Divided Bengal

Posted in books, economics, history, politics, society by jrahman on August 14, 2011

(Updates below)

Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Purba Paschim — easily one of the best known Bangla novels ever written — is centred on the lives of Mamun and Pratap — college friends in pre-partition Calcutta whose stories diverge after 1947.  Pratap and his entire family leave their ancestral home in East Bengal for Calcutta.  He faces financial hardship, cramped living conditions, loss of a son, and many other tragedies and tribulations.  But in a sense, he has a normal family life, consisting of birth, marriage, funerals and everything in between.  Pratap dies a fulfilled and content man.  Mamun’s case is different.  He emerges as a well known newspaper editor in East Pakistan, contributing to the democratic movements of the 1960s, participating in the Liberation War, and in the formation of the new country.  While not exactly rich, there is never a hint of him facing penury.  But for all that, Mamun has a rather unhappy personal life — a failed marriage, a complicated relationship which dooms the marriage of a niece, no kids.

I don’t know whether Gangopadhyay means it thus, but to me, the two characters seem to symbolise the paths taken by the two Bengals over the past 64 years — a democratic and stable West Bengal versus a Bangladesh buffeted by the revolutionary highs and counterrevolutionary lows alike.

One can think of a variation of this dichotomy in a number of other works of fiction depicting the diaspora from the two Bengals.  Compare the experience of Ashima in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake with that of Nazneen in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.  The integration into the west is much easier for the wife of an MIT teacher.  And her son, Gogol, when all is said and done, has existential crises that are not really all that different from Douglas Coupland’s protagonists — a far cry from Magid and Millat of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

And underlying all the differences, we can surmise, is the economic differences between the two parts of the divided Bengal.  Traditionally, the western part was industrialised, and Calcutta was undoubtedly richer than the rural eastern hinterland.  One would have expected West Bengal to have a higher per capita income at partition.  It’s hard to guess which part would have grown faster in the 1950s and 1960s — West Bengal was besotted with the refugee burden and political violence, but East Pakistan faced systematic discrimination.  My guess is that both had stagnated.  And then, into the 1970s, we know that Bangladesh lost a fifth of its economy in 1971 — nothing remotely comparable happened in West Bengal.

Thus, one could reasonably expect that West Bengal would be considerably richer than Bangladesh when the Left Front came to office in 1977.  For the next 34 years, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that the communist ruled state had stagnated.  We know, on the other hand, that Bangladesh staged gradual economic accelerations over this period.

Would Bangladesh have closed the gap with West Bengal during these decades?

I don’t know.  I haven’t actually seen any study comparing the two Bengals’ economic performance.  I decided to look up some numbers myself, and was astonished to see what I found — that Bangladesh was slightly richer in 1994, but West Bengal had raced ahead in the intervening years!

That’s what is shown in the chart comparing per capita income.  I have taken the state GDP data from Indian statistical agency, converted it into BD taka using the latest exchange rate, and compared it with the BBS official figures.  Now, we can quibble over whether the market exchange rate is the right measure here.  Ideally we would want a purchasing power adjusted exchange rate.  But I don’t have one for West Bengal.  And yes, this could make a huge difference.  So don’t take these numbers too seriously.  May be they reflect something real, may be not.

Instead, let me ask a different question — how come no one has done this study?

And not just per capita income.  That’s just one metric economists are fond of using.  What about a comprehensive study of indicators of social progress?  We often hear, particularly from well-meaning westerners like Nick Kristoff, that Bangladesh is doing so much better than its erstwhile western half of Pakistan because we invest on schools, particularly for girls, while they spend their money on guns and puts their girls behind purdah.  Well, Bengalis of either side of the Radcliffe Line has a lot more in common with each other than Bangladeshis have with Pakistanis.  Has anyone done any comparison of how women’s lives in West Bengal compare with Bangladesh?

Other scholars compare the populism-military rule-dysfunctional democracy dynamics of erstwhile East and West Pakistans.  Has anyone in Bangladesh asked how democratic practices, and civic institutions, evolved in West Bengal over the past decades?  Is there something we can learn from there?

