Growing up in his village in Bihar, Amit Kumar Das dreamt of owning a big tractor so that he could double the produce in his father’s farm. But for that, he needed Rs 25,000 and that meant going to Delhi, as a friend advised him. His father didn’t think much of his dream and so, Das ran away from home. While he did his BA from Delhi University, he applied for a basic computer learning course at NIIT. He was refused admission because he fumbled for an answer when the interviewer asked him, “When did you come here?” He enrolled for a crash course in English, after which he was taken in by NIIT for a six-month course that was extended to a year. He completed the course and joined NIIT as a faculty member. It was at that point that he dropped his idea of owning a tractor and instead, decided to become a “computer entrepreneur in Delhi”.
From then on, Das and his dream set off on a new journey. In 2001, with his savings of “a few thousand rupees”, he started his software development firm, Isoft, from a cyber cafe in Bharat Nagar, a run-down south Delhi locality. Isoft today has 40 clients across India, UAE and Australia, and 150 employees in its offices in Delhi, Dubai and Sydney.
Meanwhile, Das, who was by now in Sydney, kept dreaming till that dream turned full circle in 2009 and reached his village, Mirdaul, in Bihar’s Forbesganj district. His wish list now reads: a “world-class education hub” in Mirdaul, a “super-speciality hospital” because his father couldn’t get proper medical care when he had a heart attack, and drinking water to people in the state’s districts where contaminated water causes severe illnesses.
Das, 30, is among the many who are investing in a state that they left many years ago because it didn’t offer them enough opportunities for education or business. Their journey back to Bihar reflects the story of the state itself: from a negative GDP growth rate of 5.15 per cent in 2003-2004—a figure filled with stories of millions migrating out of the state—it now clocks a growth rate of 11.03 per cent, the second highest in the country. This turnaround comes with new stories, like those of Das and others who are now returning to the state, looking for opportunities in the government’s ambitious infrastructure projects or simply putting money where their heart is—a fruit processing plant, a water purification unit, a hospital or a school.
Bihar Foundation, a state government initiative set up in January 2008 to get people settled outside the state to invest in Bihar, has 1.5 lakh members across 11 chapters in India, US, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, South Korea and Australia.
“That’s a number that went beyond our expectations in such a short span of time,” says Bihar Foundation CEO KP Ramaiah. Most of the investment by non-resident Biharis is of a “giving back” nature, of contributing to the socio-economic development of the state, the lack of which forced them to migrate. Thus, most of their money, says Ramaiah, goes towards improving education in their villages or towns.
Betting on education
Das, for instance, is setting up an engineering college, two schools and a hospital in Mirdaul, Forbesganj. The foundation stone for his Rs 110-crore engineering college, Moti Babu Institute of Technology, was laid last year on a 14-acre land he bought from the government for Rs 60 crore (30 per cent self-funded, the rest is financed by banks). Work on the college will begin in April this year and is expected to end by 2011. His Isoft has tied up with TAFE (Training and Further Education), South Australia, for exchange programmes and faculty visits, and with Outreach Consultancy, an Australian project management firm, to oversee construction of an R&D Centre.
The college will have two schools in its vicinity: one will come up on four acres and will be a kilometre away from the college. This is to encourage qualified teachers for the engineering college to relocate to the village; their wards can study at this school. The other, spread across 25 acres, will be a residential school for children of the villagers.
Chandrakant Singh, a researcher at General Motors in Bangalore, has set up a primary school, Chaitanya Gurukul Public School, on 13 acres at Chamanpura, his village in Gopalganj district. Construction on the residential school began in 2009 and its first session took off last year with 500 students.
Omer Hejazeen, an entrepreneur who runs a media production company in Dubai and hails from Biridipur village in Darbhanga district, has got the architectural layout ready for his Haji Omer Yasin Asim Memorial Institute of Technology, an engineering college spread across 49 acres in his village.
Then, there’s Bibhuti Bikramaditya, who is setting up an ‘Advanced Electronics Lab’ in Patna. Bikramaditya, who hails from Janipur village in Sitamarhi district and who worked as a project manager in nSystech, Seoul, for seven years, returned to Patna in 2010 to set up his company, Tekbrains, which develops hardware solutions. The lab he plans to set up in Patna has been approved by the Union Ministry of IT and Communications and will be operational next month. It has 30 computers and plans to enrol 60 students who will be awarded diplomas in electronics system design, in association with DOEACC.
Though most of the institutes are coming up in villages or remote towns, their founders aren’t aiming to provide just basic education. They want the campuses to be “world-class” and have drawn up ambitious blue-prints that chalk out 10-year-long plans and huge investments.
For the Haji Omer Yasin Asim Memorial Institute of Technology, for instance, Hejazeen has earmarked
Rs 32 crore, which, he says, he will fund himself. The campus—construction began this month and is targeted to be completed by 2012—will be run by a family trust, Madina Education Welfare Trust. In a village that gets “only 10 hours of electricity a week”, the campus will have two generators and solar panels, says Hejazeen. The trust has struck a deal with Heriot-Watt University in the UK for exchange programmes, with Samsung for supply of laptops and a service centre on the campus, and with Cisco for Wi-Fi enabling and biometric devices. The campus will have a gym, a coffee shop, a swimming pool, a guest house, and a 1,200-capacity auditorium.
