Archive for February 16th, 2009


February 16, 2009







Once-prosperous silk centre in a sorry state

Some 1.47% of India‘s rural poor live inWest Bengal‘s Murshidabad, says Indian Statistical Institute study


Aveek Datta

Kolkata: Murshidabad district, renowned for the opulence of Nawabi rule when it hosted the capital of undivided Bengal in the 18th century, is today home to the maximum number of poor people in the country, according to the first official assessment of poverty across 575 districts.

Suburban Mumbai was found to be the worst in terms of urban poverty, according to the Kolkata-based Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), which is conducting the study for the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

Also See Assessment of Poverty (Graphic)

Some 1.47% of India‘s rural poor live in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. About 3 million people–or 56% of the district’s rural population–are below the so-called poverty line. Although urban areas of Murshidabad are better off, some 347,844 people, or 36.69% of the district’s urban population, are classified as poor.

The statistics illustrate the sorry story of a once-prosperous centre of the silk trade that was said to match London for its splendour during the years of Nawabi rule. Murshidabad, which takes its name from Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, was the capital of undivided Bengal (which included Bangladesh), Biharand Orissa between 1704 and 1790 under Muslim and British rulers.

ISI’s study is based on consumption data collated by the National Sample Survey Organisation, or NSSO, from around 124,000 households across the country in 2004-5. Every five years, NSSO collects consumption data from across the country. The data includes almost everything of daily household use — cereals and pulses to fish and meat and medicines.

India had some 270 million poor people in all when in 2004-05 the consumption data was last collected.

“By now, according to statistical estimates, the figure has gone up by 20%, or about five-and-a-half crore (55 million) people,” said Buddhadeb Ghosh, associate scientist in the ISI’s economic research unit, who is leading the project and will be submitting his report to the Union government in a few weeks.

“In India, the absolute number of poor people doesn’t ever come down, though poverty, as a percentage of national population, declines,” added Ghosh.

Sharp imbalances

The aim of the poverty assessment undertaken by the ISI is to understand disparities within the states, said Ghosh.

Most state governments tend to spend development funds almost entirely on building infrastructure in and around the state capitals, and this has been the trend for the past six decades, according to Ghosh. “This has resulted in sharp imbalances within the states… the aim of this study is to draw the Centre’s attention to these imbalances,” added Ghosh.

In each district, poverty has been assessed separately for rural and urban areas. “For clinical accuracy, we separated rural and urban areas… whereas the poverty line for rural West Bengal is Rs382, poverty line for urban West Bengal is Rs449. Not only did we assess poverty separately, we did not aggregate the two either because that would have compromised the accuracy of the study,” explained Ghosh.

Second to Murshidabad in rural poverty is Bihar‘s Muzaffarpur with 1.96 million poor people. It is home to 0.95% of the country’s 205.4 million rural poor. West Bengal’s Midnapore district comes third with 1.82 million poor people, which is 0.88% of the country’s rural poor. Though Midnapore has been carved up into two districts–East and West–it has been treated as one in ISI’s study.

Of the 25 worst districts in terms of rural poverty, 10 are from Uttar Pradesh, seven from Bihar, six from West Bengal, and one each, from Maharashtra and Orissa.

Uttar Pradesh is the poorest state in terms of rural poverty, with a so-called below poverty line, or BPL, population of 44.14 million people, which is about 33.3% of the state’s rural population. Bihar is second with a BPL population of 28.42 million people, and Madhya Pradesh third with 16.92 million poor people.West Bengal comes fourth with a BPL population of 16.90 million.

Told that Murshidabad was found to be the poorest district in IndiaWest Bengal‘s finance minister Asim Dasgupta said he was surprised. “I am concerned and would certainly take a close look at the report when it is published,” added Dasgupta.

Rural-urban divide

What is worse, 14 out of West Bengal‘s 18 districts are among the 100 poorest districts in India, despite 30-odd years of Left rule through which the state government had taken steps such as land reforms to alleviate rural poverty.

“Half of India’s rural poor lives in 107 districts… and if you were to draw a straight line (on India’s map) from Kanpur in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, you’d see that rural poverty is very high in the area to the right of it, or the east of the country,” said Ghosh.

The opposite seems to be true for western India, where urban poverty is very high. Suburban Mumbai was found to be the worst in terms of urban poverty. With a BPL population of 1.22 million, suburban Mumbai is home to 1.9% ofIndia‘s 64.2 million urban poor.

“When considering poverty in Suburban Mumbai, you shouldn’t look at the absolute number of poor people alone. It could give you distorted view,” says Ghosh. “What is more important in this case is the percentage of Mumbai’s population which is poor–11.71%, and that isn’t very high.”

Ghosh pointed out that cost of living in Maharashtra is very high, and the so-called poverty line for urban Maharashtra is Rs665.90, which is one of the highest in the country.

Being the financial capital of the country, Mumbai draws a lot of unskilled workers from across India. Though most of them earn more in Mumbai than they did in their villages, they continue to remain poor, explained Ghosh. “They end up living in slums, giving the city one the highest slum populations in the world,” he added.

The ISI study, which also looks at various other factors such as health, housing, education and social infrastructure at large, found conditions in suburban Mumbai “not too bad”, according to Ghosh. “It isn’t the worst, you could say, but not the best either. Yet, it ranks as the poorest urban district in the country because Mumbai is the most populous city in India,” says Ghosh.

Jaipur comes second with a BPL population of 1.15 million people, which is 1.8% of the country’s urban poor. Four districts of Maharashtra – Pune, Thane,Nagpur and Nashik–occupy the third to sixth spots.

Maharashtra is the worst in terms of urban poverty–12 of the 25 poorest districts in India are from it and it is the home to the highest number of urban poor in the country. It has been estimated that 32% of Maharashtra‘s urban population, or about 11.94 million people, are poor.

Uttar Pradesh comes second with a BPL population of 9.76 million, which is 30.12% of the state’s urban population. Madhya Pradesh, with 6 million poor people in urban areas, comes third.

Bidi making

Asked where she learnt to make bidis, the small hand-rolled cigarette made out of tobacco wrapped in a tendu leaf, Supriya Khatun drew a blank. After pondering for a while, the 15-year-old girl replied, “In my mother’s lap.”

The mainstay of the Murshidabad’s economy now is rolling bidis. The industry employs some 1.1 million people in the district, making it the biggest production hub of bidis in the country.

Poverty forces women in Murshidabad’s Jangipur area, which is the parliamentary constituency ofIndia‘s external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, to take up bidi rolling as a profession at a very young age, often at the cost of education.

The government-stipulated minimum wage for bidi workers is Rs41 for every 1,000 bidis rolled. But most workers complain that they earn Rs35 at the most because the balance is kept by the middlemen, who supply the raw materials and have a stranglehold on the trade. “For the amount of labour that we put in, the government-stipulated wage is a pittance. What is more, we don’t even earn that much,” says Najma Bibi, a 20-year-old bidi worker, who, on an average, earns around Rs2,000 a month to support her family.

At least 50% of Murshidabad’s population, or 3-3.5 million people, are dependent on farming for a livelihood. But the yield is low because land holdings are extremely small and irrigation facilities are poor. According to the state government’s records, 95% of farmers in the district own between 0.5-0.8 hectares. What is worse, only 12% of the total cultivable land of 402,295 hectares receives irrigation of any form. The density of population, too, is high in this Muslim-majority district.

According to the central government’s estimates, population density in Murshidabad is as high as 1,102 people per square km as against a national average of 590 people for rural areas.