Once an ancient centre of power, learning and culture where two world religions have their roots, the state of Bihar is now often recognized as one of the poorest in India.
With more than 100 million people, Bihar is the country’s third most populous state. Located in eastern India with Nepal to its north, more than 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, mainly in rural areas with inadequate access to health, education and other services.
Bihar’s infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in India, as is the state’s proportion of underweight, malnourished children younger than three years old. UNICEF and its government partners are currently making significant progress, however, with health and nutrition programmes like the innovative Dular (‘care and love’) Strategy. This initiative trains thousands of volunteer village women who counsel families on the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and provide other information vital to the survival of children and mothers who are pregnant or nursing.
Bihar is one of India’s last few states where the deadly polio virus continues to cripple children for life. UNICEF supports one of the world’s most intensive immunization campaigns against the disease, ensuring 20 million children are now regularly immunized monthly in a range of places including homes, trains, transportation centres, brick kilns, markets, slum areas, schools, at religious and local festivals and even during annual floods in make-shift huts (Basas) across Bihar.
The state is prone to severe flooding during the monsoon season, resulting in hundreds of people killed and lives of countless others destroyed, along with their livestock, fields and other assets. UNICEF works with the State Government to build stockpiles of emergency supplies and helps communities prepare and plan for disasters.
UNICEF is also assisting Bihar with a range of other concerns, including its high rates of child labour, school dropouts, and low learning levels and illiteracy, particularly among girls, Muslims and scheduled caste children, who face discrimination in the education system and society in general.
Challenges and Opportunities
Although the great religions of Buddhism and Jainism both flourished in the ancient Magadha empires of Bihar, the state had floundered in past decades until a new state government recently improved law and order, re-started development of crucial infrastructure and put a fresh focus on a weak manufacturing sector. About 90 per cent of the population have subsisted on small farming operations.
Recent improved governance has led to better health services, a decline in poverty, greater emphasis on education and a reduction in crime and corruption. Dramatic jumps in full immunization coverage and safe childbirths at medical facilities are also encouraging.
Still, the challenge of development in Bihar continues to be enormous due to persistent poverty, social inequalities, caste discrimination, rapid urbanization and poor infrastructure.
Key challenges and opportunities
• More than have the state’s children are underweight, a proportion which is higher than the Indian average.
• More than three quarters of children under three are anaemic, while more than 90 per cent of adolescent girls are deficient in iron.
• Bihar has among the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in India, largely due to inadequate health services in rural areas. This is in spite of the number of safer institutional childbirths dramatically increasing from about one fifth to almost one half after a cash incentive for mothers was recently introduced.
• Less than five per cent of new mothers give their first milk, or colostrum, laden with invaluable immunity against disease to newborns. Only about one third exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months.
• Fewer than one child out of four suffering from diarrhoea receives lifesaving oral rehydration salts and zinc tablets.
• More than half of students drop out before finishing Grade Five although primary school enrolment has steadily increased to about 99 per cent and most communities have schools nearby.
• Only half of children in Grade Five achieve basic competency and only 37% of children complete Grade Four in four years.
• About two thirds of women in the state are illiterate, while more than half the men are able to read and write.
• About half of Bihar’s girls marry before they are 18, which is significantly higher than the Indian average.
• Bihar is one of the most vulnerable states for the spread of HIV in India due to a high level of income-seeking migration, poverty-induced trafficking of women and girls, and low awareness of HIV/AIDS.
• Fewer than one in five rural households has access to a toilet facility.
• Although communities were once fully supplied with water sources, an aging and inadequate maintenance system is jeopardizing this, as is an increase in arsenic and fluoride contamination.
• Bihar accounts for about 10 per cent of child labour in India with many working illegally as domestic servants and in workshops and factories.