Developing State Capacity in a Weak State

9 mins read

Guest blog written by Dr Himanshu Jha

Dr Himanshu Jha is a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University.

What engenders state capacity in a weak state?  How do weak states develop state capacity? And Under what conditions do policy paradigms succeed in historically weak states? In this blog I discuss a case of weak state developing state capacity – an aspect hitherto ignored in the mainstream literature. The state capacity lies in its ability to use its extractive potential to mobilize resources, formulate and implement policy, effectively distribute goods and services and establish control within its territory. States lacking in these capacities are considered weak with poor socio-economic development and service delivery. However, there are cases where even such weak states may selectively display remarkable state capacity albeit in pockets. Such a state poses a puzzle and becomes a tough case for explaining state capacity. 

The sub-national case of eastern Indian state of Bihar presents us with such a puzzle[1]. Bihar has historically been a weak state on all the above counts and yet the state has demonstrated a remarkable state capacity in selected policy domains. Oddly, in this case the state did not develop state capacity comprehensively, but selectively in pockets. Deeper analysis of these successful cases will enable us to isolate conditions under which a weak state develops state capacity in some areas.  

Here, I will discuss just one such case of infrastructure where striking improvements have taken place since 2005 coinciding with a new political party forming government in the state. However, the new political regime inherited a socially, economically and administratively weak state. Astoundingly, in a matter of few years the state witnessed a turnaround in some selected policy domains. Indeed, the state capacity could not have developed so swiftly. Therefore, the change in political regime alone cannot explain the improved state capacity (contrary to what some have argued).

Since 2005 the state regime has developed a vigorous capacity for infrastructure development. The road density per 100,000 people in Bihar averaged 89 kilometers (km) in 2004 (the national average was 260 km). In 2005, the state identified infrastructure development as a crucial area and started building roads, both state and national highways. As a result, 9,893 km of roads were built from 2005 to 2010. The total road length rose 25% from 3,021 km in 2007 to 3,787 km in 2010. National Highway 57 was constructed on a priority basis to increase the connectivity of the flood-prone North Bihar, historically cut off from the mainstream. To increase rural connectivity, steps were taken to ensure policy corrections in central and state-level programmes. Similar improvements took place in the area of bridge construction. Bridges were important for a chronically flood prone state like Bihar. The State Bridge Construction Authority, which was set up in 1975, had constructed only 315 bridges till 2005. After 2005 the authority appeared to have been activated. From 2005 to 2011, the authority constructed 1,300 bridges connecting previously cut-off flood-prone regions to the mainland. In this period, the long pending bridge on the Kosi river (known for causing frequent flooding) was constructed on the National Highway 57 to connect the two regions of North Bihar that had been cut off from each other since 1934 due to frequent floods. How can we explain the development of Bihar’s state capacity in the area of roads and bridges? 

Let us examine the existing scholarship on state capacity. One can identify three strands of scholarly literature that explains the presence or absence of state capacity. First group of scholars have examined state capacity in terms of hard categorizations such as strong or weak in relation to their administrative, bureaucratic, territorial, relational or fiscal capacity. This view does not explain the presence of state capacity in a weak state. 

The second strand explains this phenomenon as manifesting in successful policy pockets.  However, they are silent on how do these policies and practices emerge and embed within the subsystems? Third cluster of scholarship assigns significant role to strong (or hard) developmental states, bureaucratic norms, political will, political regimes, clientelism, caste, class or regional dimensions to explain the presence or the absence of state capacity. These arguments, however, have ignored the consequential role of ideas in state capacity formation. Broadly, while the extant explanations provide significant direction, they are deficient in explaining the development of state capacity in a historically weak state. 

Social Learning, Puzzling and Powering

Moving beyond the existing scholarly focus I argue that an alternative ideational approach to investigate how state thinks will shed light on how weak states such as Bihar develop state capacity. Drawing on Hugh Heclo’s (1974)[2] seminal study of the state thinking in Britain and Sweden on the old age pension and unemployment insurance programs I propose that ideation occurs through collective puzzling and powering which, informed by social learning, impacts state thinking, creates political will and the moral purpose of the state. The state engages in social learning and ‘puzzles’ and ‘powers’ over choices to develop its capacity. The combination of these three has far-reaching ramifications for the formation of state capacity in a weak state.

