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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Shaibal Gupta: A Life Devoted to the Service of Bihar | Muchkund Dubey

Saturday 20 February 2021, by Muchkund Dubey

Dr. Shaibal Gupta, recognized both nationally and internationally as an authority on understanding the roots of Bihar’s backwardness and its social and economic dynamics, passed away in Patna on 28 January 2021. He held many important positions in committees and groups set up by the Government of Bihar and the Central Government, to examine the issues and recommend policy measures for Bihar’s economic development. But he was best known as the founder Member Secretary and Director of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna. He was also the Director of the Centre for Economic Policy and Public Finance established in ADRI under the sponsorship of the Government of Bihar.

After taking his Masters and Doctorate degrees in Economics from the Patna University, Shaibal joined the Anugrah Narayan Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna as a Lecturer and reached the position of Reader before he decided to leave the Institute and set up ADRI, an independent non-governmental think-tank. During his tenure in the A.N. Sinha Institute, and subsequently in ADRI, Shaibal did research on various problems of Bihar’s economy and polity. In his research work, he was mainly concerned with the structural aspects of the problems. He worked on the cutting edge of economics, political science, sociology and history. That way he was truly versatile and multi-disciplinarian. This approach to investigation led him to raise some very important issues such as: why sub-nationalism which has acquired ascending salience in other states of India was conspicuous by its absence in Bihar? Was the absence of sub-nationalism the main cause for the stubbornness of the caste system in Bihar? Why the people living in Bihar hesitate to recognize themselves as Biharis and prefer to be known as Maithilis, Magahis and Bhojpuris?

Shaibal made Bihar and Patna his Karmbhumi. This was not because of dearth of opportunities for him to leave a mark in the wider national or international arena. At one stage, after a prolonged period of persuasion by me, he accepted the post of Director of the Human Resource Centre of a well-known Indian multinational company located near Hyderabad. But he did not shift residence out of Bihar and served more as a visiting Director than a full-fledged one. The idea behind this Centre was not to train personnel working in the company in skills, but to train the already skilled workers to be good citizens. It was hoped that if this experiment succeeded, it would be multiplied in other large companies of India. Shaibal did establish this Centre on a sound footing, but after accomplishing the task assigned to him, he returned to Patna to resume his activities there on a full time basis. He spurned similar other opportunities and remained fixated on his love for Bihar. And he was one of the few, if not the only Bihari, who made a real difference in how outsiders thought about Bihar and how the Biharis thought about themselves.

Shaibal was one of the keenest and most perceptive purveyors of the current political, economic and social scene of Bihar and a person to go to in order to understand changes of a structural nature in this scene. To view Shaibal on the national TV channels, to hear him on the radio and to read his op-ed columns in national dailies in the event of major changes in Bihar, had become a normal expectation. His views were sought eagerly at the time of every parliamentary and state assembly elections in Bihar or mid-term changes of Government. Whenever a researcher or policy maker, either from India or abroad, wanted to decipher the mystery that is Bihar, she was first referred to Shaibal Gupta and his think-tank, ADRI.

Shaibal was a man of vision and could see things ahead of time and take initiatives for dealing with emerging challenges. Some 25 years ago, I used to hear him talking about flexi mode of production, information technology, power of market forces, integration of the Indian economy with the global economy and John Paul Frerer’s pioneering work in education, and about how these could be harnessed for promoting Bihar’s and India’s development. He got a seminal work of Paul Frerer translated into Hindi and distributed it widely and instituted a lecture in his honour in ADRI. At the same time, he was a man of action and a pragmatist in his approach to changing situations.

Among Shaibal’s activities and those of ADRI under his guidance, dedicated to serving the cause of Bihar, a few stand out for special mention. Firstly, he tried to build Bihar as a brand (to use his own term). For this, he projected to the outside world the positive features of Bihar’s economy, polity and cultural legacy. He made the single most important contribution to the educated class in India and foreign partners in India’s development believing that after the Government under Mr. Nitish Kumar came to power, Bihar was generally free from corruption at the high level, its economy had been put on a higher growth trajectory and it had made greater progress in attaining higher level of literacy and growth in agriculture than other States of India. Largely as a result of this effort to build Bihar as a brand, there is now a general impression that this is the State where things are happening.

Secondly, the official submissions of Bihar to successive Finance Commissions of India, (from 12th to 15th) were prepared in ADRI under his supervision. In addition, he coordinated in the preparation and submission to each of these Finance Commissions, a Joint Memorandum of all political parties of Bihar. Given the bitter rivalries among political parties in Bihar mainly on caste grounds, this must be regarded as a great achievement.

