While writing this column, the visuals playing up in my mind are of a viral video from the last parliamentary election in Bengal. A lady with a tilak (confirming her Vaishnav identity) is seen asking her neighbours to vote for the BJP, though she was previously a CPI-M supporter, to usher in development in Bengal.

After a BJP sponsored trip to ‘Golden Gujarat’ she realised how much development had taken place there. This resonated with many, almost like a fairy tale. What a wonderful place Gujarat must be to live in! Not surprisingly, this engineered perception among the electorate did wonders in 2019, fetching seats for a party that was barely present on the ground even a few years ago.

In the ongoing assembly elections the BJP has promised to bring in ‘Asol Poriborton’ or real change, and make Bengal ‘Sonar Bangla’ or Golden Bengal. Appealing though it may sound, the party’s track record of government in Gujarat inspires little confidence. Despite being a much richer state than West Bengal, Gujarat lags behind the latter in key areas of social development.

Although a comparison between two states poses some challenges, it would be worthwhile to look at statistics to make some broad points on the social progress made in West Bengal and Gujarat in the last decade and a half. I will focus on a few parameters to gauge the extent to which these states have laid the ground for people to sustain and enhance the quality of their lives.

Women’s education is considered the most critical investment for achieving multiple development objectives in resource-poor settings. In 2019-20, the proportion of girls at age 6-17 years attending schools was almost universal (92%) in West Bengal compared to only 79% in Gujarat. From 2005 to 2020, the increase in school attendance rate (23 percentage points) among girls in West Bengal was almost double that in Gujarat (13).

The direct effect of this change can be seen in fertility numbers. Trends in total fertility rate, which indicates the average number of children per woman, suggest that West Bengal achieved a greater decline (0.7) than Gujarat (0.5) in the last 15 years. As per the latest National Family Health Survey 2019-20, West Bengal’s TFR was 1.6 compared to 1.9 in Gujarat. Interestingly, the Muslim women of Bengal (2.0) and Hindu women of Gujarat (1.83) have on average almost the same number of children.

Studies suggest that reductions in fertility contribute to falls in infant mortality, by enabling parents to devote more time and resources to their children. Declining infant mortality can also trigger a fertility drop, by improving the average child’s survival chances to adulthood.

Looking at the mortality data, we see that the infant mortality rate has fallen more sharply in West Bengal, where infant mortality declined from 48 per thousand live births in 2005 to 22 in 2020. The fall in IMR during the same period has been relatively small in Gujarat, dropping from 50 to 31 per thousand live births. Put differently, compared to Gujarat, fewer parents in West Bengal experience the death of a child.

Preventive health care reduces infant and child mortality by bringing down periodic episodes of infectious disease outbreaks. However, evidence indicates the under-provisioning of public health services in Gujarat. One-fourth of Gujarati children age 12-23 months did not receive all basic vaccinations against six major childhood illnesses (tuberculosis, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and measles) in 2019-20, while almost 90% children were inoculated in West Bengal.

The eastern state has also outperformed its western counterpart in terms of implementing some key centrally sponsored schemes such as Integrated Child Development Services, which provide nutrition and health services for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

From a low coverage of 42% in 2005, today the Anganwadi centres in West Bengal are able to cater to almost four-fifths of children. In contrast, only 68% children in Gujarat received services of some kind from ICDS centres. The increase in ICDS coverage was much greater in West Bengal (36 percentage points) than in Gujarat (20).

Not surprisingly, by 2020 the proportion of undernourished children had reduced from 39% to 32% in West Bengal. If we compare this with Gujarat’s experience, the proportion reduced from 45% to 40%. That means, in the last 15 years, West Bengal had more success in reducing malnutrition than Gujarat. Bengal also seems to have done comparatively well to make the state open defecation free.

If we look at the number of beds available in public health facilities, considered a critical element of health systems preparedness, we find that West Bengal has augmented its capacity from 54,759 beds in 2012 to 78,566 beds in 2018. The scenario is completely the opposite in the case of Gujarat. Its bed strength has gone down substantially, from 28,958 in 2010 to 20,172 in 2018. In other words, the average population served per public hospital bed fell from 1,604 to 1,217 in Bengal, while increasing from 1,983 to 3,184 in Gujarat.

On the basis of these statistics we can see that West Bengal, despite being the poorer and more populous state, has achieved greater social development in the areas of education, health and nutrition during the previous decade compared to richer Gujarat.

This can be partly attributed to various welfare schemes initiated by the TMC government (Kanyashree, Sabuj Sathi, Sasthya Sathi etc). For example, the Kanyashree scheme provides an annual scholarship of 500 rupees to all girls of age 13-18 years enrolled in classes VIII to XII, and a one-time grant of Rs.25,000. This has plausibly arrested dropouts among girl students and prevented early marriage.

Given the NDA government’s track record at the centre or the BJP government’s in Gujarat, it is difficult to keep faith in their model of development. The last few years have been extremely painful for people with the decline in economic growth and record increase in disemployment coupled with the slashing of budgetary allocation on nutrition programmes.

India is probably one of the very few countries in the world to have experienced a rise in undernutrition in recent times. And these findings pertain to the year 2019-20, i.e. the period just before the pandemic hit. No prizes for guessing that the situation must have deteriorated further during the pandemic, especially because of the Modi government’s mishandling of the health crisis as well as the economy.

The election in West Bengal is being keenly watched by India as the outcome will have larger national ramifications. Never before has the state witnessed such vitriolic and communal campaigns, of such magnitude, trying to create fissures in a society known for upholding syncretic traditions and peaceful coexistence.

Soumitra Ghosh is an Associate Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.