If this sounds too fantastic for a power-starved, remote village, Singh is pushing the limits at Chaitanya Gurukul Public School in Chamanpura, which has no electric pole, let alone power supply. Yet, the school is Wi-Fi enabled, its 10 classrooms have an LCD monitor or projector, and it has a 17-machine computer lab with internet connectivity. For the past one year, since the school became operational, students have been taking lessons in math, physics and chemistry using Skype from teachers in distant locations. The teachers mark their attendance on biometric recorders and lodge the attendance of students on a computer. All this happens with two generators that were among the first things to be installed in the campus. There are four volleyball courts, four badminton courts and a cricket pitch. A swimming pool is under construction. It gets even more ambitious from here: over the next 10 years, there are plans to invest Rs 30 crore on the campus. Besides, an engineering college and an R&D centre is on the drawing board. The money is being pooled in by eight members, all non-resident Biharis who have formed a trust called the Chaitanya Gurukul Trust.
All the institutes are self-sustaining, profit-making models that will charge fees according to the household income of the students.
Healthcare is another sector attracting investment from Biharis settled outside the state. Assotech, the Noida-based real estate firm owned by IITian Sanjeev Srivastava, is setting up a Rs 135-crore, 300-bed hospital, Medilife, in Patna. The hospital is expected to become operational in March 2013.
The changed climate
Hejazeen says he would have “never imagined spending Rs 70 crore on my projects in Bihar”, were it not for a one-on-one meeting with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at a Pravasi Bhartiya Divas meet in Hyderabad five years ago. “He met non-resident Biharis and invited each of us to invest in Bihar. I was apprehensive,” he says.
During the 21 years that he has lived outside Bihar, he would visit the state once every 2-3 years to attend a marriage or the burial of a relative. “Each time I’d go, I would stay for only one or two days. My parents were worried that as a well-known NRI businessman in my district, I could be kidnapped. I would carry a gun and have bodyguards to protect me. But somehow, I was convinced by the CM’s words, and took the risk,” he says.
Hejazeen visited Bihar a month after he met Kumar, and he instantly knew where to put his money. The roads were in a mess and the access road to Darbhanga district was particularly bad. He set up a construction firm, called Orkpet Construction Ltd, and bid for a government contract to build 21 km of road and 12 bridges in Darbhanga. “Nobody wanted to invest in Darbhanga and I was the only bidder. So I got the contract,” he says. He invested about Rs 20 crore to build the 21-km road, 1.5 km of which was completed in 2009. The remaining stretch, as well as the bridges, are still under construction.
The government, he says, was “very cooperative”, but not private banks. “All private banks refused me a loan for my projects citing that my NRI status was complicating my position of being a director of the company, etc. I suspect that since the decision-makers of these banks sit in Mumbai or Kolkata, they still think Bihar is an unruly, business-unfriendly place, which is not true,” says Hejazeen, who now spends one month every year in Bihar and travels without bodyguards and even catches up on midnight movie shows.
But Bihar is still emerging from its days of kidnappings and extortions. Singh’s father, for instance, got a call demanding Rs 3 lakh recently, after his Chaitanya Gurukul school started functioning. “But unlike during the Lalu-Rabri regime, the government responds to citizens’ distress calls,” says Singh, who informed the chief secretary about the threat and “within 20 minutes of my complaint, 20 policemen arrived at his home,” he says.
In conducting business, says Hejazeen, “Bihar is very friendly. Of course, there are bureaucratic hurdles, but that I think is a pan-Indian problem,” he says. Das agrees, except that he feels efficiency needs to trickle down. “At the lower levels, such as at the block or village levels, there’s still a lot of corruption. I had to wait for three months to get a telephone connection and for four months to get an electricity connection, whereas it took me three days for the same in Patna,” he says.
Shakil Kakvi, a Qatar-based schoolteacher who has been running Kainat Public School in his village Kako in Jehanabad district since 1999, says 2010 was a “very rewarding year” when he began construction of a 100-bed hostel, and got permission to start an ITI and establish a study centre for Maulana Masood Azhar Haque University.
He has been bringing his students from Qatar every year since 2004 to Kainat Public School. The first time he proposed to take them there, the parents were worried about their safety and asked him a lot of questions. “I had to persuade them by saying that I would also take them to tourist places such as Bodhgaya and Nalanda. I don’t get asked such questions anymore,” he says.
Kakvi also invested in a social cause when he built toilets for 12 BPL families in Kako village. Rs 4,500 was spent on making each toilet—the government putting in Rs 3,000, and Kakvi the rest.
But not all of them think the government is doing enough. Bikramaditya, for instance, feels it needs to be more aggressive in its policies. “There is no clear, well-defined business/IT/investment policy. Nitish must take lessons from Narendra Modi on inviting big industrial houses to set up shops here. Being head of Bihar Foundation, Korea chapter, I have appealed to the government to show dynamism in bringing at least one big company like TATA, Infosys or Wipro here. One big player will pave the path for many investments in the state,” he says.
TV Sinha, who is from Patna and runs a software export company in Mumbai, says he always wanted to go back to Bihar but his “banking and IT expertise has no use there”. “I tried setting up a banking IT firm there some years ago but that didn’t fructify. The Bihari psyche is not as pro-business as the Gujarati psyche,” he says. Which is why he decided to tap into Bihar’s available resources, such as manpower and leather, and is trying to replicate the Dharavi leather market—full of small leather manufacturing and selling units—in Fatuha industrial area, near Patna.
Proud to be from Bihar
The investment climate in the state has brought with it a new sense of identity among people from Bihar. “For such a long time, Biharis were made fun of because Bihar was equated to Lalu Yadav. Biharis I have met would often say they are from Jharkhand or some other place. Now, that seems to be changing,” says Hejazeen
Das, who says he faced a lot of anti-Bihari prejudice during his student days in Delhi, says that is slowly changing. “Since the last few years, we are proud to say we are Biharis. If the current momentum of progress continues, I have a gut feeling that Bihar will become the top brand of India,” he says.
Inputs from Santosh Singh