‘What Then Must We Do?’ In the Start-up World of Bihar, Back to the Roots, But Grasping at Straws
This story first appeared in News18
Bureaucratic hassles, lack of an enabling ecosystem and law-and-order concerns stand in the way of Bihar’s young entrepreneurs. But there are stories of success through passion and perseverance that hold out hope.
Hope, as they say, is the best breakfast. If you have chosen Bihar after having seen the opportunities, offers and openings outside the state, then this is a breakfast you must have every day. For the myriad prospects and temptations outside the state can shake your commitments and unflinching love for the land.
Mitesh Mallick got a call from an official working with the Bihar government soon after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, in order to discuss the video-consultation telemedicine platform that Mallick and his team had developed. However, his past experience made him take it with a pinch of salt.
“Over the past two years, we have lost faith in government officials. We don’t want to come and sit idle and wait for their approval for anything. We are giving services in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. We are collaborating with district administrations where approvals are quick. In Bihar, approvals wouldn’t come at all,” says this 38-year-old who belongs to a family of doctors from Bihar’s Supaul district. Mallick’s start-up was among the 90 that got a Rs 10 lakh grant each from the industries department to set up telemedicine centres in Madhepura, Vaishali and Kaimur districts. After completing his Masters in Computer Applications from Madurai Kamaraj University in 2007, Mallick started working in Bengaluru like most people from his batch. But soon, the lingering nostalgia of home would take him back to the roots in 2014, the process for which began in 2012, with the Bihar foundation Bengaluru chapter.
In August, Mallick and his friends started Prosperita Medi 360, a healthcare platform with focus on telemedicine. After the initial funding in 2016, no other support followed.
He recalls an experience on how they were told to start a telemedicine centre in Mahnar in Hajipur. How, despite trying hard to get an internet connection through BSNL, BBNL, Airtel, nothing worked. Then came the monitoring person and he gave the report that the telemedicine centre wasn’t active, while Mallick says he had written six times that there was no internet facility.
Disappointed, Mallick then decided to expand his footprint while continuing to have at least one centre in Patna. He even set up a research and development group in Patna’s Biscomaun Towers in 2018, but in the absence of the right manpower, as he needed Android and NET developers, he wound it up in July 2020. “Bahut dukh hota hai, apne ghar mein kaam nahin kar pa rahe hain…hum Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Bengaluru, Kerala mein kaam kar rahe hain…itna mehnat karne ke baad (One feels sad a not being able to work in the place one calls home…we have been working in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Bengaluru, Kerala…after a lot of hard work),” he says. Today, he proudly runs 27 centres, including one each in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, but remains disillusioned with his home state.
For young start-up owners, it’s Kaushlendra Kumar who acts as the light at the end of a dark tunnel.
Most Biharis know him as a sabziwala from IIM Ahmedabad. He was among the first to return to Bihar to start a venture. Kaushlendra Kumar moved to Bihar knowing well its challenges and complexities. He says he knew that had he worked in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad or Delhi, he would have done much better in terms of revenue. But he moved “keeping Bihar in mind”. Holding on to small changes that he can travel to his village Mahmadpur which is 60 km from Patna, in an hour, which was impossible in 2003-2004 when it took him 4 hours to cover that distance.
“The onus is on each one of us to change the ecosystem as the government alone cannot,” he says. Now he wants all political parties to highlight the commitment for education. “All parties in their manifesto must talk about colleges in every block. Let there be a BCA, BCom, engineering college in every district of Bihar. Knowledge and innovation economy is the way forward. Unfortunately in Bihar we have a biological factory which produces carpenters and labourers,” adds Kumar.
While much seems to be changing in the state, young Divyam Sharma, founder of the start-up Code Bucket, says there is still a lot that needs to be addressed. He has ideas that he feels can go a long way in improving the start-up culture in Bihar.
“I was a student in Kerala before moving to Bihar in 2019. The start-up culture in Kerala was impressive. When we reached Bihar, we discovered there is hardly any state-funded incubation centre. There is also no good infrastructure in place. For example, in Kerala, there was a start-up village where all small and medium-sized start-ups used to work together in a more collaborative fashion. If there was a hardware start-up, then it could collaborate with the software start-up. So people did not have to go out looking for opportunities. One can share all resources, office space and even expertise. There is no serious ecosystem for start-up in Bihar,” says Sharma.
Along with three other partners, Sharma had set up Code Bucket in 2017 in Kerala’s Kochi and decided to move to Bihar with a hope to explore “its untapped potential”. However, Sharma had to face major difficulties from the very start.
“The process of seed funding in Bihar is extremely slow. It is only the industry department that is responsible for everything pertaining to start-ups. However, when you visit their office, you will not know who to speak to. The Bihar government and industry department does not have a single-window system in place,” he says.
Sharma also adds that in case of unforeseen circumstances, a start-up is rendered rather helpless in the state. “In case a fraud happens, if you are not a big company, you cannot file a case and then keep fighting for years. Start-ups will not be able to take that kind of beating. Even if you go to a local police station to file a complaint, they will not take you seriously. They say such things keep happening with start-ups. There should be a mechanism in place in which we can get civil support from the government as well,” says Sharma.
