‘Unequal: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours’ Throws Light on Bihar’s Plight

Published in 2023, Swati Narayan’s book ‘Unequal: Why India Lags Behind Its Neighbours’ is an interesting read that is both engrossing and enlightening. It compares India’s Bihar with neighboring geographically contiguous countries, Bangladesh and Nepal, because of their similarity in history, geography, culture and average incomes. It also analyzes India’s southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and India’s south-east neighbor Sri Lanka. In this post, I will focus on the insights I gained from the book.

I would begin by sharing how the book helped me understand the state of Bihar better. Bihar, the author finds, suffers from a lot of issues on various fronts. As per the findings, government schools, hospitals, transport and other public services were found to be severely neglected. On the public healthcare front, shut anganwadis, faraway and often shut health facilities, insufficient medicines with doorstep health workers, delays in salary payments to anganwadi workers, lack of subsidies to construct toilets and no money for anganwadi meals meant that the poorest suffered the most. When it came to education and schools, the issues of lacking basic infrastructure including toilets, student and teacher absenteeism, textbook arrival delays, corporal punishment, girls cleaning boys’ toilets, only girls sweeping school premises, children sitting on classroom floors and dismissive teacher behavior were still observed. When it comes to women, widespread illiteracy and rampant domestic violence still affect Bihar. Other than that, low average income, poverty, caste divisions and discrimination, lack of irrigation and agricultural worker landlessness plague the state.

The author talks about the hardships faced specifically by the marginalized communities living in Bihar whose size of population is by no means trivial. She talks about extreme poverty, neglected hamlets, landlessness, discrimination in school so bad that children remain at home, food not being served to children in anganwadis, the sexist and casteist Dola Pratha ritual and underrepresentation of women in positions of power.

The author (also) points out what Bangladesh got right. She praises their doorstep delivery of welfare services, the high levels of commitment of politicians to social good, the contribution of innovative and apolitical NGOs and the very interesting and heartening fact that most women there don’t eat after their husbands as a cultural norm. She highlights how landlessness among rural households in Bangladesh stood at only 8% in 2019.

Nepal is also acknowledged by the author for its performance in a lot of respects. From almost every Nepali household having a toilet in 2017 to most elderly in the nation receiving a pension, there’s surely a lot to learn from this neighbor. The author also praises their innovation of village toilets that use animal and human waste to produce biogas to use as cooking fuel as a cheap and sustainable energy source. She notes that the marginalized communities there are way ahead of their counterparts in India when it comes to breaking free from the shackles of caste-based barriers. Interestingly, Nepali women head 1 in every 3 households and that speaks volumes about women’s place in Nepali society.

In spite of Nepal and Bangladesh both being poorer than India, their accomplishments and effective execution are commendable, the author notes.

Sri Lanka, another of India’s neighbors, also got several things right, the author reports. Whether it is their free education and healthcare or a bigger proportion of GDP being spent on education, healthcare and nutrition, the author is all praises for the nation’s efforts and results.

Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all, reportedly, have higher investments in public services and social movements and their aforementioned success can, to a degree, be attributed to these very factors.

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The idea, clearly, is not just to highlight the places where there is still an immense need for real development, but also to applaud the efforts and successes of the Indian states that have been able to achieve success in the matter. The states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the author writes, are role models. She points out Kerala’s success, whether it is in their public distribution system for food security, their Kudumbashree women’s groups that include women of all castes and religions or their anaganwadi workers’ commitment. The importance of anti-caste social justice movements and investments in public services in shaping a brighter future in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu has been highlighted. She also mentions how West Bengal of India does much better in terms of human development indicators compared to other states and neighbors in the region.

There is, however, as obvious as it may sound, a need to invest in schools, teachers and textbooks alike, because education can be used as a great (and proven-to-work) tool to reduce societal inequalities. An attitude shift, most of all, is the need of the hour along with the understanding (based on several examples cited) that the lives of common people can be improved irrespective of the condition of the economy and economic growth.

The author holds an optimistic view about the future of all of India’s states and I couldn’t agree more. I always wanted to read a book that focused on the issues that plague Bihar to this day hindering its progress and getting in the way of the rights of Bihar’s women, and I am immensely grateful to the author for writing this amazing book. All in all, I would highly recommend this very insightful book.

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