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Pat for Bengal in UN mixed bag

New Delhi, July 8: The UN Development Programme’s human development report singles out Bengal and Kerala, along with three other states, for their achievements, but says India’s “persistent poverty” needs attention.

The report, released today, says India and China have achieved rapid economic growth and significant reductions in poverty, but both are still dotted with “large pockets of persistent poverty that require the attention of domestic policies”.

The similarity between the South Asian neighbours, however, ends there as the human development indicators for India lag far behind those for China.

The report draws a chequered picture of India, showing a sustained growth rate on the one hand and a web of regional disparities in the crucial sectors of gender, education and health on the other. As many as 40 million children — over a third of the world’s total — do not attend primary school.

“Census data indicate missing women have increased in number...,” the report says. Missing women refers to those who have died because of discrimination in access to health and nutrition. This is in contrast to “Bangladesh, Pakistan and most Arab states” where “improvements have occurred”. “But these have been small in India,” it says.

Not just India, the picture for the whole of South Asia is grey. One of the poorest regions in the world, a third of its population is poor, a quarter goes hungry and a 10th of children die before 5 years.

The report goes on to praise Bengal, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka for their “impressive achievements… where decentralisation has worked”.

But “India’s performance varies enormously across states with inequality increasing between several of them”.

The report lists the five states’ achievements as a faster response to local needs, greater accountability and transparency, less corruption and improved basic services.

The report refers to Bengal empowering its panchayats long before the Centre introduced the institution across the country. “In West Bengal, Operation Barga conducted through panchayats helped improve agricultural technology and reformed land tenancy. It helped register 1.4 million sharecroppers.”

As for Kerala, it says Kerala People’s Campaign of 1996, aimed at devolving authority to local bodies, led to the construction of 98,494 houses, 2,40,307 latrines and 50,162 wells and installation of 17,489 public taps.

Kerala’s health indicators have been found to be similar to those of the US, despite a 99 per cent lower per capita income and a $28 health expense per person.

The report mentions people’s increasing reliance on the private sector for education and health because of the government’s ineffective services. For instance, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that have the lowest primary school enrolments have the highest share of private schools. “This indicates the private sector is the escape route for a poorly performing public sector.”

The cost of providing primary education to a child is heavily loaded against the poor, the report emphasises.

The Kerala figures notwithstanding, the overall picture of the health sector is cause for “grave concern” as government spending on public health is abysmally low, the report says.

“Mortality rates remain high among the poorest, rural, scheduled caste populations, particularly among mothers and children.”

This is largely due to widespread under-nutrition and poor infrastructure.”

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