Assessing the Recent West Bengal Experience

Mar 20th 2009, Jayati Ghosh
It 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.

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