Lessons from a dead state

Photo: AP

ON A recent vsit to Kolkata, I was asked how West Bengal was doing vis-à-vis other states. My answer was, not too bad really. But non-Bengalis such as I tend to compare West Bengal with an average state. And yes, West Bengal has not been doing very badly when we compare it with say, Bihar. West Bengal today is, well, average (and slightly above average at best).

When Bibek Debroy and I started researching on how West Bengal was performing, we decided that the best need to be compared with the best, not the average. And West Bengal needed to be compared with states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, not an average state like Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. We also looked at these states’ evolution across the past five decades. When the British had left India, there were two cities that dominated India’s industrial, intellectual and cultural landscape — Mumbai and Kolkata. Today, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune, Ahmedabad, and even Hyderabad have overtaken Kolkata. Soon, Surat and Coimbatore it seems will overtake Kolkata.

What is so apparent when we compare Kolkata with other metros, is also reflected when we compare West Bengal to other states. Kolkata’s relative decline is only a symptom, the illness is in the state as a whole. What is this disease and how can West Bengal become healthy again? We looked at data, the oldest being from the 1960s. We compared it with that from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and other states and found an all-pervasive pattern.

We looked across a range of parameters reflecting basic and higher education, basic and higher level healthcare, industry, agriculture, law and order and justice, etc. We studied violent crime, availability of doctors, manufacturing units, agri-productivity, electrification, state’s capital investment, PSU performance, and a whole range of parameters that reflect a state’s performance. In just about every area and parameter, West Bengal’s figures were better or comparable to Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, West Bengal stands much lower. We looked at population growth — could it be that West Bengal’s ever-growing population was making it inordinately difficult for the state to progress? And we found that states such as Maharashtra had roughly comparable population growth, but far outstripped West Bengal’s rate of progress. Not satisfied with quantitative data, we looked at CAG reports that painstakingly documented the malaise in the way the state is governed.

Since the mid-1970s, the Left Front has had unhindered control over the state administration. It has not only controlled the state government but most of its rural and urban local governing bodies. It has had relatively good relations with the Centre, much better than what many other states can boast of.

When every parameter shows a relative decline, when the malaise is overarching, when accounts of government-run firms are not completed for many decades (yes, decades!), when external factors are not more perverse than that faced by many other states, when population growth is not the culprit, when there has been political stability, what can account for this relative but stark decline? The answer is apparent. But that is not where we end; many opportunities exist for the state. We have also identified a range of actions and simple reforms that can quickly enable the turnaround of West Bengal’s downfall. It’s never too late to get one’s act together.