Home / Opinion / Why Kerala is like Kuwait, while Madhya Pradesh is like Haiti

American poet Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself"—“Do I contradict myself/ Very well then I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes"—seems tailor-made for India. Which country can India be compared to, in economic terms? Is India’s level of economic development more or less like Vietnam’s, because their per capita incomes, in international dollars and in purchasing power parity terms, are almost the same?

But per capita incomes vary widely in India, with Maharashtra’s being four-and-a-half times as much as Bihar’s. And that’s leaving out smaller states such as Goa and Sikkim that have far higher levels of income per head. India is very far from being dirt-poor Haiti, whose per capita income is less than one-third of India’s. But a research note by HSBC earlier this year pointed out that Jharkhand had the income per head of Haiti, while Bihar’s, which is even lower, matches that of Eritrea. In terms of infant mortality, Madhya Pradesh is at around the same level as Haiti. Life expectancy in Kerala is 12.3 years more than in Assam. In short, making a general statement about the Indian economy, without accounting for its massive diversity and contradictions, could mean very little.

There’s also, of course, the inequality factor. A child in the poorest fifth of the Indian population is three times more likely to die before the age of five than the richest fifth. An Indian in the richest fifth has an average life expectancy of 10.8 extra years over his compatriot in the poorest quintile of the population. There are many different Indias.

One of the most basic indicators of the quality of life in a country is the level of infant mortality. India has an infant mortality rate of 41 per thousand live births, which puts it on a level with Tajikistan, at 41, and Madagascar, at 40. But the average Indian infant mortality rate conceals wide disparities. Manipur and Goa have infant mortality rates of 10 per thousand, which puts them on par with Bulgaria, Oman and Uruguay, and better than China, which has 11 per thousand.

At the other extreme, we have Madhya Pradesh and Assam, with infant mortality rates of 56 and 55 per thousand. Internationally, they are in the august company of countries such as Haiti, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Burundi. Liberia, with infant mortality of 54 per thousand, beats these states. Chart 1 compares infant mortality of some Indian states with other countries.

Let’s move on to life expectancy, another basic indicator of wellbeing. The average life expectancy at birth of an Indian is 66 years, about the same as in Guyana and three years more than in Ethiopia or Haiti. But again, that covers wide variations among India’s states. Life expectancy ranges from a high of 74.2 years in Kerala, about the same as in Brazil, Latvia and Kuwait, to 61.9 years in Assam, on par with Eritrea and Papua New Guinea. Himachal Pradesh has a life expectancy of 70 years, the same as Russia. Life expectancy in China is 75 years, slightly higher than in Kerala. Chart 2 compares life expectancy in Indian states with that of other countries.

Poverty headcount ratios, too, can be compared across states and internationally because they have the same benchmark of $1.25 per day at purchasing power parity rates. Poverty ranges from a headcount of a low of 7.1% for Kerala to a high of 33.7% for Bihar. Poverty in Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab is lower than in South Africa’s 9.4%, according to this yardstick. On the flip side, poverty in Bihar is higher than in the Republic of the Congo, which has a poverty headcount of 32.8%, and is comparable to that in Senegal, where it is 34.1%.

These numbers speak volumes. Why is life expectancy in Haryana, which has a per capita income 1.9 times that of West Bengal, two years lower? Why is the poverty headcount ratio in Andhra Pradesh at 9.2%, compared with 16.6% for Gujarat, despite Andhra Pradesh’s per capita income being less than three-quarters that of Gujarat? Going back to the Vietnam example, note that despite having a per capita income slightly lower than India’s, its poverty headcount ratio is 2.4%, compared with India’s 21.9%. For its level of income, India, as well as many of its states, could do a much better job in taking care of their most vulnerable people.

Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets. Your comments and feedback are welcome at

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