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Bangla lessons for Hindi belt

Jairam Ramesh

In certain crucial aspects of social welfare and development, Bangladesh has done better than India.

THE UNITED Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Report for 2005 has just been released. This is the sixteenth in a series made popular all over the world by the Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq, and Amartya Sen. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a summary measure that incorporates into one index (i) life expectancy, (ii) adult literacy and gross enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education, and (iii) per capita income. Each year, the report has been ranking countries on this measure.

The 2005 report places India at 127th out of 177 countries (as of 2003) and China at 85th. Sri Lanka is 93rd. There is an overarching theme to every report and this year it is aid, trade, and security in an unequal world.

There is nothing startlingly new in these rankings. But this year what is new is the revelation on Bangladesh, which emerges as the "hero" of the report. Although Bangladesh is ranked 139th on HDI, four places below Pakistan, the pace of its achievement in some crucial areas is indeed remarkable. The rich data presented in the UNDP report shows that over the past three decades, the total fertility rate (TFR) in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.2 to 3.2 while in India the reduction has been from 5.4 to 3.1.

A Bangladeshi woman is now having, on an average, a fewer number of children than her counterpart in a number of Indian States, notably Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. In child mortality (that is, the number of deaths of children below the age of 5 per 1000), Bangladesh has moved from 239 to 69 over the past three decades, whereas India has moved from 202 to 87. Bangladesh's achievement in this regard is superior to that of States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Assam, and Haryana and compares favourably with what has been accomplished in Gujarat, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, the crown jewels of Indian globalisation.

The point is simple and stark. Bangladesh is poorer than India. Its economic growth performance is markedly inferior to that of India. It is not on the highway of `superpowerdom' as India is. Yet, in certain crucial aspects of social welfare and development, it has done better than India. At lower levels and rates of economic development, its record of achievement in areas like fertility and child mortality particularly has been decidedly superior. If Bangladesh can do all this, surely the more favourably endowed north Indian States can replicate its success.

The Bangladesh-India juxtapositioning is somewhat like the Kerala-Gujarat comparison within India. Kerala has stunning levels of social development in an environment of low economic growth. Gujarat has China-like economic growth rates but its achievements in social sectors have lagged behind those of Kerala in substantial measure.

What accounts for Bangladesh's accomplishments? Three reasons suggest themselves. First, it might be argued that Bangladesh is simply exporting its poverty to India, especially to our Northeast. But even assuming the most exaggerated figures of so-called Bangladeshi `infiltration,' the fact remains that those who seek their fortunes in India account for 5 to 6 per cent of Bangladesh's own population. Secondly, it might appear that Bangladesh's data are being exaggerated by the donor community; foreign aid now accounts for over 50 per cent of its annual development budget and a cynical view could well be that international agencies have a vested interest in showing Bangladesh in positive light. However, such doctoring on such scale would surely not have gone unnoticed or uncaught somewhere by some sceptic or critic.

This leaves a third explanation — that indeed something dramatic is happening in Bangladesh, which we vaguely understand, something triggered perhaps by the self-help group revolution and by the vast NGO activity in social service delivery.

It is symptomatic of the neglect of Bangladesh in India both in political and intellectual circles that its activities in health, education, nutrition, and social capital building have gone unheralded and unanalysed here.

Bangladesh hits the headlines in India for other reasons. But the real reason why it should be hitting the headlines is that, in spite of a deeply divided political system and in spite of the growth of religious fanaticism, it has moved ahead of North India on such fundamentals as fertility and mortality. It faces new challenges: the abolition of the quota system in textile imports by developed countries could cause major job losses in Bangladesh even as India gains significantly. This, in turn, has larger security implications for us.

India helped create Bangladesh. The national anthems of the two countries are by the same poet. But subsequently, the bilateral relationship has deteriorated sharply. The responsibility for this unfortunate turn of events has to be divided equally between the two sides. A little bit of humility on our part would not be out of place. Acknowledging Bangladesh's progress in social development and making an attempt to learn from it for North India particularly would be a good confidence-building measure on our part, just as we take steps to reduce the huge surplus of trade in our favour.

(Jairam Ramesh, a Congress MP, is also a Member of the National Advisory Council.)

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