I have often contended that Bangladesh is not much understood in India — I give you the ramblings of Manmohan Singh and Jagdish Bhagwati as exhibits.  Perhaps Bangladesh is not understood in West Bengal — the part of India that should have more familiarity than Delhiwallahs or Southerners — either, I don’t know.

But it seems to me that Bangladeshis are also not very curious about West Bengal.

And that is a shame, because if my suspicion is true, then Bengal has truly been divided, mentally as well as physically.


Updated (1025 BDT, 16 Aug)

It occurs to me that a full appreciation of the physical division of Bengal is not necessarily a bad thing.  Once we reconcile ourselves to the finality of partition, we can begin to analyse each other, and our common past, in a rational manner.


Updated (1230 BDT, 18 Aug)

In light of Diganta’s comment, this chart shows GDP per capita in US$ using purchasing power parity exchange rates (ie, taking into account price differences properly).  Source: Groningen Growth and Development Centre Database. 






12 Responses

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  1. Diganta said, on August 18, 2011 at 1:58 am

    Unfortunately, the state GDP data you have used is not a accurate measurement of per capita income. It is being discussed for a few years and the matter of fact is that these state domestic products do not add upto Indian GDP – something that’s much accurately estimates and scrutinized. West Bengal’s state per capita income should be close to Indian mean, i.e. almost double of that of Bangladesh. I guess, it was like that for last 30 years or so. Before 1971, Bangladesh used to have higher/almost same per capita income of that of India. But now, the gap is growing.

  2. Diganta said, on August 18, 2011 at 2:04 am

    With regards to physical division of bengal, I consur with your opinion that it may not have been a bad thing. But, they still share same culture and history. The problem in Bangladesh is that it tries to view West Bengal either as “Kolkata” (urbanised people) or “India”(giant neighbor) and neither is absolutely true. The problem in West Bengal is that it doesn’t know much about Bangladesh as news media projects every possible news about happenings in India and thus it has got Indianized. Currently, I am not optimistic that their views will converge sometimes soon. Rather I speculate they will go England-USA way – i.e. shared history but happily separated.

  3. jrahman said, on August 18, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Diganta, as the chart above shows, once you account for price differentials and purchasing power, the picture changes slightly. Bangladesh starts out ahead of both India and Pakistan in 1950. But Pakistan pulls ahead of the other two in the 1960s. Then in 1971, Bangladesh shrinks by a lot, and stagnates for a while. Pakistan continues to race ahead until the late 1980s, after which it has stagnated. India starts a series of acceleration from late 1970s. Bangladesh follows suit after a few years. By 2010, India is twice as rich as Bangladesh, and is considerably richer than Pakistan. Pakistan may be richer than Bangladesh, but it has been stagnating. While Bangladesh has been steadily growing for over two decades now.

    This story is well known. The West Bengal story, far less so. If West Bengal has had a similar profile as Indian national average, then that would challenge a couple conventional views:
    – it would imply East Pakistan was richer in 1950, which is hard to believe given the province was, in Suhrawardy’s words, an overpopulated rural slum, while West Bengal had Calcutta and the industrial belt
    – it would mean that West Bengal did not stagnate under the Left Front, that it enjoyed the same kind of economic turnaround that the rest of the country did, which would bring to question the whole notion of what reforms do and don’t achieve.

    These are fascinating questions. I do hope someone is exploring them.

    As for your second point, valid observations.

