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Economic growth in West Bengal

By Mohan Guruswamy

Contrary to popular perception, West Bengal has had the second highest growth rate among the States in the last decade.

THE NOBEL Laureate, V.S. Naipaul, recently passed judgment that "Bengal was the economic and intellectual leader of India till it discovered Marxism. It discovered Marxism and like poor Russia in 1917, committed suicide. The economic lead of Bengal has vanished and so has the cultural lead." (See The Hindu of February 26). While cultural development cannot be quantified, economic growth can be and the evidence before us suggests that Sir Vidia's opinion takes more than just poetic licence with the facts. The facts are that after 1993-94 West Bengal has the second highest growth rate with 7.2 per cent with only Karnataka (8.1 per cent) ahead of it. It would also seem that the Marxist rate of growth has been better than the Hindu rate of growth since India only grew at 6.3 per cent during this period.

Sir Vidia was speaking at the India Today Conclave on "India Tomorrow: Perception versus Reality" and not surprisingly, given his star value, his opinions made big news the following day. More than that it reinforces a stereotype of how West Bengal has fared in the past two and a half decades under Left Front rule. Quite apparently the gap between perception and reality is so vast that neither Sir Vidia nor India Today has been able to bridge it with truth. India Today had earlier awarded Punjab the prize of being the "best-managed State in India", when its decadal growth was just 3.8 per cent, just ahead of India's lowest performer Madhya Pradesh (2.9 per cent).

The second part of Sir Vidia's comment is even more absurd. Unlike in China, which can have a unique arrangement of One State-Two Systems, meaning Communism in mainland China and the familiar unbridled capitalism in Hong Kong, India's constitutional arrangements allow no such flexibility.

Irrespective of which party governs a State, such as West Bengal, the system that prevails all over is what is constitutionally mandated. West Bengal's dominant political parties since 1977 may be Communist, but the country's chosen political system affords no possibility for a dictatorship of the proletariat. And for that matter any other dictatorship. Admittedly there is a somewhat greater flexibility in choice of economic system, but even this is circumscribed by constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and the rule of law.

Even so if Marxism did in fact influence our economic regime, then it applied equally to all of India and to single out West Bengal as its only laboratory would be wrong. Since 1992 we have even had a more "liberal" dispensation, after the so-called economic reforms ushered in by the Congress government of the late P.V. Narasimha Rao. Quite ironically it is during this period that West Bengal has leapt ahead of the other States in terms of pace of economic growth.

Even in terms of growth of per capita income West Bengal has fared much better than all other States during the post-reforms era. It achieved an average growth of 5.5 per cent after 1993-94 as opposed to the nationwide growth of 4.3 per cent. This is even more revealing when you consider that during this period West Bengal was also racking up an average annual population growth of 1.78 per cent between 1991-2001, which is much higher than the rate of the high achievers such as Tamil Nadu (1.11 per cent).

If one were to consider the population growth since 1981, West Bengal grew at 2.34 per cent, which is uncomfortably close to the national average of 2.51 per cent. Undoubtedly the seemingly uncontrollable and unabated migration from Bangladesh has contributed to this relatively high growth of population. Whatever the reasons for this we can only surmise that the rise in per capita incomes would have been even higher if there was no influx from the neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh, and even neighbouring States such as Bihar and Orissa.

Even more interesting is the fact that per capita incomes of West Bengal and Maharashtra, after excluding the two great metros of Mumbai and Kolkata are fairly close. West Bengal's per capita after excluding Kolkata is Rs. 12,671 while Maharashtra's without Mumbai is Rs.13,897. Thus, even if we accept for a moment that Sir Vidia is correct in assuming that West Bengal has a Marxist system, its performance is not too bad compared with what then must be the most laissez-faire of our States — Maharashtra. We can be certain that if the per capita incomes of other two big cities of Maharashtra — Pune and Nagpur — are excluded, the State's per capita income will be below that of West Bengal. Unfortunately, Sir Vidia's moving mouth having spoken will move on while the words will linger on.

This performance is quite extraordinary when you factor in the dominant reality of rural West Bengal in that it ranks third from the bottom in terms of irrigated acreage with only 28.1 per cent of its agricultural land irrigated. This is when it is the third most densely agricultural State in India with almost 77 per cent of its land area under the plough. If like Punjab or Haryana with 89.72 per cent and 65.0 per cent respectively of agricultural acreage irrigated, West Bengal too were to benefit from Centrally financed irrigation and Centrally subsidised procurement, it would be fair to assume that its economic performance would have been of an even higher order. Then even without a Communist system, the Communist regime in West Bengal would have perhaps had a sustained growth rate closer to that of China.

The relationship between irrigation and agricultural productivity and growth is a well-known one and needs no elaboration here. Despite the low intensity of irrigation West Bengal has the third highest average yield in India, which at 2,424 kg per hectare is substantially higher than the national average of 1,739. This is no flash in the pan either for this was the ranking in 1991 also. It is clear that Sir Vidia's assertion "the economic lead of Bengal has vanished" is without any sound basis. But Sir Vidia, like all winter season NRI intellectuals, gets good press in India and his words become gospel to many who matter.

Not only does West Bengal's agriculture have a high level of productivity, its volume of foodgrains production places it third after Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh with 120.12 lakh hectares under irrigation, which corresponds to 60.06 per cent of the total agricultural acreage, produces 43.20 million tonnes of foodgrains. This low productivity of cereals is possibly because of the 20 lakh hectares of prime irrigated land concentrated in Western Uttar Pradesh and the Terai region under sugarcane cultivation, which produced 116.22 million tonnes of sugarcane in 2001-02. Punjab, which is mostly a cereal producer, delivers 24.89 million tonnes from its 38.47 lakh hectares of irrigated land, whereas West Bengal manages to produce 16.50 million tonnes of foodgrains from 19.11 lakh hectares of irrigated land. The question then is whether West Bengal can do better? Of course it can, but that would require much larger investment in irrigation, but the size of the outlay does depend on Central Government attitudes and perceptions. We have much evidence that the Central Government is not equally benevolent to all the States and the eastern region has suffered much due to this.

The true significance of the West Bengal performance in agriculture comes out vividly when we see the pattern of distribution of operational land holdings in that State. In 1991-92, the last time when such data was collated, 80.69 per cent of all farmers in West Bengal were marginal farmers accounting for 39.98 per cent of the total acreage. The corresponding figures for India were 62.79 per cent and 15.60 per cent respectively. While there were no large landowners in West Bengal, 1.33 per cent of Indian landowners accounting for 15.20 per cent of the acreage were large landowners. Two facts emerge from this. Land reforms were taken to their logical end and that the relatively high productivity was despite the preponderance of marginal sized holdings.

Compared with this, in Punjab marginal farmers owned only 6.20 per cent of the acreage while large farmers owned 15.79 per cent of the acreage. Likewise in Maharashtra it was 6.66 per cent of the acreage with small farmers and 20.31 per cent with large farmers.

The only other State where land reforms seem to have been concluded as intended is Kerala. Apart from this the West Bengal Government has so far distributed over 13 lakh acres of agricultural land vested in the Government among the rural poor and landless. This accounts for almost 35 per cent of the 45 lakh acres that has been distributed nationally. When you relate this to the fact that West Bengal accounts for only 3.5 per cent of India's landmass, this is indeed a significant achievement.

Somebody should tell Sir Vidia that passing judgment on economic performance is not quite the same as writing A House for Mr. Biswas. The former requires facts. The latter requires imagination. Clearly Sir Vidia should stick to what he is more proficient at.

(The writer is with the Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi.)

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