He feels that Bihar also lacks the presence of an IT hub. “When there are large companies working in the same geography with start-ups, new business ideas get more guidance and support. They get to learn from these tech giants. However, despite the adversities, we are giving our best,” says the young start-up founder.
According to data provided by Bihar Entrepreneurs Association, around 30 per cent of the start-ups in the state capital have become inactive because of operational and financial challenges posed by Covid-19.
However, the flourish of the start-up culture in Bihar, or the lack of it, cannot be entirely credited to the state government. “Reluctance to change and absence of the mindset that Bihar has to compete with and be in the top 5 or top 10 states… that passion is missing. The industry department needs smart dynamic officials who can market Brand Bihar, both inside the state and outside,” says Abhishek Kumar, who along with Kaushlendra and Shashank Kumar started Bihar Entrepreneurs Association in 2011.
What began as a small group of enthusiasts has today grown into a 19,000-member association. This group played a pivotal role in drafting the start-up policy of Bihar. Abhishek, who is presently the secretary of the association, fondly remembers his journey from a 150 sq ft cabin to a 36,000 sq ft office in the heart of Patna. “You will find IIM Ahmedabad, IIT Roorkee, IIM Indore students running start-ups in Patna. They are working in multiple sectors, from health technology to agriculture to education. Many returned from the US as well before Covid-19.”
In 2015, Nitish Kumar announced the setting up of a Rs 500 crore corpus for funding start-ups. In the past five, years 90 start-ups have been funded against 15,000 plus applications that were received. The aim was to establish incubation centres, the idea was empowering the youth through entrepreneurship. “What was needed was to have regular meetings by officials to screen applications that came through the Startup Bihar website. It was completely dependent on the industry department officials. Four to five industry commissioners were transferred in the last 18 months. If the application is not scrutinised it won’t move to the next stage and then to the final stage that approves the grant,” says Abhishek.
He maintains that his group wasn’t invited for any preliminary scrutiny committee meetings since 2017 as they had “red- flagged some concerns”.
Meanwhile, the third founder of Bihar Entrepreneurs Association, Shashank Kumar, saw immense opportunity in the agricultural sector of the state.
After graduating from IIT Delhi in 2008, Kumar worked for three years in Haryana’s Gurugram before moving back to Bihar’s Chhapra. “I got to work with companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, Britannia, Unilever, among others. These companies have close links with agriculture because they do a lot of agricultural buying. I discovered that there are a lot of problems in the supply chain: it is not transparent, there is a lot of inefficiency, etc. Because I come from a rural background, I had seen both ends of the food chain. I’d also seen back in my village that farmers were not particularly happy. People who did not get to do anything else opted for farming,” he says
By the time Kumar was 26, he had decided to explore the Rs 400 billion agriculture market, starting from Bihar. He states three reasons why he moved back to his home state. “This was back in 2011. The start-up scene in India had just started. Bihar is a state that is dependent on agriculture and has no real irrigation challenges because of it being a part of the Gangetic belt. Farmers grow 3-4 crops in a year. Therefore, there is work throughout the year. Most farmers in the state have small landholdings and we wanted to build a model specifically for them. Finally, the Bihar government in 2006 had abolished the APMC Act, which means anybody could go and source produce from farmers. What the central government is doing now, it had happened in the state 14 years ago,” he says.
In 2012, Shashank along with Manish Kumar co-founded DeHaat, an agri-tech start-up, that offers end-to-end services to farmers such as the distribution of high-quality agri inputs, customised farm advisory, access to financial services, and market linkages for selling their produce. The start-up has raised more than Rs 100 core in the past one year.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Ashutosh’s start-up journey began after having to vacate his rented accommodation in Bengaluru. “The Karnataka government had set up a start-up cell for which we had applied as well. We had set up a small office in our rented flat. However, since our college was over, our landlord asked us to leave. We faced severe difficulty in finding the logistics to transport our things. It was then that we thought that why don’t we explore this area from the perspective of a start-up owner,” says Ashutosh.
He along with his partner, Sunny Kumar, then gave birth to Road Express. The start-up works for on-demand mini vehicles and truck services in India that intend to move personal and business goods. They were also one of the few who received seed funding from the state government.
Ashutosh also recalls an incident when the chief minister had personally encouraged him for his start-up idea. “At an exhibition held in Patna, chief minister Nitish Kumar had spent the longest time at our stall. He congratulated us for our idea and we had won the competition that year,” he says.
Despite being technologically sound and having a robust plan in place, when Ashutosh “held meetings with large companies in Bihar, there were no tracking and accountability mechanisms in place”.
However, while recognising the disadvantages in the state, he paints a hopeful picture for potential entrepreneurs. Bihar has been ranked as one of the leaders in developing a start-up ecosystem for budding entrepreneurs, according to the Centre’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade.
“Funding is never the problem. The policies were the same for me too. The government did not provide crores as funding to me. These can only be enablers. We need to put in the legwork ourselves. The problem in Bihar is that people expect a crore in their bank accounts…only then will they work. That cannot be the ideal way of doing things. We need to first start working,” he says.
“I dream of turning Bihar into the next Silicon Valley,” he adds. These bunch of hopefuls see hopelessness as a privilege and seek comfort in each others’ stories. Hoping that their idealism and love for the state will make Bihar rise for them.