is always useful - indeed essential - to review the
economic and social performance of governments at central
and state level periodically. Several state governments
have encouraged this process by promoting or even commissioning
State Development Reports and State Human Development
Reports. West Bengal had one such exercise - an independently
prepared Human Development Report in 2004 - and has
now commissioned the second such report, which is currently
under preparation. In addition, it has commissioned
and promoted several other exercises by independent
scholars: District Human Development Reports, evaluations
of particular programmes and patterns of government
expenditure, analyses of trends that can be affected
by state policy.
So the Government of West Bengal is clearly interested
in getting some independent and objective assessments
of its own performance, which can become an important
way of formulating new policies and implementing existing
policies more effectively.
But how does one interpret a supposedly ''independent''
exercise in evaluating the performance of West Bengal,
released with much publicity just before general elections,
which turns out to have been funded by the major opposition
party in the state? Especially when the authors and
the organisation responsible for bringing it out are
quick to disclaim any responsibility for the contents?
The Report, which is entitled (Transforming West Bengal:
Changing the agenda for an agenda for change'') by Bibek
Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari, and brought out by Indicus
Analytics, contains this important disclaimer: ''The
information contained in this document represents the
current views of the author(s) as of the date of publication.
This White Paper is for informational purposes only.
The author(s) and Indicus make no warranties, express,
implied or statutory, as to the information in this
document.'' (emphasis added)
Obviously, most of us would not take the contents of
such an exercise too seriously, since is openly partisan
and unwilling to accept responsibility for the information
it provides. But insofar as it contains data and other
information that must be taken note of, and also because
it is receiving wide circulation among various interested
parties, it merits some consideration.
The tone of the Report is rather subjective and makes
its own biases and prejudices very clear, even to the
extent of using somewhat abusive language about the
Government of West Bengal. But that need not concern
us. What is of more relevance is to consider the main
arguments that are made in the Report. They may be briefly
summarised as follows: West Bengal in recent years has
lagged behind in GDP growth compared to the rest of
India. Its performance in terms of poverty reduction
is also worse than most other states. There are significant
regional variations within the state with some districts
much more poor and backward than others. Employment
growth has been slower than India as a whole. Literacy
and education figures are worse than most other states
and the Indian average. Health indicators are also not
good and West Bengal is worse than the Indian average
for several health indicators.
This is a long list of failures, and if they were true,
taken together they would form a considerable indictment.
But how true are they? And what other important information
does this analysis conceal?
Let us consider first the evidence on growth, and also
the implicit argument that GDP growth is the most critical
variable for the well-being of citizens. Over the 1990s
West Bengal was one of the fastest growing states in
India, and actually showed the second highest rate of
aggregate SDP growth among major states, after Karnataka.
Even in this decade, real GDP in West Bengal has grown
at an average rate of around 7 per cent, which is slightly
lower than the national average but still not exactly
slow. As a result, in 2007-08, per capita income in
West Bengal was 97 per cent of the all-India average,
which makes it very much a middle-income state.
But the more important question is whether GDP growth
is the best indicator for judging even the economic
performance of the state. At least three other variables
are probably even more important from the point of view
of general well-being: per capita consumption, poverty,
employment and the livelihood of farmers who still constitute
the majority of the work force in almost every state
in the country.
On these indicators, the state performs rather better
than the Indian average, although obviously that does
not mean that the performance is good in absolute terms,
since the entire country has exhibited a disjunction
between rapid GDP growth and indicators of well-being.
In terms of per capita consumption, West Bengal is actually
higher than the national average, and the inequality
in consumption is lower, according to the National Sample
Survey of 2004-05. Food consumption has emerged as a
major concern in India, especially in rural areas, but
per capita calorie consumption in rural West Bengal
is higher than for India as a whole, and also higher
than for richer states like Maharashtra.
On poverty reduction, contrary to what is claimed in
the ''Report'', West Bengal has actually performed significantly
better than India as a whole and most other states.
