New Delhi: In Chhattisgarh politics, development always takes centrestage. At the launch of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign for the upcoming elections, Raman Singh, the chief minister, claimed that the BJP has been critical for Chhattisgarh’s development. Predictably, Congress disagrees, claiming that the BJP has been critical for Chhattisgarh’s underdevelopment. The data suggests there is some truth in both claims.

At its formation in 2000, Chhattisgarh accounted for just 1.4% of India’s total output and lagged most states on several development indicators. However, first under three years of Congress rule and then 15 years of Raman Singh-led BJP rule, the state’s economy has grown steadily. Between 2000-01 and 2014-15 (using data from the 2004-05 series) the Chhattisgarh economy grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 8% with its share in Indian output increasing to 1.8%.

This growth, driven by industrial growth and increased investment, has been accompanied by improvements in development. One way to see this and roughly assess a state government’s record is to compare performance with neighbouring districts in adjoining states under different governments. This analysis is particularly relevant to land-locked Chhattisgarh, surrounded by 25 districts across six states—many of which share similar characteristics.

Using data from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey,Mint examined district performance on critical development indicators in Chhattisgarh and its surrounding districts. We find that, on nutrition indicators Chhattisgarh’s districts improved significantly between 2006 and 2016 and outperformed neighbours to its north.

One possible explanation is the state’s public distribution system (PDS). Both the first Congress government and subsequent BJP governments implemented reforms which extended the state’s PDS coverage and accessibility. In a 2014 study, Prasad Krishnamurthy and others show how access to more subsidized rice through Chhattisgarh’s PDS allowed households to consume more nutritious food compared to bordering districts.

Another relative success is the provision of electricity. Chhattisgarh has emerged as a net surplus provider of power which has resulted in near-universal electricity access across the state bettering several of its neighbouring districts. Yet, despite these relative successes, Chhattisgarh continues to lag India. Aggregate measures of development highlight the extent of Chhattisgarh’s poverty. In a recently published multidimensional poverty index, which captures different aspects of poverty, including education, health and living standards, researchers from the University of Oxford estimated 36% of Chhattisgarh’s population live in multidimensional poverty, the fifth-highest in India.

Within Chhattisgarh there are significant disparities. Districts in the south (such as Bastar) and north (such as Surguja) fare worse than the more prosperous central areas surrounding Raipur.

The NITI Aayog has included 10 districts from Chhattisgarh in its list of 101 aspirational districts—a list of districts earmarked for urgent development. One reason for Chhattisgarh’s persistent underdevelopment is that growth has not been broad-based. Growth in industrial output and steady increase in the number and size of investment projects in Chhattisgarh have not translated into more jobs or higher wages which have remained stagnant.

Chhattisgarh comprises 2.5% of India’s working population but in 2016 accounted for 1.2% of factory jobs in India. The lack of industrial employment also means that the economy continues to depend on agriculture. According to the last census, nearly 75% of the state’s workers depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Rice is the predominant crop but yields are 16% lower than the Indian average. This explains why farm incomes remain weak. In a 2016 study, Sanjoy Chakrovorty and others estimate that on average Chhattisgarh’s farmers earned 1,081 per capita every month in 2013—the fifth lowest in India.

Beyond the enduring development challenge, the Chhattisgarh government also has to contend with an unrelenting Naxalite conflict. Earlier this week, a BJP state leader was stabbed in a suspected Maoist attack. Since 2005, nearly 3,000 people in Chhattisgarh have lost their lives to Naxalite-related violence. And while aggregate figures have decreased over the last decade, Chhattisgarh remains at the heart of the conflict, accounting for more than half of all Naxalite-related deaths in India over the last three years.

This ongoing conflict, farmers’ distress and Chhattisgarh’s general poverty will influence voting next month. The BJP can claim it has addressed some of these issues—but the state remains a laggard. Both the BJP and Congress now have to convince voters that they are the ones to drive Chhattisgarh to parity with the rest of India.

This is the first of a two-part data journalism series on Chhattisgarh. The next part will examine how different segments of voters in the state have voted in previous elections.

To read about Madhya Pradesh, click here and here.

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