Economic Survey: where does Assam stand?

The Economic Survey 2003-04 is a document that comes out at such a time that its importance gets lost within a day of its arrival. Most of us are too bothered with the Annual Budget placed the next day to care about what happened during the previous as depicted by the survey. And in any case the budget speech also deals with the major issues of development in the economy during the past few years. Therefore, it is only a few like Bibek Debroy of RGICS who would bother to read the Survey in detail and question what has been written there. Our interest here is to show where Assam stands today so that we do not remain content with what the state government tells us about the upheaval in the growth rate of state economy.

First of all, one should not make any judgment about the well being of the people of a state based on the per capita income alone. Nevertheless, it is the only comprehensive and widely acceptable yardstick for measuring the standard of living. In terms of per capita income one finds that Assam with a per capita income of Rs 10,951 in 2001-02 stands almost at the bottom of the list. More importantly, its PCY is slightly more than half (61%)of the Indian average of Rs 17,947. The states that have more than double the per capita income of Assam are Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu with smaller states like Delhi, Chandigarh, Goa having almost four times Assam’s PCY. In the NER, Assam’s per capita is the lowest and therefore remarks made by some about Assam being the most developed state has to be examined further. All one can say here that other than transport and communication, Assam falls behind almost all the NE states.

It is also important to look at ourselves in comparison to our neighbours. China has a per capita income (UNDP Human Development Report figures for 2001) of $ 911 while India has $ 462 and Thailand has $1874. Even Bangladesh has per capita income of $ 350 (76% of India’s PCY) which means that it is far above that of Assam’s. Of course per capita income for India of $ 462 would amount to Rs 21,991, at the exchange rate of Rs. 47.6 in 2001. Thus there appears to be some difference in the way the data were collected and tabulated by the Survey and the UNDP. In any case since the relative position can be assumed to be correct given the common base it can be assumed to be correct that Bangladesh has a per capita income higher than that of Assam. Someone who has spent about three weeks in rural Bangladesh also believes that the picture in Bangladesh does appear better than Assam’s. What is more surprising is that even then there appears to be continuous stream of Bangladeshis migrating to the state. In this light it is very interesting to hear that a full- fledged office operates in Dhaka to help people to migrate – legally or illegally! If the selection process is such that the poor are helped to migrate elsewhere, then Bangladesh will be a developed country much before India, especially Assam. It is sad that while illegal migrants talks are eating into the economy of the Assam and some other parts of the NER, Bangladesh is developing quietly and steadily.

Let us now turn to those parameters which reflect how well-off the people are, in terms of life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, drinking water etc. One finds that in terms of life expectancy at birth (table 9.1), the figure for Assam for male population (58.96) as well as female population (60.87) falls below the national average of 63.87 and 66.91 respectively. Infant mortality rate for the state in 2002 is 62 while the national average is 64. It is to be noted that in 2000, the infant mortality rate for female in the state was 83 compared to 69 for all India. This is rather striking because among the major states numbering 15, only the states of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh has higher female infant mortality rate. And then we think that there is comparatively less male bias in the Assam vis-s-vis the national scene! In the case of male infant mortality rate, Assam does better than just four other states, namely, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajastan and UP.

It has been noticed that some of our leaders keep harping on the high literacy rate in the state. Let us realize that for the Census years 1951, 1961, 1971, 1991 and 2001, Assam’s literacy rate was marginally higher than that of the Indian average only in 1961 and 1991. In 1971, Assam’s literacy rate was lower than the national average. In 2001 too Assam’s literacy rate of 64.28 is worse than the national average of 65.38. Therefore, one is not right in speaking about the better literacy rate in the state. In terms of female literacy rate one can make such statements though since the rate has been better. In terms of enrolment ratio however, the state does better than the all India average for both girls and boys in classes I to VIII, 2001-02.

Data on access to safe drinking water also show a low spread of 45.86% compared to national average of 62.30%. Rural as well as urban population in the state have poorer access to safe drinking water than most Indian states. This is a sad reflection on the Public Health Department which wasted crores of rupees in providing drinking water. The unutilized plants are also pointers to the necessity of educating the people on health and hygiene before delivering the amenities. Provision of many public facilities need to be demand driven. It seems in quite a few villages the public do not want tap water as the water from tube well is preferred.

There is another interesting data. This is regarding number of recognized educational institutions in India 2001-02 (provisional). While Assam seems to be having substantial number of primary schools (5% of the country total), middle schools (3.65% of the country total), high schools (3.61% of the country total) and colleges for general education (3.41% of the country total) there is a definite shortage in terms of professional education and universities/institutes of national importance. Assam has 42 professional education institutes out of total 2409, that is, 1.74% of the country total. There are six universities/institutes of national importance out of 351 located in the state.

One must also realize that the total number for the NE region as a whole is also very low. Other than Meghalaya which has two institutes of national importance, each of the other NE states have only one such institute. In the light of the discussions that the future prospects of economies of the world would have to be knowledge-driven, the NER has to focus on this. Public private participation in this sector can take place quite smoothly. Beside attracting some bright minds from outside (abroad too) it would also be worthwhile to spend central assistance in such institutions. “Organic intellectuals” as discussed by Prof Prabhat Patnaik are not born in a region without good institutions.

To conclude, there is no doubt that the distance between Assam and the rest of India is increasing. The increase is much more stark in case of the states of the South and the West. According to the India today (August 16, 2004) it is the states in North and the South which have done well of late. The jump in the growth rate in Assam in the last two years is a welcome development. However, there is immediate need for having a more disaggregated study of Assam to bring about the true picture of development in the state. The immigrants group, the Assamese tribal and the Assamese non-tribal population group seem to reflect a highly stratified process of development and this has to be brought to light to make policies accordingly. What is good for the tribal population need not be so. Aggregating numbers like the bank loans, areas under irrigation will not give the correct strategy and may widen the existing gap within Assam itself.

- by Dr Amiya Sharma

(Dr Sharma is an economist working for the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation, Guwahati, Assam. Prior to this, he was a reader at Tezpur Unuversity, Tezpur, Assam in the Department of Businesss Administration. He has done his Masters from Delhi School of Economics and PhD from Rutgers University, New Jetrsey, USA. His fields of interest are Developmet Economics, Monetary Economics, Micro Credit and International Trade. He has contributed a number of articles related to the development of the Northeast Region and works for a number of voluntary organizations.)