First West Bengal Human Development Report Launched

19 May 2004

Kolkata, 19 May 2004 - West Bengal has been successful in bringing down both birth rates and death rates, with one of the most rapid declines in birth rate in India. Life expectancy in the State is well above the national average. The sex ratio in West Bengal has shown improvement in recent times, so that it is now just above the national average, while the 0-6 years sex ratio is much higher than the all-India average. West Bengal has a much better record of ensuring the lives of girl infants than India as a whole. These are some of the highlights of the first State Human Development Report for West Bengal that was released by the State Chief Minister, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, here today.

Speaking on the occasion, Mr. Bhattacharjee said the Report would enable his Government to widen awareness and social consciousness of the human development priorities for the State. He said based on the findings of the Report, the Government of West Bengal would evolve a new plan of action for implementing policies and programmes that would ensure rapid improvements in the lives of the people.

The State Finance Minister Dr. Asim K Dasgupta, the State Minister for Commerce and Industries, Mr Nirupam Sen, Union Planning Commission Advisor, Dr. Rohini Nayyar and the Senior Deputy Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Mr Maurice Dewulf also addressed the meeting. The State Human Development Reports are based on a three-way partnership between the respective State Governments, the Planning Commission and UNDP.The Report brings out a mixed picture of the current state of human development in West Bengal, with some important successes and also some areas of unequal achievement, as well as certain emerging challenges. The Report suggests a heightened focus on efforts for resource mobilisation to enable more state government spending in basic services, and innovating and strengthening institutions and mechanisms to ensure the better delivery of public services. This, the Report argues, constitute the two crucial planks of a forward looking strategy for human development in the State.

The Report has a focus on the nature and impact of the two major public initiatives which have characterised the state in the past 26 years: land reform and decentralisation – the two have been seen by the state government as inter-related processes, The central questions addressed are: how have these initiatives and the processes they have unleashed affected human development and the conditions of life of the people of the state? Why has progress not been faster? What are the factors constraining human development in the state at present and how can they be overcome?Applauding land reforms – land distribution and tenant registration – as the most extensive of any state in India, the Report says this has led to the unleashing of productive forces in agriculture, small industries and rural services and more equity in basic consumption patterns.

At the same time Panchayats played a major role in assisting the process of land reforms, and the land reforms themselves ensured that the socio-economic composition of panchayat members has been more representative of the population, with a significant representation of landless and poor peasants. Panchayats have been given a wide range of responsibilities relating to material and social conditions and mobilisation, but the resources available to them have been limited. They have certainly provided greater voice for ordinary people, including workers in urban and rural areas, women and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and have been powerful instruments of women’s empowerment.

Looking at the last two decades, the Report says the State has experienced relatively rapid economic growth, compared with the rest of the country. This growth was led by small producers in agriculture, rural industrialisation and small-scale services. However, the organised sector has stagnated. Per capita consumption has increased and poverty has reduced over time, but there are sharp urban-rural differences and the income disparity between Kolkata and all other districts has grown.

The Report describes the lack of adequate productive employment opportunities as probably the most pressing socio-economic problem in the State. Employment in the formal sector has fallen. In general the pattern of job creation has shifted towards more casual, marginal, part-time and insecure contracts or self-employment. The paid employment of women, which was already low by national standards, has diminished further in relative terms in the recent past.The Report says that in the 1990s the literacy picture for the State improved more rapidly, especially among certain groups like rural women, and in more ‘backward’ districts. There are still important differences in access to literacy and education, determined by gender, rural-urban residence, social category and income group. Never enrolled children tend to be more concentrated among the lower income groups and the Scheduled Tribe and minority populations. Lack of basic infrastructural facilities continues to be a serious concern for the proper growth of primary education in West Bengal.

The Report makes an attempt to incorporate a gender perspective on the issues considered throughout the Report, and to assess the particular conditions of and implications for women in each chapter. It notes that while some indicators for women such as for health are better than the national average, the economic and education data suggest a serious undercurrent of gender discrimination in society.With respect to human security, the Reports says the crime situation in West Bengal has always been better in comparison to most other states in India, and it also seems to have been improving over time. In terms of recorded violence against women, West Bengal is a more secure place for women than many other parts of the country. The state performs very well with respect to low rates of violence against Scheduled Castes and Tribes and high security of various religious communities, the Report points out.Arsenic poisoning is a major new problem, which is already having adverse social effects in addition to the health effects. There are gaps and areas of concern in public health service delivery mechanisms, and much greater scope for the involvement of the community in the entire process of the health delivery system, says the Report.