The silent resurrection of West Bengal against the backdrop of continued smear campaign, often bordering on abuse

By Shantanu Basu*
In the past few months, there has been an unseemly smear campaign, often bordering on the abusive, against the state of West Bengal (WB) and Bengalis, not based on hard facts but on amnesiac recollection and horror storytelling. I therefore recount in the following paragraphs the silent resurrection of WB, entirely based upon Govt. of India’s official statistics.
WB’s own tax revenues have increased by about 25% combined with a four-fold hike in total capital expenditure in 2012-15. Capital expenditure on social sector has risen over five-fold and matched by a three-fold increase in capital spending on economic services. The budget revenue deficit is down by three-quarters from 2012-15. Tax revenues have risen by about 50% although there is marginal improvement in non-tax revenues. Against the national compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of GDP of 12.27%, WB’s CAGR stands at a creditable 14.27%. Revenue recoveries measured by the buoyancy over the state’s own taxes have risen from 1.35 to 1.87. Taxes on sales, VAT, etc., show CAGR of 12.79%, stamp duty and registration fees at 13.39% while state excise had a CAGR of 17.36%. While revenue expenditure has grown by about 50%, corresponding utilization in economic and social services by around 40% and 150% may point to expanded services by way of new colleges, schoo
ls, hospitals, etc. Has such focused expenditure improved human development indices?
Development expenditure as percentage of aggregate expenditure has risen from 56.99% to 61.63%, pitched favorably against the national average for non-special category states at 68.12%. Social sector expenditure of 38.92% against the national average of 36.50% is yet another plus. Embedded in social sector spending is education at 19.57% and health at 5.59% that outweigh the national average for non-special category states at 16.23% and 5.04% respectively. During 2014-15, plan capital outlay mainly consisted of expenditure on roads and bridges (Rs. 1262 crore), power projects (Rs. 1068 crore), infrastructure in medical and public health (Rs. 1065 crore), urban development (Rs. 1007 crore), flood control projects (Rs. 882 crore), housing (Rs. 686 crore) and social security and welfare (Rs. 626 crore). In social sector spending, the highest capital expenditures were for water supply, sanitation, housing and urban development that went up to 25.62% of all expenditure during that year. Health & family welfare and agriculture rose by about 5% each while capital expenditure on power and energy almost doubled. Potable water now reaches 95.1% of rural homes and 93.5% of urban homes. Electricity lights 97.2% of urban and 95.1% of rural homes. Literacy too has majorly improved with 67% of rural and 80% of women and men in rural areas. Registration of births in rural WB is 97.3% in urban and 96.7% in rural areas.
The state ranks at fourth position with a birth rate of 15.5 against the national average of 20.8 in 2015. The rural birth rate has fallen from 18.1 in 2011 to 17.3 in 2015, the rural death rate from 6.1 to 5.8 and rural infant mortality rate from 33 to 27 (WB has a 33% urban population). In fact, WB has consistently showed a 5% less than national average birth rate and a 0.6-0.8 negative with national death rate since 2004. The death rate has declined to 5.9 against the national average of 6.5, placing WB fifth in the list of top performing states. Here too, WB has consistently posted achievements of 18-11 less than the national average since 2004. When the death and birth rates are offset one against the other, the result is 13.3 to 9, substantially lower than the national average. A MOHFW report projects that by 2025, WB would boast of male life expectancy of 71 years for males and 74.3 years for females, favorably comparable with the estimated national average of 69.8 years and 74.3 years respectively. Similarly, the infant mortality rate is down to 26 against the national average of 37 (6th lowest). The total fertility rate has decline to 1.6, the lowest in India. Likewise neo-natal maternity is down to 18 against the national average of 25 (7th lowest). While the under-5 years of age mortality age has collapsed to 30 (8th lowest) against the national average of 43, the maternal mortality ratio has fallen to 113 (6th lowest) against the national average of 167.
The sex ratio stands at 950 against the national average of 943 in 2011. Interestingly, WB’s general fertility rate of 54.4 is way below the national average of 76.2, with only Kerala ahead of WB. What is even more creditable is the fact that the rural fertility rate of 60.6 is just two-third of the national average of 83.8. The fact that education, formal and non-formal, have yielded major success is evident from the fact of WB returning an average low of 1.8, almost a quarter lower than the national average of 2.25 in 2014 as the total fertility rate by level of education of women. That education has engendered higher awareness of small family size is evident from the fact that WB boasts of 62.3 live first births, 25.4 second births, 9.1 for third and 3.3 fourth born, against the national average of 48.6, 28.5, 13.4 and 9.4 respectively.
