West Bengal has had a glorious legacy in education, industry and other fronts. Yet, the overall economic and social conditions of the state have declined since the 1960s; the 34-year rule of the Communist Party has often been stated as one of the reasons for the stagnation in West Bengal’s economy and the people of the state voted for a change in 2011 for the first time.

Yet, after three years of the Trinamool Congress’s rule, West Bengal’s statistics do not show much of a boost to economic development. The state’s per capita annual income in 2013-14 was 69,000, lower than the national average of 74,000. Over the last five years, the infant mortality rate (IMR) has only reduced by a mere four percentage points, from 35 per 1,000 in 2008 to 31 per 1,000 in 2013; in comparison, the national average IMR fell by 13 percentage points during the same period, albeit on a higher base. According to Planning Commission data using the Tendulkar committee’s estimates, about 20% of the population live below the poverty line. The urban poverty rate in the state at 15% is higher than the national average by a percentage point. The rural poverty rate is higher than the urban poverty rate by 8 percentage points, though it is lower than the national average.

Spatial analysis shows pockets with high concentrations of poor population across the state. More than a third of the population in Purulia district live in extreme poverty. A closer look suggests that a large part of the poor population is settled near the economically active areas, i.e., near agricultural cropland or the mining belt in the rural or suburban part of the district. Similarly, Uttar Dinajpur, Malda, Birbhum and Bankura districts display high concentrations of poor population in the mining-belt areas. Clearly, the pace of development in these areas of growth has not been adequate to absorb the increasing inflow of population from in and around the state. The rising unemployment rate in the state is the consequence of the slow economic growth that has been instrumental in perpetuating poverty.

At the aggregate level, poverty rates are relatively low in the districts of Howrah, Hooghly and Kolkata. Yet, a microscopic view of these districts shows big chunks of poor population near water bodies. Population density near water bodies tends to be very high. Rivers and other water bodies offer different types of economic opportunities. Fishing is one of the important contributors to the state’s income. Also, the Howrah bridge, which connects Howrah to Kolkata over the Hooghly river, is one of the busiest bridges in the country, offering a number of opportunities for making a living. However, the high poverty concentration near water bodies suggests that these areas are now saturated in terms of occupational opportunities, and incomes generated are low.

A common facet of spatial poverty is geographical isolation. High concentration of poverty is seen in areas with low transport services or in close proximity to forests. The lack of easy access to markets that is typical of forest areas contributes to the spatial concentration of poverty. The impact of growth on poverty depends on how far poor households are from centres of economic production. More than 50% of the population near the forest areas in the districts of Jalpaiguri, Malda, Bardhaman and Purba Medinipur live in extreme poverty. Another aspect of the high poverty rate in the remote areas is that these areas are largely inhabited by the Adivasi community. Long economic and social deprivation has always posed challenges to the Adivasis for earning a livelihood.

Poor infrastructure in terms of road connectivity and fewer educational institutions or hospitals are common features of high-poverty zones in all districts in the state. Increasing the pace of development in potential areas of growth is essential to lift the poor population above the poverty line.

The government’s policy initiatives require a more focused and targeted approach to tackle poverty. This is possible through microscopic characterization of the poor and identifying where they live. Our concept of spatial poverty can identify these pockets of poverty and measure its extent via remote sensing. This can lead us to a far greater set of policy insights, the most important being its ability to link poverty with the environment that gives rise to and perpetuates it.

Laveesh Bhandari and Minakshi Chakraborty are economists based in New Delhi. These are the personal views of the authors and do not reflect those of the organizations with which they are affiliated.

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