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BETWEEN THE CURVES
- India versus West Bengal: the hare and tortoise story

While the heroine of the latest soap opera is recovering from willed undernourishment, the harassed and endlessly tormented populace of this city too is relishing its freedom from captivity, breathing freely at last the air that surrounds it, however carbon dioxide rich it may be. Interestingly enough, most of us are managing to survive without recourse to oxygen kits or TV advertisements concerning our struggle for existence. It would seem that compared to the saviours of the state of West Bengal, we are ďmade of sterner stuffĒ.

The following graph, consisting of two plots of per capita outputs, constructed on the basis of data published by the Reserve Bank of India attempts to figure out our sternness. The upper set of connected points shows Indiaís per capita gross domestic product over the period 1980-81 through 2004-05, and the lower one describes West Bengalís per capita state domestic product from 1980-81 through 2003-04. The figures are computed to ensure that they are undistorted by inflationary fluctuations. To do this, prices of commodities are held fixed at levels prevailing in the year 1993-94.

A rise in real per capita GDP or SDP represents larger command over commodities per person. However, this is an average measure. Inequalities in distribution imply that the produce is not uniformly spread across the population. It is safe to conjecture though that West Bengalís inequality is less than acute. Our chosen time period is coterminous with the Left Front rule and few democratic governments survive for close to 30 years in the presence of severe inequalities.

One cannot make the same observation for India as a whole, since governments have changed at regular intervals everywhere. Hence, the per capita figures for India could well be less representative of the average citizenís plight. However, nothing definite can be said on this issue, which therefore we must ignore.

Year for year, Indiaís per capita GDP has been higher than West Bengalís. In the year 1980-81, Indiaís per capita GDP was approximately Rs 5,907, while West Bengal had a per capita SDP of around Rs 4,964. In 2003-04, West Bengalís per capita SDP was Rs 11,612 and Indiaís per capita GDP was Rs 13,332. The story repeats for every intervening year. If the average manís quality of existence is an indicator of welfare enjoyed by the economy, then West Bengal falls below the country as a whole, which hopefully answers our earlier question regarding the mettle of its residents. Of course, we should not lose track of the inequality question in pronouncing final judgments on comparative welfare. A large per capita output accompanied by severe inequality may well give rise to lesser welfare than a combination of smaller per capita output and greater equality of distribution. But, as we have already observed, this amounts to idle speculation. So, let us concede that we have been worse off here than elsewhere in the country.

Why this was the case is the next question before us. Political factors guaranteed that West Bengal lived in isolation for a fair length of time. Consequently, the state functioned as an economy that was closed to its neighbours and depended crucially on agriculture to initiate the process of economic development. It had to generate its growth internally without sufficient support from the rest of the country and unless agriculture produced an adequate surplus to feed workers engaged in non-agricultural activities, neither industry nor services could develop within the state. This is why, for the major part of its rule, development of agriculture formed the corner stone of policy in West Bengal. However, our per capita SDP kept faltering because agriculture alone cannot ensure overall productivity improvements. Yet, other sectors could not develop in the absence of agricultural strength. This is not to deny instances of labour militancy leading to capital flight from the state.

The graph, however, provides additional information that is not apparent to the naked eye, but which can be extracted by technical means. We shall make no attempt to indulge in technicalities, though discussing the results of calculations is well within the scope of the article. Without beating around the bush therefore, we may note that while one curve lies entirely above the other, there could be differences in the way each one rises over time. In other words, the rates of growth represented by the two curves could be different.

One is reminded here about the hare and tortoise story. Even though the tortoise fell behind the hare most of the time, it maintained a steady progress throughout, which the hare failed to do. As a consequence, the tortoise won the race in the end and not the hare. Viewing the matter from this point of view, one can show that the rate of growth of West Bengalís per capita SDP during the 24 years under study was 3.82 per cent, whereas Indiaís GDP grew at the rate of 3.54 per cent. In other words, for the period as a whole, West Bengalís rate of growth was higher than Indiaís by 28 basis points. But how, one might argue, would a mere 28 basis points matter' The answer of course is that it does matter a great deal. Amongst other things, it says that if this rate difference persists, then West Bengalís per capita SDP would, like the tortoise, be poised to overtake India in the not too distant future.

Once again, let us avoid calculating the exact number of years it would take West Bengal to achieve the feat. Instead, it is worth our while to concentrate on something more dramatic. This is done by slicing off the first 10 years from the diagram and beginning with the year 1990-91. Fresh calculations show now that during the period 1990-91 to 2003-04, the rate of growth of West Bengalís per capita GDP had been 5.14 per cent while that of India was only 3.9 per cent.

It is no longer a question of a basis points difference. Instead, the new figures confirm the hare and tortoise tale, with a bang this time rather than in whispered undertones. What explains the success' West Bengal was able to achieve the solid rate of growth of the Nineties precisely because it was backed by adequate agricultural surplus along with economic reforms. It is natural for industries and services to be attracted towards lush green regions, rather than the wilderness of a Sahara. Industries find it easier to survive when agriculture constitutes a solid backbone. In other words, it amounts to specious logic, at best, to represent industrial revival in West Bengal as a precursor to agricultural decline.

Land, needless to say, is a sine qua non for industrial development, but compared to agriculture, industry occupies far less territory. Some land must be supplied by agriculture to industry for the latter to exploit locational advantages, unless we believe erroneously that agriculture alone will keep this state thumping forward along the growth path. And despite the furore concerning devastation of agriculture in the state, the fact remains that the quantum of land acquired so far for industrial development is less than 0.01 per cent of the stateís arable land area.

Industrial growth offers significant potential for employment too. More will find work than those probably rendered unemployed in rural areas on account of the ďreturnĒ of industry. No amount of fasting, with or without the aid of oxygen cylinders, will ever change this unpalatable fact.

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