Gross enrolment ratio for primary and upper primary schools that had stagnated around 85% and 60-65% up to 2010-11 increased to 87-90% and 72-74% in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Key infrastructure quality too has shown appreciable northward movement. The total number of govt.-owned schools rose to 82737 in 2015-16 of which 73072 (88%) were in rural areas (rise of about 5% over 2010-11), a tad below the national average of 92.90%. State schools accounted for 86.40% of all schools, against the national average of 74.20%, down from a high of 90% in 2010-11 (national average of 80%) with proportionate rise in the numbers of private schools. The percentage of schools housed in their own buildings is up to cent per cent (national average of 99%), 91% of girls have access to toilets (national avg. of 94%), 99% have potable water supply, 96% have electricity, 93% boast of a library each. However, the pupil-teacher and student-classroom ratios are a third above the national average, pointing to need for more teachers and classrooms.
MHRD’s National Achievement Survey (Class-III Cycle-3), 2016 states “Performance of students of West Bengal is significantly above the national average in both language and no significant difference in mathematics”. In language, the state’s kids scored an impressive 271 against the national average of 255 while for mathematics the score was 255. The Survey is complimentary when it says, “Performance of both boys and girls is higher than the national average in both language and mathematics…………..both rural and urban students is higher than the national average…..The largest proportion of students in the state scored 51-75% correct answers in language…majority of students in the state scored above 75% correct answers in mathematics.” The results were similar for students of Class-VIII.
NSDP has doubled from Rs.5.55 lakh crore in 2011-12 to Rs. 11.64 lakh crore in 2016-17 while per capita NSDP has also doubled from Rs. 60082 to Rs. 120599, i.e. CAGR of 15%. Agriculture, forestry & fishery likewise have increased in value by about 120% (CAGR of 20%). However, industrial CAGR has been modest at barely 8%. Trade and services sector show a healthy CAGR of about 20% each. Evidently, closer monitoring has caused bed occupancy rate in medical college hospitals to rise from 92.9 in 2011 to 95.9 in 2016, district hospitals from 86.1 to 92.5, rural hospitals from 64 to 72 and block primary health centers from 55 to 65.2. WB witnessed promising growth in MSME category with an investment of Rs. 8937 crore in 66246 new units opened during 2007-08 and 2011-12. Currently there are 108881 MSME units in the state providing employment opportunities to over ten lakh people in the state.
Road length has appreciable increased from about 2.30 lakh km in 2008 to 3.10 lakh km in 2013, by about a third. WB’s own installed capacity for power generation and actual generation has increased by 20% since 2010-11 and transmission & distribution losses are below the national average of 25.60%. However, WB is a laggard with just 413 major projects worth Rs. 1.69 lakh crore (3.30% of total) under implementation as of Apr 30, 2017, with neighboring Odisha faring better at Rs. 1.75 lakh crore (3.50%) and Chhattisgarh with Rs. 1.98 lakh crore (3.90%).
The quarterly rate of growth of wireline & wireless telephone penetration reported by TRAI is 1.58% for Kolkata and 3.70 per cent for the rest of WB, against the national average of a conservative 1.36%. WB also reports the highest rural subscriber base of 68.30% against the national average of 41.88%. WB is also quite competitive with figures of total teledensity of 82.74 against the national average of 82.74. Wireless phones (excluding Kolkata) alone accounts for a healthy 3.75% quarterly growth against the national average of 1.41% with 68.56% of rural WB having access against the national average of 42.48%. However, internet access is still limited to 27.38% with Kolkata accounting for about two-thirds’ connectivity.
DIPP figures show that from 2011to 2015 a total of Rs. 31.93 lakh crore was proposed to be invested across 11,784 investment projects in the country of which about 20% were for WB. The global economic slowdown caused the gap between proposals and actual implementation widen with only Rs. 2.70 lakh crore on the ground (8.50%). Notwithstanding this slowdown, WB has implemented 142 projects worth Rs. 7736 crore (3%), comparable to UP and MP and 5% of Maharashtra and Gujarat together. Yet Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal continue to attract maximum investments.
However, it is not as if all is hunky-dory in the state of WB. The state’s cumulative debt has risen by about a quarter since 2011-12 to Rs. 2.45 lakh crore in 2014-15. Concomitantly, interest payment and debt servicing has risen by about 38% from 2011-12 to Rs. 21687 crore in 2014-15. Expenditure on interest payments returned a CAGR of 11.80% in 2010-15 and constituted 55% of tax revenue in 2014-15. Its proportion in Non-Plan Revenue Expenditure (NPRE) increased to 29% from 26% in 2010-11. Payment of interest on market loans, the single largest source of commercial borrowing, grew at a CAGR of 21.92% in 2010-15. Of the total interest paid during 2014-15, market loans alone accounted for 50%. Interest payment increased by 39% per cent (Rs. 2890 crore) during 2013-14 and again by 4% (Rs. 831 crore) during 2014-15 over the previous years.