Table 1: Three Stages of Learning, Puzzling, and Powering

 Social LearningHighlights gaps between existing policies and citizens’ needs and demands, shapes policy priorities, and generates political willEnables a direct connection between society and the stateEstablishes a feed mechanism on existing policies between citizens and the state
 Policy PuzzlingOn the basis of social learning, ideation occurs within the state over alternative policy choicesFollowing the collective puzzling between the political executive , the bureaucracy and the social actors- new policies are introduced or existing ones recalibrated
 Policy Powering Embedded norms might hinder and resist policy progress, and policy innovations are introduced to transcend these norms

Source: Author

Social learning helps top policy makers to understand and connect with the existing socio-economic and political realities and identify policy gaps and needs from the citizens’ perspective. In Bihar this was achieved through number of Yatras (Yatra in English means journey) that the Chief Minister (CM) undertook since 2005. A key component of this yatra was samvaad (dialogue), usually held in villages, to hear people’s complaints regarding the delivery mechanisms at the grassroots. 

Bureaucrats from various departments accompanied the CM on these trips to sensitize the bureaucracy to the prevailing problems at the grassroots. In this sense, the social learning extended to the bureaucracy. Pratyaya Amrit, the officer in charge of roads and bridges, conceded that field trips enabled him to experience the problems first-hand and think of solutions,  

When I visited Muzaffarpur (a district in Bihar) I saw the appalling condition of the roads. Every time I would travel in the interior of the state, I would see a problem. This convinced me to decentralize the operations and we created more divisions at the district level. I created a division in the district of Sitamarhiand put a competent assistant engineer (promoted as executive engineer) in charge. Without incurring an extra cost, we decided to expand the department, started creating new divisions and putting in charge the right officers.[3]

Social learning provided the basis for further puzzling and subsequent policy powering, but how did this learning take the form of concrete ideas and policies within the state apparatus? To generate policy ideas and innovations, the state institutionalized a two-way feedback loop, vertically between the state and society and horizontally between the arms of the state. 

The top political leadership worked closely with the administration. CM handpicked a core team to monitor and ensure that the administrative machinery of the state performed well, gave the team members and officers in charge of the key departments a free hand in implementing policy and above all brain-stormed with the bureaucrats around both policy problems and possible solutions.  This, in turn, strengthened state capacity. Amrit the bureaucrat in charge of the department of roads and bridges divulged that ,  

The CM would have regular meeting with all the key departments. We would give presentation to the CM outlining our proposals, needs, pointing out the gaps, impediments and the plan for implementing the projects. In response, the CM would give us a free hand, he would respond by saying that sanctioning budget is not a problem, I am just interested in the outcomes.[4]

Puzzling removes uncertainties within the state about a policy choice and prepared the grounds and justification for future policy actions, resulting in the powering of the state and the actualization of the policy and political commitment. What was the impact of this process on developing state capacity? In the subsequent section I will explain how state capacity was developed in the domain of infrastructure pointing towards the ‘powering’ of the state.

Infrastructure: Roads and Bridges

In Bihar, the construction of roads and bridges sector has historically been riddled with corruption. Its poor state of law and order used to discourage established infrastructure companies from bidding for tenders and the construction was enmeshed in the corrupt exploitative nexus of contractors, politicians and bureaucrats. The Bihar Rajya Pul Nirman Nigam (BRPNN), a state department established in 1975 to construct bridges in the state, had only completed 314 projects by 2006 (21 years), and some projects had been pending for more than 17 years.  To transcend this corrupt nexus, n 2006, the CM and the chosen bureaucrat for the job, Pratyaya Amrit decided to revive state-owned agencies, utilize budgetary allocations, and free top bureaucrats to pursue sectoral policies. CM bypassed the norm of entrusting BRPNN to a politician (as a chairman) and a bureaucrat (as managing director) to directly appoint his hand-picked bureaucrat at its helm as the chairman. The bureaucrat further used this autonomy to introduce policy innovations.

