Lessons in equality from model village of Changing Bihar

Nalanda, Jan. 12: The 'Parivartan (change)' raga of chief minister Nitish Kumar today struck a chord with Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz, on his first visit to Bihar, toured the village of Saril Chak in Nalanda district ' about 100km from Patna ' to see for himself the transformation that the government says is taking place in the state.

"It is amazing. The change can just be seen," Stiglitz, who has spoken out against social inequality in his writings such as The Price of Inequality, said in a short conversation with The Telegraph at the village whose fate changed ever since the women decided to become self-reliant.

His eyes rolled from one side to the other as a large group of women, all local residents, brought chunks of hay put together with the help of manures for growing oyster mushrooms.

The economic condition of the village, located 2km from the site of the ancient Nalanda University, has changed drastically over the past two years with residents opting for several innovative farming schemes such as mushroom cultivation, organic farming, production and use of vermicompost.

The villagers told Stiglitz, who was accompanied by wife Anya Schiffrin, how the women had become financially independent by going in for mushroom cultivation.

"What is that?" he asked a villager when he spotted a hay-cutting machine. A demonstration was given to him which brought a smile to his face.

Saril Chak was just another other remote village of Bihar even two years ago.

"It was like any other village. Our men (husbands) were into farming and we used to sit in our homes cooking or helping them sometimes in the fields. Then, through the state government, we came to know about some innovative forms of farming. One of the first was mushroom cultivation. We learnt it slowly and now almost all the women in the village are into it. The chunks are sliced after one crop grows and in ten days' time, the second crop is ready. We easily make around Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 monthly from this. One can say that the women here are self-reliant and it has become a model village," Asha Devi, one of the women, explained to Stiglitz in Hindi which, when translated into English, got him overwhelmed.

As Stiglitz entered the village, his wife ' a former journalist who, like her husband, teaches at Columbia University in New York ' was invited into a household by a group of women who proudly flaunted their cultivated mushroom heaps.

She was "amazed", in her own words, to see the vermicompost production and equally was Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2001.

"This village adopted the schemes of the state agriculture department. It was one farmer, by the name of Manju Devi, who started it and now the whole village has taken it up. Farming through vermicompost has also become popular here and the farmers have tried it out and it has been successful. The use of bio-gas too has been started and the state government has approved 50 such units for the village recently," an official said.

"Sir, our village has evolved in a unique way," one of the women told Stiglitz. "The good thing is that we tried things out and achieved success. Soon, we will start growing button mushrooms too. It has made us stand on our feet and believe in ourselves," she said as the Nobel laureate wished them luck.

"It is great to see the changes taking place," he said again.

Before entering Saril Chak, Stiglitz visited the ruins of the historic Nalanda University and was told about its history. He was surprised to learn that only 10 per cent of the university has been excavated so far.

Stiglitz, who was continuously enquiring, asked whether there were any plans to excavate places in search of the other university sites.

"The rest is still to be excavated and many villages have come up," said Chanchal Kumar, secretary, art, culture and youth affairs, explaining why digging was a problem.