The challenge of urbanizing Bihar

There is immense potential for urbanization along newly built state highways

Over last ten years, Bihar has been among the star performers on many developmental indices, including growth rates. The state developed substantial road network and increased its per capita income in these years which was facilitated by the high investment in basic infrastructure.

However, the state has been trailing the urban development graph when compared with the other states of the country. The state often finds its place in the headlines for wrong reasons, including low level of urbanization.

As per the figures of the 2011 census, Bihar ranks second least urbanized state among the 35 states and Union Territories put together. The percentage of urban population to the total population of the state stands at as low as 11.3 per cent. Needless to say, the state needs to put in gargantuan efforts to develop urban centres which could facilitate economic growth and offer rising quality of life to its inhabitants.

In times when cities are looking forward to developing into smart cities and town, Bihar is gasping to have the basics of urbanization. So what is pulling it down? Is it the real fact or ambiguities in the survey processes that are making it look worse? Of course this is debatable but there is a lot more to it than figures.

A report ‘Issues on Urban Development in Bihar’ by Amitabh Kundu, suggests that the state is showing high income growth but it has not been converted into a rapid reduction in poverty, which as per experts is the root cause of the low levels of urbanization in the predominantly agricultural state.

Weak Economic Base is mainly underpinning low urbanization in Bihar. Infrastructure deficit is a continuous constraint in urban sprawl. Population growth and mass influx into urban habitations have been developing stress over the existing infrastructure and services; consequently affecting the quality of life of the urban inhabitants.

A resident of Bihar for decades and environmentalist with the UNDP, Deepak Kumar, explains that there are two major factors that have contributed to the non-realization of the goal of urbanization. Firstly, it is unplanned township and secondly, mismanagement in the urban governance.

This apart, the state has been failing to attain an efficient and equitable financial allocation for urban infrastructure. A government employee in the Urban Development department on the condition of anonymity explains how any project faces difficulties pre and post execution.

“There are a number of social issues that affect decision making during planning. Any development plan has to first get sanction from a number of departments. If that is through then there are hurdles like encroachments, compensation for the displaced, stirs over demands of some or the other groups, delay which in turn culminates into additional cost, then additional sanction requests followed by further delay and the story drags on. If lucky it completes, if unlucky then gets abandoned,” says Kumar.

Migration is another issue that contributes to the sluggish growth. “There has still been a rampant scale of inter-state mass migration due to lack of feasibility in encouraging the secondary and tertiary sectors, particularly industry and construction,” says Kumar.

The issues of Urban Development in Bihar points out that even though there is a low level and low pace of urbanization, the state already has a strong evident historical industrial corridor from Bhagalpur to Rohtas. Lack of correlation of the urbanization pattern and urban growth shows that the growth pattern isn’t linked with the existing urban growth. The low rate of urbanization in the central and northern Bihar is mainly attributed to the fact that there has still been large dependence on primary sector and low growth registered therein.

According to the Kundu report it is a matter of concern that the number of urban centres in the state is very low in relation to its population and area even in comparison with other less developed states in the country. Surprisingly, the number of these centres has gone down from 135 in 1991 to 130 in 2001, which has not been noted in case of any other state. Furthermore, of the 130 urban centres, only five are Census towns while the others are statutory towns – these have been declared as towns by the state government. The Census towns thus constitute less than four percent of the urban centres in the states, compared to the national figure of 26 per cent.

The urbanization figures all over and across reports paints a sorry picture.The biggest road block is that Bihar needs a progressive urban development policy for rapid urbanization which is not the case. Kumar explains that a progressive urban development policy will propel the process, of setting up urbanized areas, as the polar engine of growth.

Another hindrance is the impediments of urban governance. There is an urgent need to mitigate these impediments that could attract stakeholders and investors for generating opportunities of employment through sectorial diversification.

A very interesting view, certainly not good for the state’s growth, comes up while talking to people on why is it that development or urbanization is not happening at the desired pace. Around 10 people interested in contributing to the state’s growth failed to do so because of the tedious and lengthy processes involved if someone wanted to offer any help, donation or grants for the development of the state.

Kumar points out that there is a need for the government to facilitate better environment for the growth of manufacturing and construction businesses in the state.

Then there are legislative challenges that keep the state from urbanizing. Bihar Municipal Act 2007 didn’t consider relevance of services like administration, health, education, finance, trade and transport for the process of notifying new statuary towns. The Act itself ignores the increasing built-up area, role of agglomeration (Agglomeration economies are the benefits that come when firms and people locate near one another together in cities and industrial clusters), and out growth in the process of notification of new statuary towns. There is a need to eliminate legislative infringement as a policy intervention for better sustainable urban governance.

The Government needs to liberalize the legislation to facilitate conducive and safe environment for investment in real estate and manufacturing sector. This will felicitate exploration of the employment opportunities in such a way that the dependence on primary sector would decline to a certain extent whereas the share of construction and manufacturing sector in offering employment would increase. Consequently the interstate migration would slow down.

It is extremely significant that despite low level and low pace of urbanization in the state, a strong urban industrial corridor has come up on the route connecting Delhi and the cities of Uttar Pradesh with north Bengal. This can be attributed to trading route from north east India strengthened by the Delhi-Jalpaiguri railway line. The industrial growth of Bihar had a setback after the division of the state but there are indications that the growth is picking up in many of the southern districts that can be attributed to resource support primarily in terms of coal and electricity from the state of Jharkhand.

The north Bihar has a large number of districts that have less than seven percent population living in urban centres. Unfortunately, not many of them exhibit rapid urbanization largely over the past two decades, due to their weak economic base. The low rate of urbanization in most of the districts in the central and northern region of Bihar can be attributed to their dependence on primary sector and a low rate of growth recorded therein.

Most of the indicators do show worrying figures but at the same time there is a silver lining. During the last decade, even though Bihar projected a moderate shift in the trend of urbanization it has recorded rapid economic development. Several policies of the government like Housing for All by 2022 and Swachh Bharat Mission that focus on urbanization have given much needed initiation for development especially for states like Bihar.

Several cities and towns of Bihar have been included in the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). The scheme, launched in 2015, by the government of India focuses on establishing infrastructure that would ensure adequate robust sewerage networks and water supplies essential for urban transformation. A large number of small cities have been included in the program, including Gaya, Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur, Biharsharif, Darbhanga, Purnia, Arrah, Begusarai, Katihar, Munger, Chapra, DinapurNizamat, Saharsa, Hajipur, Sasaram, Dehri, Siwan, Bettiah, Motihari, Bagaha, Kishanganj, Jamalpur, Jehanabad, Buxar and Aurangabad.

This apart three cities – Muzaffarpur, Biharsharif and Bhagalpur have listed under the ‘to be smart cities.’ Experts believe that Smart Cities and AMRUT would pace up the momentum of expanding urbanization in Bihar.

In context of urbanization efforts, the 2031 Master Plan for Patna has highlighted some important guiding principles which show the direction for future urban planning process. The focus on concepts like multiple nuclei based urban planning, rural urban continuum and transit oriented development are the futuristic and long term approach which will go a long way in defining the urbanization effort of the state. Other states also need to follow these principles in their own urbanization drive.

At the end of the day, urbanization is interplay of economic development, city planning and public service delivery. Bihar needs to work on all these areas in order for efficient and sustainable urbanization to take place. The economic growth of the state has been strong over last decade; now is the time to work on more direct and complex issues of urban planning.

Sagarika Ranjan