Preparing detailed project reports (DPR) used to take about four months. The task was outsourced to qualified non-state experts at the Indian Institutes of Technology and National Institutes of Technology. Engineers at the BRPNN could focus on executing projects, and they completed 336 bridge projects between 2006 and 2009.

Amrit changed the governance structure and organization culture. The board of directors was dysfunctional; it was revived and expanded by including domain experts. Consultant engineers were hired to focus on specific projects. Vertical, interactive linkages were instituted among the engineers and horizontal linkages between the engineers and the chairman. The technical staff and engineers were mandated to visit and monitor ongoing projects, identify gaps in implementation, and administer the entire project.

The cabinet of the government decided to pay the BRPNN a certain percentage in lieu of the completed projects. That made the organization financially sustainable and rescued it from imminent liquidation.

To bypass clientelistic networks and improve transparency, the process of registering contractors was simplified, the manual accounting system was replaced by an electronic accounting system, third-party quality checks were introduced, and a common standard bidding document and electronic tendering was instituted. E-tenders minimized the involvement of middlemen and contractors.[5]

Similar policy powering pushed innovations in the Road Construction Department (RCD). Prior to the new regime, the RCD had offered lower project estimates to the National Highways Authority of India, a central agency. The CM revised and increased the project estimates; as the projects were financially viable, established contractors from outside the state bid. CM again appointed Amrit the secretary of the RCD. Once a tender was notified, no changes were allowed to the bidding process. Third-party quality assurance was introduced and a post-construction maintenance clause included in all contracts. The State Highway Development Programme was launched; the Bihar State Road Development Corporation (BSRDC), a new state-specific institution, created to operationalize the programme; and the building of state-specific roads prioritized. With Amrit at the helm of the BSRDC as managing director, a loan was secured from the Asian Development Bank to finance the projects. Contracts for both roads and bridges were offered as a package of all small and large-scale work; any bid was for the entire package. This eliminated dubious, politically backed local contractors and attracted bigger established companies.[6]


The specific case of development of roads and bridges in Bihar persuades us to push the frontiers of research on state capacity by exploring how social learning , puzzling and powering comes together to consolidate successful policy paradigms despite being weak. This initial foray also provides a policy roadmap for the conditions under which an effective state capacity is developed even in historically weak states. Admittedly, even a strong state can also lag behind in some policy domains. If weak states can display policy pockets of efficiency, strong states can also have pockets of inefficiency. My conjecture is that absence or presence of state’s social learning, puzzling and powering explain this variation. Rationalities within the state have a powerful impact on policy paradigms. Policy takeaways from this case will enable us to test this in other weak states and carry policy lessons for other poor parts of the developing world.

[1] Bihar is the 12th largest (94,163.00 sq. kms) and the third most populous state in India with a population of 126 million. Almost 89% of the population in the state lives in rural areas.

[2] See, Heclo, H. (1974). Modern social politics in Britain and Sweden: From relief to income maintenance. Yale University Press.

[3] Interview with Pratyaya Amrit (Secretary, Department of Roads and Bridges, Government of Bihar), 12 June 2019.

[4] Interview with Pratyaya Amrit (IAS). 

[5] Interview of Pratyaya Amrit (IAS), former Secretary, Department of Roads and Bridges, Government of Bihar. 12 June 2019

[6] Interview of Pratyaya Amrit, 12 June 2019.

1 Comment

  1. A must read article/blog for young policy practitioner from our Bihar specially, in order to understand what is wrong with our policy approach all these years & with almost every Finance Commission & Govt at the Union
    .we start or just repeat begging in the name of special package all these years ..& shamelessly defend our poor ranking in almost every growth matrix/ranking ( NITI Aayog SDG index, rural development, urban acceleration , environment , education , infra , crime rate & corruption etc)..still we are more busy in promoting caste based census … Bihar is ultimate Ruktapur …thanks for this wonderful piece

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog

%d bloggers like this: