By any measure that day in May, at the peak of summer, was an important one for Nawada, one of Bihar’s 37 districts. The bridge over the teeming Sakri river at Kadirganj block opened that day and soon enough two decisions on either side of the river, though seemingly disparate, were taken.
In Kadirganj, on one side of the river, Naseeb Baig, a small-time weaver often seen bent over his loom, decided to send his silk cloth directly to wholesale buyers in Bhagalpur, instead of approaching middlemen.
In the village of Bhadaun, on the other side, farmer Ramesh Paswan’s 13-year-old daughter Geeta enrolled in class VIII at the SJBK Sahu High School in Warisaliganj, the nearest high school in the vicinity across the river.
The reason behind both decisions was the same: the new bridge, which at a stroke had connected the Dariapur and Warisaliganj blocks, two irreconcilable regions separated by the river for decades. “Because of the bridge, the route to Bhagalpur is now direct and I can send my goods from here,” Baig says. “I don’t have to…send it through people, who would first ferry it to the district headquarters and from there to Bhagalpur.”
No one knows if a bridge ever existed on this stretch, but Girish Narayan Singh, project engineer for Nawada in the Bihar State Bridge Construction Corporation (BSBCC), a state-owned enterprise, remembers well the awe on every villager’s face when construction began.
“They would see truckloads of building material and machines pile up along the river banks and gather out of curiosity,” Singh, who supervised the bridge’s construction, recalls. “After waiting for hours, they would ask: ‘Are you all just unloading material, or (do you) intend to build the bridge too?’”
No less dramatic than the changes it wrought is the fact that the 2.5km bridge, one of the 400-odd constructed by the Bihar government in the last 54 months, was built in a record three months. Even as India debates Bihar’s 11% gross domestic product (GDP) growth, as proclaimed in its 2009 Economic Survey, “the importance of roads and bridges as catalysts of socio-economic development remains intact”, says Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at think tank Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “In Bihar, there appears to be a big emphasis on rural connectivity and rehabilitation of district roads.”
Some of the quickest consequences of new roads and bridges have been better connectivity to markets and to service providers such as schools and hospitals. Mukhopadhyay says that with connectivity, economic activity in villages might change, tending towards growth in high-value agriculture, traditional services and even manufacturing, since around 40% of Indian manufacturing still exists in rural areas.
“Bihar is also a curious case,” Mukhopadhyay says. “While it is one of the poorest states, initial results from the Indiapolis project (an urban growth survey) show that it has a large number of big villages with high population density, which fulfil two of the three conditions for being urban. The only requirement it doesn’t meet is that at least three-quarters of the male workforce must work outside agriculture.”
Infrastructure is one sector where statistics support claims of change. Last December, Bihar topped cement consumption in India, with an annual growth of 36%. The state economic survey claims that the construction sector grew 43.85% in 2008-09. The new infrastructure being built, including roads and bridges, contributed 13.4% of the state’s GDP, against 4.2% in 2003-04.
Safety has, unsurprisingly, been a concern. In 2003, Satyendra Dubey, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and an engineer with the National Highways Authority of India, was killed allegedly by the land mafia while handling a bridge construction project. But things have changed since.
“Earlier, no contractor was willing to start construction and risk being targeted,” says Girish Chandra Mishra, a deputy general manager at BSBCC. “Now, 70% of our contractors are from the state only.”
BSBCC today has a budget of more than Rs1,000 crore, and its voluble managing director, Pratyay Amrit, has introduced single-window clearance, electronic tendering and an online mobile system for real-time tracking of projects and engineers on the field. “There are sops such as international holidays and bonuses for engineers,” Amrit says. “Where they don’t work, I also use fear to get work done.”
In his last four years, Mishra has handled nine projects sanctioned by the Asian Development Bank in Bihar, been trained in contract procurement and negotiation, and started to use a BlackBerry to monitor bridge projects. “Engineers are now going to Japan, Canada and Australia for training,” he says. “There is a great deal of motivation. Can you imagine, we just bagged a public-private partnership project worth Rs1,502 crore.”
