A critique of the World Bank report ‘Scaling The Heights’ on Himachal Pradesh

The recent report of the World Bank, published on the Hill Post last week, lauding the efforts of the Himachal Pradesh government is a fairly balanced one within the very limited scope it appears to have set for itself. It admittedly is a socio-economic survey but its attempt to go beyond mere statistics is half hearted, and it completely excludes from its study certain vital and emerging areas that pose a serious challenge to the state’s administrators.

There cannot be an iota of doubt that the state has made commendable progress, far beyond the national average, in many sectors such as health, education, land reforms, status of women etc. To my mind, this has been made possible by a polity and bureaucracy which, though not necessarily more able than their counterparts in other states, has always been much more accessible and accountable to the people, with fewer opportunities for going astray in monetary matters. The people have been able to hold their rulers accountable because the social profile in the state is extremely egalitarian, with no one community or caste dominating the others; with very few fissures in the social fabric, there are no dominant interest groups which can hijack policy making or administration in one direction. The result has been, as the report also observes, a balanced development across regions, communities, genders and sectors. But everything is not as rosy as the World Bank may like to believe.

World Bank Report on Himachal Pradesh
World Bank Report

Some of the favorable statistics have come at a cost which the report would have done well to highlight. Growth and development in the state have been almost exclusively driven by the government and not private enterprise, which, as every economist will tell you, is not sustainable in the long run. Himachal has the highest population to government employee ratio in the country, 28% of its working population is employed in the public sector – that is, almost 1 in every 3 Himachali works for the government. This report itself records that half of all men in urban areas are employed in the public sector as are one fifth of urban women – this, for me, is a very disturbing statistic. All its PSU’s have run up losses in hundreds of crores and continue to siphon off scarce resources without delivering anything tangible in return. The consequence is that the state has a debt of about Rs. 30000 crores and on a per capita basis is perhaps the most indebted state in the country. The reality is that Himachal has been subsisting on largesse from the Centre and the Planning Commission, and has reason to be very apprehensive now that the latter has been wound up. The Finance Ministry may not be as accommodating in times to come. The state needs a large dose of fiscal discipline and it would perhaps have helped if the World Bank had provided this context in its report.

The report raises some perplexing contradictions in the state’s development record but does not explain them adequately. The most salient one is the declining sex ratio-this has seen a sharp drop from 970 (females per thousand males) in 1981 to 905 in 2011. On the face of it this is inexplicable given that all other indicators in respect of women are very positive. The report does not throw any light on this strange phenomenon. However, I would venture to postulate that this decline is the result of another positive indicator – the declining TFR (Total Fertility Rate): this now stands at 1.9-one of the lowest in India and just 0.1 point above the accepted Net Replacement Rate, below which a population decline is generally considered to be irreversible. This achievement has to be considered in the context of the Asian proclivity for preferring the male child: as families become smaller this proclivity becomes exaggerated, at the cost of the girl child. This has been experienced in China as one of the adverse fall outs of its one child norm. I would suggest that this cultural trait is at work in Himachal also, and this conclusion is reinforced by the report’s finding that pre-natal sex determination is quite wide spread in the state. The government has to wake up to this before it is too late.

A second contradiction in spite of other favourable indicators is the finding that 1/3 rd of all children in the state suffer from malnutrition and have stunted growth. The World Bank should have tried to find out the reasons for this baffling figure but has not done so inspite of asserting elsewhere that Himachal has the second highest per capita income in the country and that just about every rural family possesses agricultural assets. An explanation to this conundrum may involve issues related to distributive aspects of income, sanitation. imbalances in the dietary basket or/and gaps in health care. It is important enough, however, for the state to initiate a detailed study into this disturbing finding.

There are certain important areas of the development matrix which the report completely ignores, or makes just a passing reference to. The most vital of them is the environment, and the impact of Himachal’s development model on it. It is an incontrovertible fact that the quality of the state’s forests have been declining over the last two decades in spite of the ban on green felling. Since 1981 (when the FCA came into force) it has lost approximately 11,000 hectares of its best forests to hydel projects, road construction and other “developmental” activities. One result of this has been extensive soil erosion, siltation of rivers and attendant natural disasters. A 2007 report of the National Remote Sensing Authority, Hyderabad on Land Degradation categorizes HP as one of the three states in the country that have the highest percentage of soil degradation. There is widespread opposition to such projects in the rural areas, especially in the districts of Kinnaur, Kullu and Chamba, where traditional irrigation systems have been destroyed, hundreds of “gharats ” or water mills rendered inoperable and water sources devastated. Rural livelihoods have been affected in these areas but for some strange reason successive governments normally responsive to people’s protestations, have chosen to ignore these facts. The World Bank would have done well to have gone deeper into these issues, and to have perused two studies on this subject titled ” The Socio-Ecological impacts of Small Hydro-power projects in Himachal Pradesh ” by Prof. J Mark Baker of Humboldt University, California, USA.

Tourism has been mentioned in passing in the report, but what has not been examined is the faulty model of mass tourism being practiced, mostly by default, in the state and the complete lack of direction to it by the government. Issues of tourism, urbanisation and environmental degradation are all interconnected in this state and each sector feeds off the inefficiencies of the other. In the process urban spaces are becoming more and more unplanned and some, like Shimla and Manali, have reached a state of irreversible decay and decline. As the tentacles of tourism expand into more pristine rural areas these too are under threat.

Climate change and global warming is another major area of concern that the World Bank has not bothered to address. I find this mystifying because the Himalayan states are the most vulnerable and the impact of climate changes (now inevitable) on agriculture, rural livelihoods, water availability, food security, the natural environment etc. shall be felt in its worst form in states like Himachal. The government needs to start planning for a change of strategy in sectors such as agriculture, animal husbandry,forestry, disaster management, water management, industrialisation etc. in order to prepare for the changes that are just a few years ahead. So far it appears to have done nothing concrete, and the report should have stressed on the importance of launching missions for this purpose.

There is, however, one part in the report where there is one laudatory reference to the government’s efforts on the environmental front, where the World Bank praises the government for its goal of achieving carbon neutrality in the near future. Unfortunately, even this is misplaced and mildly amusing. The fact is that Himachal has always been, not just a carbon -neutral but a carbon- negative state! And this has not been owing to the efforts of any government, but to the munificence of Nature. Just a few simple figures will establish this. The total forest area of the state (2007 figures) is 14668 sq. Kms. It is an accepted thesis that one hectare of good forest sequestrates 10 metric tonnes of carbon per annum. This would mean that our forests sequester 14.668 million tonnes of carbon every year. Assuming the state’s population as 7 million (it is probably lower), the per capita sequestration comes to 2.18 tonnes p.a. The state’s actual emission is apprx. 1/2 tonnes per capita. In other words, on a per capita basis the state captures 1.68 tonnes MORE carbon than it emits every year. We are already carbon – negative and therefore this part of the report is a bit misleading.

In conclusion, one would only like to reiterate that though the state has done well so far, there are still many challenges and unsolved problems ahead. Some of the sins of the past are beginning to catch up with us, and the inevitable downside of economic prosperity is now showing itself. As with everything in life these days the pace of change has accelerated and the state’s policy makers and administrators cannot rest on their past laurels but have rise to the challenges ahead.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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