”.

The facts clearly demonstrate what C-Voter Covid Trackers have been suggesting even during the pandemic. When we asked how many days of ration was available in respondents’ household, the number from Odisha were way better than Bihar right at the starting block, and that made a lot of difference.

It’s Really the Simple Things
To be sure, Odisha has not conquered poverty. It is still a poor state with a per capita income that is almost half the national average. Traditional measures still put Odisha near Bihar at the bottom of poverty sweepstakes. Compared to the poverty headcount ratio of 0.71 of Kerala, the 29.35 ratio for Odisha looks dismal. But look at the graph at the bottom and see firsthand how the gap between Odisha and Bihar is widening. Nitish Kumar earned a lot of plaudits from puritans who claim that his prohibition policy has dramatically improved the lives of women.

The data say that 36.51% of women in Bihar are deprived when it comes to “maternal health”, compared to just 12.77% in Odisha. Almost 39% of Bihar citizens are deprived of any assets, compared to about 13% for Odisha. One in 18 in Odisha is deprived of a bank account, while the figure is about one in five for Bihar.

There is not a single parameter out of the 12 where Bihar scores better than Odisha. Don’t forget, it is simple but critical things such as nutrition, maternal health, access to sanitation, school attendance, ownership of assets and access to bank accounts that bring about transformative changes in a generation or two. It happened with south-east Asia long ago, when India missed the bus, and now Bangladesh is outdoing India in the same parameters.

Look at the red line of dissatisfaction in Bihar. The red line is consistently representing almost 40% of the Bihar population. ‘Sushasan Babu’ lost the development narrative somewhere in the last few years.

Now compare the red line of dissatisfaction in Odisha. The red line is consistently below the 20%-mark, even during a pandemic. Naveen Babu has seen the rating swing between the blue line and the green line, which only means a swing between good and better, certainly not the bad and worse.

Jajati Karan, editor-in-chief of Ommcom News, says, “There is no doubt that Odisha has come a long way in the last two decades, especially since the disastrous Super Cyclone of 1999 when the state was at the bottom of the development index and facing an economic crisis. However, though Odisha seems to be doing much better than Bihar led by Nitish Kumar, there is a long way to go for the state to be compared to other developed states.”

Quality of Life In the Two States
Look at the red line of worse quality of life (QOL) shooting up in Bihar and satisfaction with QOL dropping like a free ball. Even before the pandemic, the green line was only in the mid-40s, while the red line was consistently representing almost a third of Bihar population.

Compare the red line in Odisha before the pandemic. It remained between the 10% to 20% range all the time, went up after COVID-19, and then settled around the 40s after the pandemic, which is significantly lower than the Bihar red line. Just compare the gap between the lines widening in Bihar and closing down in Odisha.

Narendranath Mishra, a senior journalist at Navbharat Times, who has covered Bihar extensively, is more charitable, “After ending Lalu Raj, his main focus was improving law & order, which he did and became ‘Susashan Babu’. He also implemented wonderful schemes like free bicycles for girls going to school.” But even he admits that somewhere along the way, it is a leadership failure of Nitish. “Yes, at development front its failure of Nitish babu … as a leader … he got a lot of opportunities and clout in national politics too … but still couldn’t do enough.”

Were People Optimistic?
Look at the green line of optimism crashing down in Bihar and the black line of hopelessness go up. The gap is ever-increasing, and this lack of optimism in Bihar is alarming.

In contrast, the green line of optimism is consistently up in Odisha, barring the blip during the second wave of COVID-19. The black line of hopelessness went down almost immediately. Compare these gaps with the Bihar graph, and one can clearly see the contrast.

Can political stability and continuity be an important reason for reduction in multidimensional poverty? Well, the BJP under Shivraj Singh Chauhan has run a stable regime in Madhya Pradesh since 2005, barring a short spell of Congress rule. Yet, the state reports a poverty headcount index of 36.65%. Karnataka has seen unstable governments for most of this century. Yet, it reports a poverty headcount of 13.16%. Perhaps security of the post seems to matter more than stability. Naveen Patnaik is unchallenged, is supremely secure of his chair, and hence focuses more on development and welfare. Nitish Kumar has been insecure of his chair since 2013 and the difference shows, even in his demeanour.

Do coalition and minority governments make a difference? It would seem so in Bihar. But Kerala has been home to coalition governments for decades and look at the states’s performance. In fact, India saw minority and coalition governments at the centre continuously between 1991 and 2014. And yet, India saw 270 million citizens lifted out of poverty in the same period. So, coalitions can’t be a reason, or an excuse.

How Leadership Matters

Perhaps ground realities and perceptions of good governance matter both for poverty surveys and electoral results. C-Voter had predicted a very tight race in Bihar in the 2020 Bihar Assembly election. Nitish Kumar squeaked through with a narrow majority, facing the humiliating position of his party being a distant third behind the RJD and the BJP. C-Voter had predicted a comfortable victory for Naveen Patnaik in the 2020 Assembly election. And that’s what happened, despite the BJP doing extremely well in the simultaneously held Lok Sabha polls.

Perhaps it’s time for political scientists and pundits to look once again at the numbers.