The effects of such activity are in plain sight. In Patna district, where four bridges have been built since 2006, farmers such as Ram Bacchan Paswan have direct access to the foodgrain market in Dariyapur, in Masaudhi block, and have also opted for more expensive crops. “There is better transport now, which is why I can buy seeds and fertilizers in the local markets,” Paswan says. “Travel costs too have come down, and goods can be transported in less time.” He is now growing more green vegetables—which earn more—because he can sell them fresher, with the distance to Patna’s wholesale market reduced from 15km to a mere 7km.
A recent study conducted for BSBCC by non-profit Research and Development Initiative (RDI) in New Delhi claims that bridge construction has led to a decrease in school dropout rates, improved law and order, better access to higher education and public health centres, and a growth in cash crops and real estate prices in areas neighbouring the bridges.
“Several of these bridges are very small, but in very crucial areas, where just for a small distance, two blocks or villages would be cut off from each other,” Jitendra Chaudhary, a senior researcher who led the RDI team to Bihar, says. “This is where construction of roads and bridges has reaped maximum benefits.”
In flood-prone districts such as Katihar, Araria, Madhubani, Mujaffarpur and Sitamarhi, more than a dozen bridges have not only joined catchment areas to the rest of the state, but also led to increased vehicle movement in the interiors and, therefore, better business. “Such infrastructure development has impacted primarily the automobile and dairy businesses,” says S.P. Sinha, president of the Bihar Industries Association.
The number of motor vehicles registered annually in Bihar now stands at around 150,000—against 80,000 in 2006—and Patna provides an example of the automobile boom. At 17-month-old Mahindra Priyadarshini Motors in Saguna More, prospective buyers flock in large groups. Sales manager Ramesh Tripathi says they sell roughly 250 vehicles a month. The dealership sold 1,600 vehicles in 2009 and expects to cross that figure this year, having sold 900 vehicles till May. “The delivery time from the Nashik plant to Patna has reduced from 20-25 days to 10 days because of improved roads,” he says.
Nearby, at Priyadarshini Ford Motors, general manager Amiya Mohanty says the showroom has sold more than 500 cars in the nine months since it opened. “I was at a car dealership in Jamshedpur before,” he says. “We would wait for customers. But now, given the burgeoning demand, we are even trying to open more showrooms, and also get Volkswagen to Patna.” The showroom already has 300 pending bookings for the newly launched Ford Figo.
Better roads have opened new markets for perishable goods. Sudha Dairy, the state’s leading dairy firm, has been able to go national, spreading to 10 cities outside Bihar in the past 18 months. Having spurred a white revolution in Bihar, the dairy sold 30,000 litres of milk in Delhi and Kolkata last month.
“Because of better roads, we now collect 1.2 million litres of milk from the remotest of villages, unlike 400,000 litres before the infrastructure improved. Now, we are even planning to reach flood-prone districts in the state and as far as Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal),” says Sudhir Kumar Singh, managing director of Sudha Dairy.
Experts also predict the improved roads will boost the food processing industry. A 10-year vision document identifies 100 villages to be developed as rural agribusiness centres, bearing an investment potential of around Rs1,500 crore in the food processing sector alone. “What is most interesting…is that the farm and non-farm sectors are growing together,” says Anit Mukherjee, an associate professor at think tank National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.
O.P. Shah, a former chief of the Bihar Chamber of Commerce, is today a franchisee partner in the state for Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL). Shah says he wouldn’t have opened a Rs30 crore detergent plant in Hajipur if not for the restoration of law and order, and improved roads. “HUL was scouting for a local entrepreneur for a detergent plant in Bihar since 1993,” he says. “But no local player came forward earlier.”
At the primary school in Mobarakpur Sahajpura in Nawada, which has seen its enrolment rise from 160 children to 195 in the six months since the road outside the school was laid, Datri, a 35-year-old teacher, points to the glistening, charcoal-coloured ribbon from the window and addresses her students: “Children, study hard. Just as the government has made the roads shine, it will make all of you shine too.”