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More on Rural Bengal

Omkar Goswami


“Is there any point to which you wish to draw my attention?” [asked Watson]

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident”, remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Silver Blaze.


In my previous article, I had touched upon an uncomfortable contradiction between economic growth and prosperity in rural Bengal. On the one hand, West Bengal seemed to have achieved strikingly impressive growth in agriculture as well as state GDP throughout most of the 1990s. On the other, National Sample Survey (NSS) data suggested that real (inflation adjusted) levels of consumption of rural households in Bengal had worsened compared to the all-India average between the early 1990s and 2001-02. The growth in agricultural productivity and output were not resulting in proportionately higher rural consumption expenditure. I had concluded that there was a disjunction that needed careful investigation.


Instead of finding any meaningful answer to the riddle, I have discovered many other bits of evidence that reinforce this contradiction between West Bengal’s growth versus its relative lack of rural prosperity. Let me take you through another set of indicators — this time using the Census of India data for 2001.


According to the state GDP data, West Bengal can be classified as a “High-Medium” state. In long-hand it means that during 1993-2000, the state enjoyed high per capita GDP growth (a very impressive 6.5% per year), with medium per capita GDP (almost  Rs.10,400 in 1999-00, measured at constant prices). That puts West Bengal in an enviable cluster of well-performing states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and ranks it better than Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Himachal. Indeed, if we go by this yardstick, only Gujarat can claim to have both higher per capita GDP growth as well as per capita GDP than West Bengal.


This seemingly excellent performance doesn’t square up with the state of infrastructure in rural Bengal. Consider, for instance, the use of LPG for cooking. In 2001, 5.7% of rural households in India used LPG, with villages in Himachal topping the list at 21.8%, followed by Punjab (18.1%), Haryana (15.3%), Kerala (11.9%) and Andhra Pradesh (10.1%). In contrast, only 2.3% of rural households in West Bengal used LPG — which was not only well below the national average but also not much different from the ratios in Madhya Pradesh (including Chhattisgarh), Orissa and Bihar (including Jharkhand).


In 2001, 43.5% of rural Indian households had electricity connections — whether these worked or not is a different story. Again, Himachal topped the list with almost 95%. For a seemingly power surplus state, West Bengal’s track record was pretty tragic. Merely a fifth of the rural households in the state had electricity for lighting, with only Orissa, Assam and Bihar being worse off.


The flip side of this is the percentage of rural households that used kerosene for lighting. In 2001, the all-India rural average was 55.6%. Not surprisingly, at 79.2%, rural West Bengal was way above the all-India average, with Uttar Pradesh (including Uttarchanchal), Orissa, Assam and Bihar for company.


Lets move on televisions, scooters and motorcycles. In 2001, almost 19% of rural households in India owned a TV set. Punjab topped with over 60%, followed by Himachal with over 50%. In contrast, only 13% of rural households in West Bengal owned TVs — which was only a bit better than Assam, Orissa and Bihar. As far as ownership of scooters and motorcycles went, the national average was 6.7% of rural households. In West Bengal it was 3%, which was just a tad better than Bihar.


The condition of houses in rural West Bengal is also completely out of gear with the state’s seeming growth in agricultural income, productivity and GDP. According to the 2001 Census, 41% of rural households in India had permanent or pucca dwellings. It was less than 25% in rural West Bengal and, yet again, the state was better than only Orissa and Assam. As far as material of roofs were concerned, 24% of rural households in India consisted of brick, stone or concrete; in West Bengal it was 12.6%. Regarding material of outer walls, almost 48% of rural households in India had walls of brick, stone or concrete; again, West Bengal was way below average at 26.7% — sandwiched between Orissa and Assam.


That brings me to what I consider the worst bit of housing statistic. Over three-quarters of rural households in West Bengal did not have any source of drinking water within their homestead; and of these, 84% didn’t have any electricity. These translate to staggeringly large numbers: 8.55 million households in the state going elsewhere to fetch water; of which 7.18 million had no electrical connection. In 2001, only Orissa was worse off than this.


These data are from the Census. For one, everyone considers the Census data to be extremely reliable. For another, it is for the population as a whole and, hence, bereft of any sampling bias whatsoever. Therefore, the evidence can’t be brushed aside as machinations of a global bourgeois conspiracy.


There are only one of two ways in which I can think of squaring such data with West Bengal’s apparent growth in agriculture and state GDP. The first is that while there have been improvements in all the indicators between 1991 and 2001, these have not been substantive enough to lift rural Bengal from being a part of the Orissa-Bihar-Assam cluster. In other words, the villages of Bengal may be better off than before — but that the improvements are nowhere near good enough to rank in the top half of the national sweepstakes. That would be the charitable explanation. From being desperately poor, the villages have risen to being merely poor — which is still far removed from being better than average.


The other explanation requires me to drum up considerable courage even before tentatively suggesting it, especially to the readers of this paper. According to the state’s estimates, West Bengal’s real GDP grew by 6.8% in 1994-95, then 7.4% in ’95-96, followed by 7% in ’96-97, then 8.3% in ’97-98, then 7% in ’98-99, and finally by 7.4% in 1999-2000. These are incredible growth rates for two reasons. First, they are extremely high, per se; and second, unlike India’s GDP or that of any other major state during the period, these numbers are devoid of any serious variations in growth over this six-year period. Just to give it a statistical perspective: the variation in West Bengal’s growth rate is so low compared to India’s as well as all other major states, that it looks positively unreal. It is as if the Great Helmsman kept a steady hand on the state’s GDP tiller and brooked no trough worth the name!


If these were substantively correct growth rates, then one ought to have surely seen much more significant improvements in the countryside. In the absence of such progress, and given the metronomic precision with which the growth rolled off year-after-year, I have to revert to Lalmohan Ganguli’s (a.k.a. Jatayu’s) oft-used phrase, “Highly suspicious, Felu-babu, highly suspicious indeed.”


Published: The Telegraph, September 2004


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