For many years, Bihar in northern India has earned notoriety for being one of the poorest and most lawless states in the country.
Nobel-prize winning author VS Naipaul once described it as the place where “civilisation ends”.
But all is not lost, perhaps. We discover five areas where Bihar might consider itself to be ahead of other Indian states.
Bihar is the only state in India to have 50% of places in local municipal bodies reserved for women.
Babita Devi, a thirty-something mother of two children, is one of the beneficiaries of this positive discrimination in a male-dominated society where women have traditionally lived and worked on the margins.
The wife of a small farmer, Mrs Devi defeated 19 contestants to win the civic election in her area and become a municipal commissioner.
Now she works to keep her neighbourhood clean and improve its sanitation.
“For the first time in my life I have got respect and attention from my family and society. It feels good,” she says.
The present government in Bihar, run by the Janata Dal (United) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), began the policy of reserving half of local municipal body seats for women.
Today half of the 262,000 elected councillors to local municipalities in the state are women.
“The 50% reservation for women in civic bodies is not only empowering women but educating them to a great extent,” says social scientist Dr Shaibal Gupta.
Fast track courts in Bihar have convicted and sentenced more criminals than courts in any other Indian state in the past 18 months.
The government launched speedy trials to rid the state of its “most lawless” taint – there is a murder every two hours, a rape and kidnapping reported every six hours and a bank robbery every day in the state, according to police records.
Between January 2006 and May 2007, a total of 11,665 criminals were convicted through speedy trials and sent to prison.
More than 2,500 were sentenced to life, and 21 others given the death penalty.
Critics of the speedy trials express concerns about the quality of evidence and justice being dispensed in such a short time in a country where court cases typically drag on for years.
The fastest judgement in Bihar was delivered by a court in 13 days flat from the date of the incident.
Politicians across party lines have also been tried through speedy trials.
“The idea is to stem Bihar’s burgeoning crime wave. It has been a great success,” additional director general of police Abhayanand says.
A local advocate, Soni Srivastva, says speedy trials make sense “if all steps from filing charges to the trial are conducted properly”.
Bihar is the only state in India where retired soldiers are being hired as policemen to stem the crime wave.
They mostly comprise the “special auxiliary police” force – about 5,000 retired soldiers were hired last year and sent to help police various districts.
Since then this special force has earned plaudits for controlling crime and taking on Maoist rebels.
The force has earned praise from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has asked other states to emulate the model.
“Its been hugely successful in checking crime. The forces are called in whenever there are law and order problems,” says Mr Abhyanand.
The government is planning to hire another 11,500 ex-soldiers soon to bolster the force. On average about 100 of these soldiers-turned-policemen have been deployed in each district.
Bihar has a long and tortuous history of chronically unprofitable state-owned companies and their unpaid employees taking their lives.
But Sudha, a dairy co-operative, is a shining exception and one of the most successful exercises of its kind in India.
Launched in 1993, the co-operative’s revenues from a range of milk and milk products has risen from $73.5m in 2001-2002 to $136m today. The co-operative has 6,000 outlets covering 84 towns in the state.
More than 260,000 milk farmers in the state are members of the co-operative, and a private bank has even launched a pension scheme for them.
Now Sudha has begun “exporting” milk to other Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Delhi.
“Regular payments to milk farmers and viable economic relationship with them has led to Sudha’s grand success,” says Atish Chandra, chief of the co-operative.
Did you know that a simplified tax system conceived and launched in Bihar is now being emulated by Sri Lanka and various African countries and has been lauded by the United Nations?
Introduced by the municipality of Patna, the state capital, in 1993, the tax system, locally known as the “Patna model of taxation” simplifies property tax rates on the basis of the local area and use of property.
“It is very methodical,” municipal commissioner Rana Awadhesh says.
“Using this model, the state can collect a large amount of tax money with less effort from officials and tax payers.”
Property is classified according to its location, construction, use (residential or commercial), and rates fixed accordingly.
States like Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh have adopted the same property tax model.