An hour before its scheduled departure, the train from Saharsa in north Bihar to Amritsar is already standing-room only.
Sukhdev Rishi isn’t overwhelmed. He has found an upper berth to share with five others, his little bag placed near him. For seven years, the 22-year-old has left his hometown to work at a flour mill in Haryana. He spends six months there, sending Rs 10,000 from every paycheck to his family. Then he spends a month at home before returning to the mill.
The train is filled with other young men like Mr Rishi, who travel regularly to Punjab and Haryana for work. Kuldeep Kumar, 22, wishes he didn’t have to. But there are no big factories to accommodate workers like him, he says. And when he does find a job, it pays less than what he would make in another state. “It’s an election year, and I know that the politicians will make a host of promises for us youngsters. These are just big words. Thenetas say these things during the polls, then no one does a thing, and we are forced to leave,” he says, standing at the doors of the compartment for fresh air.
In the 10 years that he has governed India’s third most populous state, Nitish Kumar has made his reputation as a leader who brought development to a region crushed by its lack of economic and societal progress. Education and health have improved under Mr Kumar, who wants a third term as Chief Minister, and has delivered better roads and electricity than any of his predecessors. His last election – when he was still in partnership with the BJP – was won through a combo of good governance and carefully-calibrated caste allegiances.
But this time around, things are different. Mr Kumar is no longer allied with the BJP, he is running against it and, in some ways, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is leading the BJP’s campaign. Mr Modi has in last year’s national election proven his connect with the youth. A third of Bihar’s voters in the election that starts next month are younger than 30. At one rally after another, the PM has asked them to examine if their aspirations are being met.
“You will be surprised – Bihar still has only 25,000 engineering seats …isn’t the future of Bihar’s youth being destroyed? Who is responsible?” he asked at an election meeting recently.
Bihar had only 3,345 industries at the end of 2013, which is 1.5 per cent of the total number of industries across the country, as against even a state like Uttar Pradesh (7 per cent).
Perhaps a little rattled by Mr Modi’s comments to the youth in his election campaign, Mr Kumar recently announced an unemployment allowance for youngsters, a credit card scheme for students – which entitles them to bank loans at discounted rates – and a venture capital fund for start-ups.
“I have repeatedly said I want a situation where people from other states come here to study and for work, and we are working towards it,” said Mr Kumar.
On the Jan Seva Express, now just minutes from pulling out of the station, college students Vicky Kumar and Mohammed Manzur say they’re not taken by the promises on offer from either the PM or Mr Kumar. Both are studying for entrance exams for government jobs – if they don’t land those, they say, they have no Plan B for employment in Bihar. “Because it’s an election, our politicians are super excited,” says Mr Manzur. Nothing to do with us, says his companion.