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Life has improved for Renu Kumar, who lives in the village of Dharampur Mushahar Toll, but she and her family are still extremely poor. (Candace Feit/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
Life has improved for Renu Kumar, who lives in the village of Dharampur Mushahar Toll, but she and her family are still extremely poor. (Candace Feit/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

India

The boom in Bihar sounds more like a whimper Add to ...

Step into Vijay and Renu Kumar's rough thatch sleeping shelter, to escape a light summer rain. Duck – the roof is so low that even Mr. Kumar, three inches shorter than his wife, has to crouch. Settle on the plank bed, with a scrap of old sari for cushion, because there are only six inches between bed and wall, not enough space to sit on the floor. Ms. Kumar will hastily tuck their cooking pots underneath the boards – their dirt hearth is in here too.

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A curious goat will poke its nose in, and a cloud of flies will follow. The rain picks up, and it becomes clear that the branch roof has worn thin in several places.

How do the Kumars feel life is, these days, in Dharampur Mushahar Toll?

Mr. Kumar shrugs. “Not bad,” he says in Hindi. “Not so bad.”

He is making money, as much as $7 a day, selling the date liquor he brews to others in the village. The Kumars' three children are at school, and the state government has paid for their uniforms and books. The last time a child fell sick, a doctor at the local health centre gave them free medicine.

Last year the village was connected to the electrical grid – the Kumars haven't saved up enough for wiring yet, but their children study by lamplight in the evenings on the porch of the community centre.

And although they are Mushahar people, the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system, no one has been beaten or harassed by an upper-caste neighbour in a year.

You, the visitor, may well have two reactions to this: You may share the Kumars' pleasure in how their life is transforming. And you may also think, “Good god, if this is the new good life, how can these people possibly have been living before?”

Bihar is a sun-bleached state of 90 million people in the east of India, and it has for decades been a byword for hopelessness. It has the lowest literacy rate, the highest child-mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy in India. It was ruled for decades by thuggish politicians who played caste politics to keep themselves in power while the state crumbled around them.

But under a new, reformist government, Bihar has become a synonym not for intractable despair, but for turnaround – and thus, for the ambitions of India as a whole. Bihar has posted economic growth above 11 per cent in each of the last five years, and suddenly it is every business titan's pick to be the next Bangalore. The national newspapers regularly splash good news from Bihar on their front pages.

Yet, in truth, very few business titans or newspaper editors actually come to Bihar. They don't meet the Kumars, in their much-improved, still-terrible village.

Half the children are without clothes; a third of them have the deep hacking coughs and crusted snot of chronic respiratory-tract infections. In the newly built early-learning centre, a gaggle of three-year-olds sits beneath one tattered poster of the English alphabet – not that there is anyone around who can read it. Few people have any food in their tiny houses; they buy what they can each day after working on the land of higher-caste villagers.

To travel in Bihar – in the rural areas or in the capital, Patna, where the streets are choked with garbage and the lights flicker out every couple of hours – is to see both how the place has changed, and how terribly far it has to go. And it is in this, more than anything else, that Bihar is emblematic of India – of its dark side of absolute poverty and exclusion, and how very difficult a task it is to change them.

A visionary workaholic brings in a one-man revolution

Change came to Bihar in late 2005, when a pot-bellied, teetotalling socialist engineer named Nitish Kumar was elected Chief Minister, with a vow to transform the place.

At first the rest of the country watched in bemused fascination as he locked up the gangsters who had long run the state, had thousands of kilometres of roads paved at breakneck speed and held weekly public meetings in his yard to hear people's grievances. It was a spectacle. No one expected it to last.

But not long ago Mr. Kumar (no relation to the Kumars in Dharampur) was re-elected in a landslide. He vowed to redouble his efforts.

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