A spike in transfer of resources from the Govt. of India to WB upon discontinuance of direct transfers for central schemes in 2014-15 has not helped WB much owing to rising revenue expenditure. Its stagnant non-tax revenues have become a drain on the state. During 2014-15, WB earned dividend of a paltry Rs. 6 six crore (0.05%) on its investment of Rs. 12653 crore. As in previous years, no dividend was received from banks and statutory corporations. State-owned public sector undertakings have suffered substantial losses leading to erosion of their net worth. Moreover, revenue realized from 15 schemes during 2014-15 was only 5 crore (0.22% of the capital outlay of Rs. 2293 crore).
Notwithstanding adversity, the quantum spread and primary deficit was positive in 2010-11 to 2014-15 which caused a declining trend in debt: GSDP ratio that declined from 40.65% in 2010-11 to 34.66% in 2014-15, pointing at a movement towards stabilization of debt. Interest payments with respect to revenue receipts depicted a healthy trend as the ratio declined to 24.95% during 2014-15 from 29.23% during 2010-11. However, there is a caveat here. Maturity of the State’s debt would steeply rise from 2016-17 onwards with 42.69% of all market loans of Rs. 1.41 lakh crore falling due for payment from 2016-17 to 2022-23. This would cast a large additional burden on the Govt. of WB’s budget. If it were not for legacy debt servicing, Govt. of WB would return a healthy surplus every year.
There are many other caveats as well. State employees still draw pay on 5th Central Pay Commission scales, that too with half the DA admissible to them, for want of finances, leaving a demotivated lot of public servants to deal with. Enforcement of law and order in several parts of the State would strain the exchequer all the more. The contentious issue of illegal migration from across the border and their resultant influx into border districts would add to policing and administrative costs. Huge welcome infrastructure that has been created in the last 5-6 years would need large provisions for operation and maintenance, superintendence, monitoring and evaluation. Ridding the State of its contra-investment perception would require large publicity resources and tax and other breaks, including contentious land issues. Another issue, allied to unemployment of 6.3% (Jul, 2017) are low wages. The Labour Bureau’s Employment Survey for 2015-16 shows 34.50% of wage earners in WB received below Rs. 5000/month, most so when NSDC estimates the accretion of 89 lakh fresh workers in 2017-22.
Notwithstanding all its minuses and severest limitations, WB still has the country’s most livable metro city with several firsts to its credit, including a running Metro that is undergoing rapid expansion and India’s best maintained old state capital. The present government has recently introduced legislation to ban political parties from university campuses. Corruption is not endemic to the state, as it is with UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, AP or Tamil Nadu. The average Bengali remains frugal in his habits, God-fearing too, with a high sense of personal honor as yet. All he/she needs is some re-training and minimal fiscal assistance as low-interest loans to revive their entrepreneurial spirit. Union activity has appreciably declined as contracted employees are increasing across public and private sectors. The large companies still retain their corporate HQ in Kolkata that accounts for about 40% of all indirect taxes collected by the GOI (since taxes are paid by HOs only). Roads in WB have remarkably improved (but for the heavy monsoon), potable water, health clinics, and district hospitals have come up, much more is happening. Private universities and the country’s leading hospital chains have opened hospitals there as have international hotel chains.
The state has been consciously discriminated against for the past seventy years. Although it is a border state, it was not granted special category status with its generous 90% grant-10% loan formula, like Punjab, J&K and Assam, and not caused the current debt mountain to build up. It was also denied contemporary royalties on minerals and suffered the Railways’ freight equalization policy. Its only opening to the sea is on the verge of closure even though 40% of the nation’s indirect taxes are collected from that State. Most institutions run by the Govt. of India in this State too are in state of the severest decay.
Why should WB be denied while far less deserving states that receive unquestioned liberal funding? The finest gesture for the Govt. of India would be to declare WB a special category state and waive at least 50% of all outstanding loans and interest from it as a one-time measure. Permission to jointly monetize state and central land sharing 50% each of sales/lease money, with the Govt. of India’s share being transferred as lump sum grant to WB for a period of 5-7 years for developing the border districts and strengthening policing, ad hoc grants from the Education Cess Fund toward capital additions in academic & training institutions, hospitals & industrial training institutes, the Swachh Bharat Fund for sanitation and the Kisan Cess Fund for providing drip irrigation, funding a kisan health insurance scheme, etc. would be immensely helpful. Given WB’s technological skill set, Govt. of India could invest in an Alternative Fuels R&D Centre in WB, financed from the India Infrastructure Fund. Likewise, private participation could be invited for setting up desalination plants and wind/tide farms along the coastline.
WB still remains the most cosmopolitan state in India, a shining light of hope and freedom from religious bigotry, no anti-non-Bengali language and anti-outsider movements, little grand corruption, relatively lesser decline in morals and ethics and collective absence of communal violence since 1946 (till recently), less aggressive human behavior, and myriad more. WB’s parameters, people and infrastructure are not far inferior to those of many other large states, in many critical ways, superior. All the state needs are honest helping hands from the Govt. of India, even as a one-time measure bereft of extraneous considerations.
Senior public policy analyst and commentator. Source: