Human Development Report in West Bengal Raises Questions

Partha Ghosh

On 18 th May 2004 the West Bengal Chief Minister Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya released the First State Human Development Report, prepared by the UNDP along with the Union Planning Commission and the State Government. This report is eloquent about the impact of land reform and decentralization, while pointing out various “constraints” on human development. After 26 years of Left-Front rule, what is the Human Development picture in the State? The “successes” and “inadequacies” identified by this Report merit a closer look.

The Report claims to be an “impartial” one, but since it does not make clear its methodology of collecting data, nor its sources, it can be assumed that it relies largely on the data provided by the governmental institutions themselves – whether ministries or panchayats.

The report begins with a focus on the “two major public initiatives, which have characterised the state in the past 26 years: land reform and decentralisation”. The report hails both these initiatives for having unleashed productive forces in the rural economy and promoted equity in consumption. However, it fails to question whether this ‘land reform’ has really broken the semi-feudal remnants in rural Bengal, or whether this ‘radical’ reform has, instead, tightened the semi-feudal bondages (for example, ownership-less barga registration) in a new form? Or why 1.5 lacs acres of ceiling surplus land is still not distributed? But the report does identify increased landlessness in rural households as a disturbing phenomenon. It incorporates an NSS data that shows landless rural households in the State as having increased from 39.6% in 1987-88 to 49.8% in 2000.

The reasons for such an emerging trend is attributed to rising input costs for agriculture and stagnant crop prices. The HDR referred to a study sponsored by the State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development that found on an average 13 per cent pattadars who had received land but had lost it by 2001. The Report also notes the trend of eviction of bargadars. These observations question the rosy claims of democratization of land relations in rural West Bengal.

On the question of ‘decentralisation’, i.e. Panchayat system, it is worth recalling the findings of other studies. One article published in 2002 notes that lower tiers of the panchayats have no say in the allocation of funds or implementation of projects, which are controlled mostly by the state government bureaucracy. Also that state government functionaries handle much more money than the amount that is directly handle by the panchayats.(Ghatak and Ghatak, EPW, January 5, 2002)

Admissions By The Report

After 26 years rule of a ‘Marxist’ government in the state of West Bengal, “gender discrimination has been an important feature of economic & social processes in West Bengal. It is most evident in economic variables and in literacy, and less evident in health”. And secondly, “the very low Income index” component of the GDI essentially reflects the “low work force participation of women in West Bengal”(below the national average). The Report says, “This in turn suggests a combination of greater restrictions on women’s economic agency as well as social lack of recognition of women’s unpaid work. Both of these suggest a major undercurrent of gender discrimination in society”. This gender discrimination is also confirmed by the fact that while joint pattas (land holding rights by husbands & wives) were distributed from the mid 1990s, it is only 10% of the total pattas distributed and when pattas in the name of women as single holders were given it is only 6% of the total.

The most pressing problem West Bengal is witnessing is the question of unemployment. Despite the ‘radical land reform’ and the wonderful ‘democratic’ decentralization, there is only 52.7% employment for males and only 11 to 34.8% for females. The Report notes a sharp decline (more than 5 %) in male main work force. Despite the Government’s boasts of large investments in West Bengal, it has failed to create any substantial increase in the regular employment, rather there is a substantial increase in male marginal work force. The report admits, “In urban West Bengal there is a substantial gender gap in wages … that most female employment in the urban areas is in low income occupations”. In Kolkata in 1996-97, 49.4% of the women workers earned less than Rs. 1000 per month, while the corresponding portion for male workers was only 11.4 percent. The sharp increase in marginal female workers (7.5 percentage points) may be a solace to the toiling women, but the monthly income they got and the hours they have to work to earn this income should be a shame to a ‘Marxist” government. More than 75% of female population and 50% of the male population are still unemployed. And the lion share of female employment is through “self-help groups” or through “non agricultural activities, such as dairy, livestock rearing & food processing”. The report thus admits, “nearly two-third of all women work is through self-employment”.

The report highlighted the achievements of the government in bringing down the birth rates and death rates in West Bengal. But the report failed to grasped the importance of counting the mortality and morbidity phenomena in correctly assessing the real stage of the public health delivery system. In these two accounts West Bengal’s performance is very dismal. Similarly there are still important differences in access to literacy and education, determined by gender, rural-urban residence, social category and income group. Children who have never been enrolled tend to be more concentrated among the lower income groups and the scheduled tribe and minority population.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has assured that he will act to correct the imbalances pointed out by the Report. The problem is, he intends to do this using the time-honoured Naidu-tactics of aid from World Bank, DFID and Asia Development Bank!