Bihar sees reverse brain drain

It was perhaps the worst of times. With the fall of night, Patna would blanket itself in a pall of darkness, interrupted occasionally by traffic thinning rapidly with each passing hour. Downed shutters in shops would signal fearful business, rickshaws would accept no late evening passengers and women and children would be home before sunset. It was, for all practical purposes, a self-willed curfew.

As a painful memory of his growing up days, Sumit Prakash still has this vivid remembrance of his home town: notorious, lawless and hopeless about the status quo like a defeated warrior. “Six-seven years ago when I would go visit my parents in Patna, I wouldn’t be moving around without a bodyguard; I wouldn’t even be allowed to walk up to an ATM alone!” he recalls.

One fine morning in 2007, he realized this was changing. While Prakash and wife Smita Choudhary were driving back from a holiday to Sydney, where they both worked as business managers for different firms, his Patna-based father, who had just been denied visa from the Australian government on account of his old age, called up. “He asked us to return home. We had everything going for us, but we had no close family in Australia. Our option was Bombay or the United States where my brothers live but that day, out of the next 5 hours of the drive, we spent three hours talking about Patna,” he says.

The recurring leitmotif of the conversation centred around the improving law and order situation and infrastructure in Bihar and the record number of convictions in the state since the new regime under chief minister Nitish Kumar took over in 2005.

That is why, in February 2008, Prakash and Smita, homesick and looking for purpose in their state of birth, came back to settle down and run the family-owned school Prarambhika in Patna’s upmarket Boring Road. And just like them, there are many—engineers, doctors, management consultants, students and businessmen born and brought up in Bihar, but away for better education and employment during the previous regime led by Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)—who are returning to the state driven by emerging opportunities.

“For the first time in the last 60 years, there is a concerted effort to build the state. I wouldn’t say rebuild because there was no such thing as role of the state in Bihar earlier. Now, the place of the bahubalis (musclemen) has been usurped by the state. Convictions took place across all castes and classes unlike before when only people from the disadvantaged sections would suffer. Because of this, respect for the state and faith that police will act against lawbreakers has remarkably increased,” says Saibal Gupta, director of Asian Development Research Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Patna. There have been convictions of 49,000 people since 2005 including charge sheeted politicians such as Shahabuddin, a former member of Parliament from the RJD.

Neither had Anjay Thakur, a commercial pilot trained from California and a professional photographer who returned in late 2008 to look after the family-run hospital Shushruta Surgical Clinic. Not very long ago, Anjay’s father Rajeshwar Thakur, Patna’s leading laparoscopic surgeon, would close his hugely popular clinic in Patna city locality at dusk. “Earlier, doctors travelled with bodyguards. One doctor was shot down and we also know several doctors who got threat calls for extortion,” he says, adding that kidnapping and ransom were industry here.

Thakur’s family hospital is now in expansion mode with him at the helm of affairs, which is unusual for his accomplishments. In Thakur’s return lies abandonment of two promising careers in India’s metros.

After various stints of flying and dabbling in photography with stalwarts such as Farrokh Chothia and Atul Kasbekar in Mumbai and running a studio of his own in Delhi, Thakur’s interest in family’s hospital projects sparked owing to various reasons. “I had offers from IndiGo for flying, but when recession set in, it was withdrawn. Around that time, my family was planning to set up a hospital in Noida close to Delhi. My father suggested that it should be built in Patna,” he remembers.

From the gloomy flashback of the city in the 1990s, Thakur now mulls on the present. His voice lifts up as he describes his mornings at the Patna Golf Club, his impromptu road trips across the state and outside and most of all, the night life quickening to metropolitan tastes.

That Bihar is indeed becoming a state where aspirations and enterprise have replaced sense of insecurity and scepticism is evident from the newly opened restaurants and bars that serve till midnight, social gatherings in its clubs where young people have replaced the older members and lavish weddings. “Earlier, people were scared to show off wealth. At the club where I go, there would only be old people my father’s age but now, I see many of my generation and even younger, which goes on to show that people are indeed returning and that homes no longer have just old parents,” Prakash says.

Anjay, while dusting off his Mamiya, Nikon D2X and F100 cameras which he says he used for shooting stills of Bollywood movies such as Ek Ajnabee and Pyare Mohan, particularly remembers the use of Jimmy Jib cranes, mostly used in film shootings, at a marriage in Patna recently. “Can you beat that? How many people do you think can afford to shoot weddings with a Jimmy Jib?”

Apart from Prakash and Thakur, who have family ventures to manage and run, there are many who have returned to start from the scratch.

Bibhuti Bikramaditya worked with nSYStech Co. Ltd, an information technology firm in South Korea, as a project manager before setting up Tech Brains Pvt. Ltd, probably the first electronics design company in Bihar, in 2008. “I come from a small village and when I started doing decent abroad, I felt I should do something for the state,” he says.

Bikramaditya, while in South Korea, formed Bihar Brains Development Society (BBDS) in 2004, a forum for non-resident Biharis, which eventually shifted to Patna with him three years later. At the Society, he organizes scientists, entrepreneurs and students to brainstorm on opportunities that can be created in Bihar apart from promoting local talent.

For his electronics design company, Bikramaditya has also hired engineers from engineering colleges in the state such as National Institute of Technology (NIT) and Maulana Azad College of Engineering and Technology, Patna. “We are also helping NIT to set up a chip design lab. Then, there are several student exchange programmes we facilitate for colleges in Bihar with universities in Seoul,” he says.

The state government, too, is trying to reach out to people and exhorting them to return. Chief minister Nitish Kumar has a weekly jan sunwai (public hearing) at his residence. Police stations across the state have been freshly painted and refurbished and emphasis is being laid on faster registration of complaints. For the Global Bihar Meet in 2006, Kumar’s government also roped in Bikramaditya, who was then in South Korea, as international coordinator for the event.

But even Bikramaditya admits that the next step for the government, after fixing law and order, should be encouraging entrepreneurship, which will create jobs and bring in investment. “People right now are driven by the feel good factor,” he says. “Now, we need more dynamism from the chief minister; he needs to be the Narendra Modi of Bihar.”

Yet, at the Bihar Chamber of Commerce, where until a few years ago angry businessmen would lash out at the state’s top police officers for failing to check crime spiral, the topics for discussion have moved to traffic snarls in the city, frequent power cuts, public denial for paying for parking and lack of civic manners in people.

For those returning from the metros, it’s adjusting to this change in lifestyle and attitude that is bringing in the conflict in their happy vision of getting back to their roots.

“As a society which hangs out together, there is little of it. All my friends still remain outside the state, which is why I get to share my father’s friends,” says Prakash.

During his golf practice sessions, he eventually made a few friends, but wife Smita, who handled mergers and acquisitions at an Australian firm and now is the vice-principal of Prarambhika, says she continues to be constrained by a society, which is intensely patriarchal. “When I walk into a bank, it’s my husband people address even if I have asked the question. At 31, people refuse to believe that I can get work done. But I know it would be foolish to expect a drastic change overnight,” she says. “Since I have decided to live here, I have also decided that I am going to do everything and enjoy it too.”

This first appeared in Mint. Next in the four-part series on Bihar, read “The growing tribe of migrants”.

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