    • Diganta said, on August 19, 2011 at 7:04 am

      Few points –
      1. West Bengal’s per capita income today is close to Indian mean does not mean it was always so. For example, state ranking in per capita income shows West Bengal to be in 12th place now while it was in 3rd place during 1960s. In my estimate, it was at least 25% higher than Indian national per capita income till 1970, when both Bangladesh war and Naxalism struck West Bengal economy.
      2. There’s was nothing wrong in the statistics that shows Bangladesh having higher per capita income than that of India in 1950. The whole nation was mostly agrarian and the GDP is higher where agriculture is better. The fact is, a lot of rich and educated people left Bangladesh gradually between 1947 and 1972. On top of it, nothing was offered to Bangladesh economy during Pakistan rule.
      3. “in Suhrawardy’s words, an overpopulated rural slum, while West Bengal had Calcutta and the industrial belt” — In 1950, West Bengal already took millions of refugees and had to accomodate them in their economy. So, the arguments of 1946 didn’t count. Also, apart from Kolkata, the rest of the West Bengal was extremely poor. For example, Bankura, Purulia and Midnapore had neither industries nor the land to cultivate.
      4. “it would mean that West Bengal did not stagnate under the Left Front, that it enjoyed the same kind of economic turnaround that the rest of the country did” – Left front assumed power in 1977 and after that they successfully did one thing apart from Land reforms. It was to stabilize the population (may be it was also related to land reforms). So, even if the GDP didn’t grow, the per capita figures would show healthier progress than others due to less growth in population. In 2011 census, we got the confirmation that the population of proper Kolkata actually shrunk between 2010-2011.

      Population is one of the factors concealed in this statistics. That’s why Pakistan is on the losing ground despite formidable GDP growth.

  4. […] Rahman attempts to compare the performance of erstwhile East and West Bengal and opines that the physical division […]

  5. […] Rahman attempts to compare the performance of erstwhile East and West Bengal and opines that the physical division […]

  6. উদয়ন said, on August 20, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Fascinating. A couple of comments – not so much tied to your piece but prompted by it.

    1. West Bengal (I mean Paschim Banga)’s population is at least 10m higher than it would have been without the exodus post 1947 (not counting the post 71 economic migrant issue) and the numbers are nowhere near the same for outmigration to the East. Among that population, the middle class and those who were property owners in East Pakistan or Bangladesh mostly came with a fraction of what they had, many came with nothing. Though this category did have education and skills. There are a bunch of questions raised by this – the effect of absorbing this population (Calcutta’s infrastructure, for instance), pressure on resources, the wealth creation that occurred among this demographic subsequently (huge, given that most of the East Bengali-origin middle class is now on par or higher than the incumbents). Likewise, what was the corresponding economic effect on East Pakistan and then Bangladesh? Significant loss of population which is masked by significant population growth in net numbers, significant transfer of wealth (EPA, VPA, property grabbing that doesn’t show up in any records) but also loss of highly educated population as well. So, what are the net effects of all of this?

    2. What about different migration and remittance implications. We hear often that BD’s economy is hugely influenced by remittance. I don’t know what the equivalent is for WB. On the one hand, WB has an open border and access to Maharashtra and Gujarat and Karnataka etc. On the other, it doesn’t have access to the Gulf even for its poor Muslims. Kerala does – and I think the effects on wealth hve been studied. I remember anecdotal sttistics like “90% of Sylhetis have at least one relative in Europe or America”. Has this accounted for any divergence in performance or stats?

    3 Rural-urban split. As Dignta mentions, there is the Calcutta / non-Calcutta split. My anecdotal observation has been that Dhaka is more developed than Calcutta but less evenly – there is no Gulshan , but the only time Calcutta has looked “not so crowded” to me is when I flew in from Dhaka. Likewise for BD as a whole. Roads may be better between Dhaka and the districts compared to Calcutta, but the drive out of Calcutta in all directions has always seemed more of a gradual shift to rural lack of infrastructure and poverty compared to Dhaka where it seems more extreme a shift from one to the other. Again, only anecdotal. Are there studies of gini coefficients / distribution of wealth among demographics?

  7. jrahman said, on August 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm


    Firstly, Paschimbanga? Seriously? Looks like poriborton is not going to be all that different from din bodol! And is it Paschimbanga or Paschim Banga? Also, what will the state’s citizens be called? Paschimbangi? Surely Bangabhumi would have been far better.

    Anyway, leaving that aside, both of you raise some very interesting points. Some further thoughts.

    1. If West Bengal was about a quarter richer than Indian average in 1970, and is about as rich as all India now, then that would translate into nearly 3% growth in per capita income. Add in 1-2% for population growth, and overall economic growth would be 4-5% — faster than the ‘Hindu rate’ of stagnation, but slower than what is needed to make a serious dent in poverty.

