March 20, 2009

Calumny in the Name of Research

A Rebuttal of the Trinamul Congress funded “Study” on West Bengal.
A report titled Transforming West Bengal - Changing the Agenda for an Agenda for Change has recently been released by Indicus Analytics, a Delhi based private sector market research firm, authored by Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari. The report is a nothing but a motley combination of extremely selective reporting and arbitrary interpretation of data and deliberate omission of some obvious and easily available facts. It is worth noting the following from the document:
“Disclaimer: The information contained in this document represents the current views of the author(s) as of the date of publication. This White Paper is for informational purposes only. The author(s) and Indicus make no warranties, express, implied or statutory, as to the information in this document.” (emphasis added)

In other words, the publisher or the authors make no claim as to the veracity of the information they claim to provide! The real purpose of such a dubious report can be understood from its diagnosis of the “diseases” in West Bengal:
What we have just described as the five key diseases are perhaps not the diseases at all. They are symptoms. The key disease is somewhere else. It is the Left Front itself. The Left Front government is like gangrene. It cannot be cured. It has to be excised out.

It is clear that the authors have laboured to compile and present some data only as a subterfuge for their sectarian motivations. While this report does not deserve a serious academic reading or critique, below we present a short rebuttal of the report based on some obvious facts.

Economic Growth: It has been repeatedly alleged in the report that GSDP growth in West Bengal has not been fast enough. However, over the 1990s West Bengal registered the second highest rate of aggregate SDP growth among major States (nearly 7%), after Karnataka. In the current decade, the GSDP growth rate has slowed down somewhat but still remains above 6%. Strangely, the authors have compared the growth experience of only one State, i.e. Maharashtra with West Bengal to show that the latter has not grown fast enough. This is not a valid comparison given the very different historical and geographical contexts of the two States. One has to just consider the fact that while for Maharashtra, per capita Plan Allocation by the Centre increased from Rs. 98.73 in the 3rd Five-year Plan to Rs. 6890.59 in the 10th Five-year Plan, for West Bengal it increased from Rs. 71.63 in the 3rd Five-year Plan to Rs.3571.20 in the 10th Five-year Plan (See Mohun Guruswamy et. al., Economic Growth and Development in West Bengal: Reality versus Perception, EPW, May 21, 2005). Over and above the discrimination in the allocation of Central Plan outlays, the policies of freight equalization and industrial licensing were used by the Congress Governments at the Centre to prevent the flow of private sector investment into States like West Bengal while encouraging investments in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Industrial growth picked up in West Bengal only after 1991, when these policies were abandoned by the Centre and since then West Bengal has grown faster than all the other States in the eastern region. It is noteworthy that in terms of agricultural growth post-1977, West Bengal has remained one of the best performing States in the country.

According to the Eleventh Plan Document, agricultural growth in West Bengal during 1995-96 to 2004-05 was 2.67%, which was the third highest among all major States (after Bihar at 3.51% and Andhra Pradesh at 2.69%), and way above the national average of 1.85%. Maharashtra’s agricultural growth during this period was 0.1% only (Karnataka 0.03% and Gujarat 0.48%). While the acute agrarian crisis has led to farmers’ suicides in several States, especially Maharashtra, West Bengal has remained relatively immune from such acute distress. In fact, West Bengal continues to perform well in agriculture registering 5.14% agricultural growth in 2007-08, while the national average was 4.5%. It is not surprising that the report, given its motivations, has carefully avoided any detailed discussion of agricultural performance. How can any analysis of GSDP growth, which ignores agriculture where the majority of the workforce is employed, be taken seriously?