It is among only a very few states in India in which
the absolute number of poor people has declined rather
than increased. The official estimates of poverty for
2004-05, made by the central Planning Commission based
on National Sample Survey data, show that 28.6 per cent
of the population of rural West Bengal were under the
poverty line compared to 28.4 per cent for India as
a whole. The proportion of urban poor in West Bengal
was 14.8 per cent compared to 25.7 per cent average
for India. Indeed, the reduction in rural poverty in
West Bengal was much more rapid than the national rate
in the 1980s and 1990s, while the rate of urban poverty
reduction has been much more rapid in this decade. So
this is one area in which the state has performed much
better than the country as a whole, and also better
than some states that have grown faster in per capita
GDP terms, such as Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Employment growth has been a concern in India as well
as in West Bengal. It has often been perceived that
the employment in West Bengal is much worse than for
India in general, largely on the basis of the perceptions
of middle class youth who find it difficult to get gainful
employment in the cities and towns of the state. Certainly
the rate of educated unemployment in West Bengal is
higher than in India as a whole. However, even within
the relatively dismal aggregate employment scenario
in the country, West Bengalís rural employment growth
rate has been slightly higher than for India in the
recent past, and there has been a higher rate of employment
diversification out of agriculture.
Even so, agriculture continues to account for more than
half of the work force, and the majority of households
in the state (as in the country) still depend upon cultivation
for their basic livelihood. So it matters greatly what
happens to agricultural incomes, and in this respect
West Bengal performs significantly better than most
of the country. Over the past decade agricultural incomes
in the state have grown at an annual rate of 2.7 per
cent, which is double the national rate. This comes
after an earlier decade in which agricultural growth
in the state was the most rapid of all states in the
country, at more than 3.5 per cent per annum.
Clearly, therefore, the claims made in the report about
slow growth in West Bengal are at best partial and at
worst downright misleading. Of course, there are other
indicators that reflect the condition of the people,
and among these health indicators are probably among
the most significant. It is in this area that, perhaps
surprisingly, West Bengal turns out to have shown the
most significant achievements in the recent past. According
to data from the Sample Registration System of the Registrar-General
of India, it is now well advanced in demographic transition,
with very impressive advances in terms of reduction
in fertility rate and even faster declines in urban
and rural death rates. In fact, West Bengal now has
the lowest death rate among all the major States, largely
because of sharp falls in the rural death rate. Maternal
mortality rates are not only lower than in India as
a whole, but have declined more rapidly.
One of the most basic health indicators is the infant
mortality rate, which is often seen as the essential
gauge of the conditions of basic health infrastructure.
In West Bengal the infant mortality rate fell from 91
in 1981 to 37 in 2007, a faster reduction than for India
as a whole. Only Kerala and Tamil Nadu show better performance,
while fast-growing states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh
perform significantly worse in this regard. Similarly,
child immunisation rates in West Bengal are significantly
better than the all-India average, and have also increased
more rapidly than in most other states.
One major area of achievement of the West Bengal has
been completely ignored in this ''Report'', and that is
with respect to land reforms. This is important to underline,
since the recent media reports about the Government
of West Bengal have focussed more on land alienation
from the peasantry for purposes of industrialisation,
rather than the continuing land distribution. The point
is that land reforms are not just something that happened
in the past, but continue to the present. Indeed, West
Bengal is among very few states in India that is still
continuing the process of enforcing land ceiling and
redistributing land. Till date, more than one-fifth
of the land distributed in all of India is in West Bengal
and more than half the beneficiaries in all of India
are from West Bengal. Even in the last three years (that
is, 2005-06 to 2007-08) more than 10,000 acres of land
was acquired and nearly 30,000 acres of land has been
distributed to beneficiaries. In recent years, this
is by far the best record of any state in India.
It is obviously possible to point to many areas of lack
of achievement in the state, such as inadequate development
of infrastructure, insufficient extension of good quality
education to all, and so on. And all these must indeed
be discussed along with many more issues in any truly
objective assessment of the performance of West Bengal.
It is a pity that the authors of this ''report'' have
risked their own reputation by putting their names not
to such an assessment, but to what is apparently a motivated
and misleading political exercise.