    2. Is there any study of the differential land / farm productivity between East and West Bengal before partition? Or are we relying on stereotypes and nostalgia (shujola shufola Purba Bangla as the golden land that had to be abandoned for the rough, infertile lal paharer desh)? This matters a lot for understanding land reforms / food security / rural economy etc.

    3. There is an extensive, decades old, debate about the role of human capital in economic growth and development. At the risk of oversimplifying, the mainstream understanding these days is that given proper institutions, human capital is more important than physical capital. That would suggest that the negative impact of the population influx on West Bengal should have been more than compensated for by the additional skills the partition migrants brought. To the extent that this theoretical prediction might not have come true — I think it would be a really interesting research topic for the economic historians.

    The theoretical predictions, I think, have been more accurate for Bangladesh. The theory would suggest that if you skilled workers / human capital leave, and physical capital / land / wealth is transferred to less skilled parts of the society, you’ll stagnate or even go backwards, at least in the short run. That’s precisely what happened in Bangladesh. There is no shortage of explanations for what went wrong in Bangladesh after 1972. But when you consider the fact that majors had to become major generals, assistant lecturers had to work as professors and district magistrates had to be promoted to high court judges in a very short period of time, is it any surprise that things would go horribly wrong?

    4. On the post-partition migration of unskilled/semi-skilled labour for economic reasons — one of the general puzzles about the Indian growth experience is that it has not generated the same level of urbanisation and industrialisation as has been the case elsewhere (East Asia, Europe). The (lack of) industrialisation / service sector led growth has been noted in the literature. But the lack of urbanisation, and related issues of labour mobility, are less recognised. Given its per capita GDP, India should be lot more urban. Why don’t the poor villagers from West Bengal go to Mumbai or Delhi or Hyderabad? Why can Kerala Muslims go to Dubai, but not WB Muslims? For that matter, why is a Bangladeshi more likely than a Bihari to work as a bricklayer in Hyderabad? I think these are all open questions worthy of serious studies.

    5. Only from my Calcutta friends do I hear that ‘Dhaka is more developed’. For what its worth, I would take upmarket Calcutta over upmarket Dhaka any time. Gulshan is a pretty ordinary place, really (and I am not even going to go into ‘culture’ thing).

  8. Udayan said, on August 22, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    I was among the minority with my view on the name change – firstly in that there didn’t need to be one at all, secondly in that a de-contextualized “Bengal”, “Bangla” etc was hugely worrisome given our history and evolution since 1947. I would always want to remind the world that we are actually part of a greater entity – our giant neighbour to the east may have forgotten that in their choice of nomenclature and symbols, but we should not. Taking a leaf out of the nationalism of your late President, I would also want to emphasize our distinct identity post 1947 – which has emerged whether or not we like the way it happened. As such, if there needed to be a name changing ceremony for face saving, I breathe a huge sigh of relief that there isn’t really a change.

    Though let’s give didi some credit, this is not exactly the same as din bodol. The decision was made at an all party meeting, after considering recommendations from a committee headed by the CPM opposition leader in the Bidhan Sabha, and the Trinamool State Parliamentary Affairs Minister, who both apparently worked together very well over the past few weeks on this and were pictured several times together quite jovial. Mamata’s preference was apparently for “Bangabhumi” but she claims she didn’t push that as the wanted consensus.

    • jrahman said, on August 29, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      What was wrong with Bangabhumi? I thought that was pretty cool.

      • Udayan said, on August 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm

        Paschim Bangabhumi perhaps. But in that case, why not just stick with West Bengal? Thanks to a varied history and rich literary tradition, we have many names for our part of the world, I don’t see the logic in switching between them since no particular one is more relevant, accurate, or inclusive (we haven’t even gotten into the ethnic diversity / imposition of Bengali identity on minorities issue in this debate).

        Like I said, India and the world at large needs a reminder from at least somewhere that we are part of a greater whole. I don’t trust Bangladeshis – either Bengali or Bangladeshi nationalists – to do this. And judging by the quality of debate over this stupid name change issue in WB, I certainly don’t trust those on “e par” either.

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