Poverty Reduction: The biggest faux pas in the report is the assertion that West Bengal has not been successful in poverty reduction compared to other States. The poverty estimates of the Planning Commission have been rightly criticized from several quarters for being a gross underestimation. However, the authors of the report do not subscribe to any such critical views vis-à-vis the official poverty estimates. Rather, page 17 of the report, itself provides two charts based upon Planning Commission’s poverty estimates, which shows that rural poverty in West Bengal declined from 73.2% (percentage of persons below poverty line) in 1973-74 to 28.6% in 2004-05, as against the decline of poverty at the all-India level from 56.4% in 1973-74 to 28.3% in 2004-05. Urban poverty in West Bengal declined from 34.7% in 1973-74 to 14.8% in 2004-05, as against the decline of urban poverty at the all-India level from 49% in 1973-74 to 25.7% in 2004-05. Despite their own chart showing this, the authors conclude that “West Bengal’s success in reducing rural poverty has been far less than what one might tend to think”.

Going by the Planning Commission’s estimate, however, West Bengal has achieved creditable success in poverty reduction, which among the best in the country. In fact the Eleventh Plan document notes (Vol.3, Ch.4, p.80):
In some States, the absolute numbers of the poor in the population has actually increased over the last three decades: in Uttar Pradesh (including Uttaranchal) from 535.7 lakhs in 1973 to 626 lakhs in 2004–05; in Rajasthan from 128.5 lakhs to 134.9 lakhs; in Maharashtra from 287.4 lakhs to 317.4 lakhs, and in Nagaland from 2.9 lakhs to 4.0 lakhs. The total number of poor has also increased in Madhya Pradesh (including Chhattisgarh) taken together from 276 lakhs to 341 lakhs and in Bihar (including Jharkhand) from 370 lakhs to 485.5 lakhs over the same period. There are many States where the number of poor overall has remained roughly constant over the last two decades: Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, and Mizoram. However, there are also States that have succeeded in reducing the absolute number of the poor in rural areas over the three decades from 1973 to 2004–05: Andhra Pradesh from 178.2 lakhs to 64.7 lakhs; Karnataka from 128.4 lakhs to 75 lakhs; Kerala from 111.4 lakhs to 32.4 lakhs; Tamil Nadu from 172.6 lakhs to 76.5 lakhs; and West Bengal from 257.9 lakhs to 173.2 lakhs, and Assam and Gujarat to a much smaller extent. These are the relative success stories in reducing the numbers of the poor in India.
How the report could miss this point despite reproducing charts on poverty reduction based on the same Planning Commission estimates is anybody’s guess.

Land Reforms: The report has deliberately avoided any discussion on land reforms and redistribution in West Bengal under the Left Front Government, which has been the single most important contributor to rural poverty reduction in the State. While net area sown in West Bengal as a proportion of net area sown in India was only 3.9% in 2003-04, West Bengal has accounted for 22.6% of the total land distributed in the country as a whole since Independence, and more than half (54.5 %) of the total number of gainers from land distribution programmes in the entire country.

Table 2.1: Agricultural land distributed and land reform beneficiaries,
India and West Bengal

India West Bengal Share of W.B.(per cent)
Area distributed under land reform (acres)
49,64,995 11,22,116 22.6
Number of beneficiaries
54,57,522 29,71,857 54.5
Source: Budget Statement, Demand No. 36 for the year 2008-09, Land and Land Reforms Department, Government of West Bengal
Note: All-India figures are as on September 2007; West Bengal as on 15 February 2008

Of course, the total number of gainers from all the various land reform programmes in the state is even more. As on 15 February 2008, they also included recorded bargadars (1,510,657) and recipients of homestead land (1,557,151), bringing the total to 5,039,665 beneficiaries. This means more than half of rural households have benefited from land reforms in the State since 1977. The report has wilfully disregarded this vital aspect of the development experience in West Bengal under Left rule.

Per Capita Income and Regional Disparity: The report alleges that West Bengal has very low per capita income compared to most States in India. In reality, West Bengal is a middle-income state, whose per capita income grew faster than the national average over the period 1990 to 2004-05. Subsequently, a slight deceleration in growth has meant that the per capita income in West Bengal is just marginally lower than the national average. However, data from the latest National Sample Survey (2004-05) indicate that per capita calorie consumption in rural West Bengal (2070 cal) was higher than the all-India average (2047 cal).

The report also alleges wide disparities in per capita income between the districts of West Bengal. The data for district wise per capita income provided in the report is sourced from Indicus Analytics; i.e. these figures have been generated by the authors themselves and are not from any authentic source. That is not to deny the existence of inter-district disparities in per capita income in West Bengal. But the authors have not provided any figures containing district-wise comparison of per capita income for States like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which have otherwise been selectively compared with West Bengal on indicators like per capita GSDP. How do we know whether the disparity in per capita income between Kolkata and Purulia district is more than the disparity in per capita income between Mumbai and Gadchiroli or between Chennai and Sivaganga? The authors have used inter-State comparison very selectively, to buttress meaningless polemics like: “Can the Left Front leader who leaves in Kolkata and frames policies imagine what it is like to live in rural Uttar Dinajpur, even if the cost of living is lower in the latter?”

Employment Growth: The report uses Economic Census Data to portray a dismal picture of employment growth in West Bengal compared to the all-India average. However, it is generally accepted that the Economic Census data is not a reliable indicator of employment. The general practice is to estimate employment growth from NSS data. It is true that employment growth has decelerated in West Bengal as indeed it has in the whole of India in the period of neoliberal reforms. The following chart shows that the growth rate of rural employment in West Bengal between 1999-00 and 2004-05 was higher than that of the all-India average. The urban employment growth rate in West Bengal was, however, lower than the all-India average.
Source: Calculated from NSS 55th (1999-00) and 61st (2004-05) rounds of NSS

Human Development: Very significant strides made in health indicators in West Bengal, especially in the last few years, have been deliberately ignored in the report. The latest figures of the Sample Registration System show that the demographic transition has been rapid and impressive in the State, with very rapid declines in the fertility rate and even faster declines in the death rate. In fact, West Bengal now has the lowest death rate among all the major States, largely because of sharp falls in the rural death rate. The Infant Mortality Rate also fell from 91 in 1981 to 37 in 2007, which is a 60% reduction compared to 50-55% reduction for India as a whole. Only Kerala and Tamil Nadu show better performance, while fast-growing states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh perform significantly worse in this regard. Child immunization rates in West Bengal are also significantly better than the all-India average, and have also increased more rapidly according to both the NFHS and the more recent DLHS data. While these facts have been ignored, the report has selectively used human development indicators to portray a completely negative and one-sided picture of the State. It needs to be noted that the Human Development Report 2004 published by the West Bengal Government provides a truthful and honest account of the development experience of the State, including both the significant achievements as well as the shortcomings. One need not depend on this completely slanted report authored by two professedly biased persons to know about the areas in which the State has lagged.

The authors of this report had earlier authored another report released by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in March 2005, which placed Gujarat as the topmost State in India in terms of “economic freedom”. Besides being a bogus study, which did not have any academic merits, the report created political controversy since a section of the media used the findings to hail Narendra Modi as the best Chief Minister of India! Following this, Mr. Debroy was eased out of Directorship of the Institute by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation headed by the Congress President. After spending some time in wilderness, these two gentlemen have reappeared on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections with yet another specious “study”, this time attacking the Left Front Government of West Bengal.

In the press conference held in New Delhi on 26th February 2009 to release the report, after persistent queries from the journalists the authors admitted that Mr. Dinesh Trivedi, Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamul Congress had commissioned and funded the “study”. Despite the obvious political motivation behind the making of the report on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections, sections of the media are trying to use its content to indulge in slander against the West Bengal Government. While calumny against the Left in West Bengal has since long become a favourite pastime for many in the mainstream media, what is disturbing is their attempt to masquerade this phoney report as an academic exercise. The authors have indulged in colossal hypocrisy when they have rued the lack of industrialisation and deteriorating law and order in West Bengal, precisely at a time when their backers in the Trinamul Congress are working overtime to stall every attempt by the State Government to set up industries or develop infrastructure, through mindless violence and targeted assassinations of Left activists, increasing the crime rate in the State. Had the authors been genuinely interested in transforming West Bengal for the better, they would have provided some sound and sensible advice to their Trinamuli funders, rather than wasting their time on such trivia.
Prepared by CPI(M) research unit

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