Thirdly, he persuaded the Government of Bihar to outsource to ADRI, research on the economy and finances of Bihar. For this purpose, he got the Centre for Economic Policy and Public Finance established in ADRI, with the support of the State Govt. But what is of even greater importance in this context is the decision of the Government of Bihar to get Economic Survey of Bihar prepared at the Centre for submission to the Legislative Assembly of the State. Shaibal guided and supervised the preparation of this survey starting from 2006-2007 and continuing on an annual basis till today. This is for the first time in the history of Bihar that such a survey having the imprimatur of the state govt. is being carried out and put in the public domain. Moreover, thanks to ADRI, Bihar is among the very few States in India which prepares such a survey for submission to the State Assembly. By now this survey has become an indispensible source of reference for any serious research on Bihar’s economy.

Fourthly, ADRI has been providing economic and historical justifications for the demand made by State Government at the political level for according to Bihar a Special Category Status. This demand has been justified on the ground of the current dismal economic and social situation in Bihar and the way it has been neglected and discriminated in the past. This calls for the Central Government’s pro-active role in assisting development projects in Bihar. Mainly as a result of the persistence of the State Government with its demand for Special Category Status, the Central Government was obliged to constitute an Expert Committee in 2013 under the chairmanship of Dr. Raghuram G. Rajan, the former Chief Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, to consider backwardness of the States of India in terms of various economic and human development indicators and evolve a Composite Development Index for the States. Shaibal was appointed a member of this Committee. When the Committee did not recommend for granting a Special Category Status to Bihar Shaibal submitted a note of dissent which is an integral part of the report of the Committee.

Lastly, Shaibal was extraordinarily successful in ADRI’s outreach effort to eminent economists and other social scientists and centres of academic excellence in India and abroad. He organized mega-events which saw the participation of galaxy of eminent social scientists from all over the world. The London School of Economics decided to set up a unit in ADRI to carry out its programme for development of Bihar, as a part of its research activity under its International Growth Centre.

Shaibal was highly resourceful and had a remarkable ability to make friends and influence people. Moreover, he was an excellent organizer who had the ability to plan and carry out projects and events to the last detail. These traits stood him in very good stead in ensuring success in his institution-building enterprise. I have known very few persons in India and hardly any in Bihar who were as agile, innovative and daring in institution building as Shaibal. He had the unique knack of identifying institutional gaps and the skill and resourcefulness to build, nurture and run institutions on a day to day basis.

Shaibal with the help of a few friends from the academic field in Patna who were frustrated by the absence of good quality research facilities and the environment in the governmental academic institutions and felt the need for building a non-governmental think-tank for carrying out research established ADRI in the early 1990s. Within a span of two to three years, Shaibal bagged the State Resource Centre for Adult Literacy, from the Central Govt. and a Jan Shikshan Sansthan to impart skills to the new literates. Thereby he put ADRI on a sound financial footing. After the splitting of Bihar, ADRI was awarded the State Resources Centre for Jharkhand also. To facilitate the functioning of this Centre, Shaibal got a branch of ADRI established in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. Reference has already been made to the establishment in ADRI of the cell of the International Growth Centre of the London School of Economics in ADRI. More recently, in 2016, he got established in ADRI a Centre for Health Policy with support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In addition to his primary pre-occupation with the problems of Bihar, Shaibal was essentially a nationalist. He had inherited the national spirit from his father and imbibed it from his illustrious father-in-law, the late Shri Jagannath Sarkar. Like them, he was a Leftist and a Socialist for that matter, and viewed developments at the national and international levels from this vantage position. But unlike other leftists, who harked back to Lenin and Stalin in their vain effort to understand the modern world, Shaibal tried to understand it with the perspective of a modern sociologist and economist.

As a committed leftist, Shaibal was also an internationalist. This trait of his personality had prompted him to organize under ADRI a seminar on ‘Bihar in the World & the World in Bihar’ and a mega event to celebrate the Birth bicentenary of Karl Marx.

I knew Shaibal for more than a quarter of a century out of which we worked together in ADRI, he as Member-secretary and Director, and myself as Chairperson, for almost twenty years. I found him to be a person of unfailing courtesy and extraordinary generosity. I never saw him in an angry or agitated mood or raising his voice in his interactions with other persons. He deployed the resources of ADRI to help establish the office of the Common School System Commission of Bihar of which I happened to be the Chairperson. He found a location for our office in the lane in which ADRI is located. He facilitated interactions of the Commission with representatives of teachers of different categories of schools in Bihar, the leading lights in the academic circle in the State and the officials of the State Government. And above all, he lent the services of Dr. P.P. Ghosh, currently the Director of ADRI, who helped us in calculating the cost of establishing a common school system in Bihar and in drafting by far the most important chapter, of the Commission’s report. This is what set the report apart from anything else done in the past in the field of education in India or after the submission of the report.

Shaibal had become almost a member of my family — my younger brother. His departure is therefore a great personal loss to me. The best tribute that can be paid to him is to preserve and strengthen ADRI which is the most precious legacy left behind by him. The challenge is to retain ADRI’s financial viability and administrative autonomy while ensuring that it remains relevant and contemporary as a think-tank and a platform for action and advocacy.

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