Jason Motlagh, for the Pulitzer Center
The Indian government has drawn criticism from some aid groups for not declaring a state of emergency in the wake of biblical monsoon floods that have affected more than 20 million in Bihar state alone. Officials maintain that that such disasters can be handled internally – and they're right.
According to the government, there are more than 40 million tons of surplus food grains in its stores. What's more, efficient recoveries in Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh in the wake of the December 2004 South Asia tsunami show that good governance is as important, if not more so, than how much there is to spend when it counts. The problem is that Bihar is a byword for bad management.
There's a joke popular among local relief groups in which the state's chief minister visits a U.S. senator stateside at his palacial residence. The minister asks, "My home is so small. How do you live so well?" To which the senator responds, "See that bridge over there. Ten percent." A year later, the senator pays a visit to the Bihar minister's home, now more opulent than his. "How did you get a place like this?" he asks. "See the bridge over there..." "Which one," interrupts the senator. "One hundred percent," says the minister.
This could easily be referring to Gautam Goswami, ex-district magistrate of Patna, the state capital, who along with 10 other officials was charged in 2005 with embezzling nearly $2.5 million in flood relief funds. Adding to the disgrace, Goswami was featured in Time magazine the year before as a "Young Asian Hero" for his commitment to the poor.
Not so with the current chief minister, Nitish Kumar. Dozens of people I spoke to within the government and on the street agreed that Kumar has unquestionable integrity and the will to overhaul Bihar's corrupt bureaucracy. This will be a long-term battle. In the meantime he's been an active presence in the districts hit worst by the floods, pledging to act on a "war-footing" to speed the recovery and secure more funds.
The central government, for its part, says Bihar has received more than $191 million from its Calamity Relief Fund to supplement ongoing relief operations, and has so far been reluctant to release any more money. This was also the case during the massive floods of July 2004, when visiting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was pressed by former chief minister Rabri Devi to grant a big relief package on the spot. Singh declined, reiterating that states had enough for immediate relief operations.
Still, Bihar officials insist that this year's floods were unprecedented. They argue that extra funding is needed to begin major infrastructural projects that will reduce the impact of future calamities. While these improvements may be costly now, it's far more expensive to do damage control year after year.
When national finance minister P. Chidambaram arrived here from New Delhi on Sunday to assess the situation, he was handed a memo from state officials requesting a massive emergency aid package. He allowed that Bihar deserves "special treatment." If that translates to a hefty sum, it might also be interpreted as a rare vote of confidence for a state that has enjoyed little.