If Kolkata was ever known for its distinct cultural values, the credit was due to the city’s vast population of righteous, liberal, middle-class with a few generations of education and achievements behind.
The early phases of migration during the Partition made this stalk richer. Many Hindus of high caliber ended up here, penniless. They turned the corner without government support and added great value to society.
Also known as ‘Bhadralok’, for their fine taste, this class has been the face of the state for too long. But the situation is now changing. An alarmingly low fertility rate to the levels of Taiwan or Singapore is making them a vanishing tribe.
Enter any gated society, old neighbourhoods or the satellite township of Salt Lake — which was built for the middle class — and all you see are grey-haired men and women. Hospitals, medicines, and diseases are the most common refrain.
Add to that the impact of migration to other cities in search of better opportunities and, the impact is severe. In another 10-15 years, ‘Bhadralok’ will be an endangered species in Kolkata.
The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) trouble
The reason lies in the early adoption of family planning methods and the increase in the mean marriage age. According to experts, 30 per cent of women in Kolkata used contraceptives in the 1940s.
Education, liberty for women and Kolkata’s dominance over the Bengali mind space helped to popularise the issue. Family planning has been in vogue in urban areas and non-tribal Hindu-dominated districts for the last 50 years.
The results are showing now. From 2.9 children per woman in 1991-92, the total fertility rate (TFR) of the state is down to 1.6 in National Family Health Survey-5 in 2019-20. Urban fertility is 1.4, rural 1.7.
This is the lowest TFR level in India and distinctly above Kerala (1.8) and Tamil Nadu (1.8).
On a global scale, West Bengal’s TFR is below China (1.66) and developed countries like the USA (1.89), UK (1.87), Sweden (1.91), Norway (1.83), France (1.97), Russia (1.79) etc.
It is slightly above Germany (1.5), Italy (1.54), Japan (1.53) and Canada (1.56) which are either suffering from a population shrinkage or inviting immigrants for growth.
NFHS didn’t publish district-wise TFR. In a 2019 paper, Sayantani Chatterjee of the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, has shown that the state TFR has a wide variance.
Six Muslim-dominated districts and one tribal district have higher fertility rates. At 2.5 to 3 TFR; Purulia (tribal), Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur are producing babies at higher than the replacement rate of 2.1.
It means the state will witness further expansion of minority vote share. From barely 19 per cent post-Partition, the share of Muslims in the population increased to 27 per cent in 2011.
For a border state that was a direct outcome of the Two-Nation theory, a further demographic shift may have many negative repercussions. Communal tension has been on the rise for the last 15 years.
From the development planning perspective, it throws a new challenge. Some districts would require more schools. Others should close down schools for hospitals and old-age homes. A once-reputed government-run school in Durgapur steel city was recently converted into an old-age home.
Kolkata and its famed middle class are facing the extreme heat. Chatterjee estimated Kolkata’s TFR at 1.3 in 2011. That’s below South Korea (1.39) and equivalent to Greece (1.31) and Taiwan (1.28).
Senior officials having critical knowledge on the subject, peg Kolkata’s fertility rate in the same range as Singapore (1.1) which is arguably the lowest in the world. The city’s population shrunk by 80,000 between 2001 and 2011.
Economic mess and migration
The positive relationship between population control and economic prosperity in the early stages of growth is well established.
The dramatic improvements in the standard of living in China between 1978 and 2008 came on the back of the one-child policy and rapid industrialisation. In India, Kerala and Tamil Nadu enjoyed the benefits of population control.
Tamil Nadu supplemented it by industrialisation overdrive. Kerala failed to attract industry but investments in social infrastructure, particularly education, helped them create a huge remittance-driven consumer economy.
West Bengal failed to do either. Despite sharing the same leftist legacy as in Kerala, investments in social infrastructure suffered. Less said about the industry is better. A frontline industrialised state till the 1960s became a graveyard of industry.
The city which developed India’s first homemade computer and had the first IT park, is now nowhere in stature before Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai. Even Bhubaneshwar has started giving it a competition.
The per-capita net state domestic product (NSDP) at constant prices is growing at a slower pace than the national average for the last 15 years. Income generation from industry and services are lagging for 20 years.
Cash handouts in the name of women and girl child welfare ('Lakkhir Bhandar', 'Kanyashree' etc) and the creation of extremely low-paying contractual jobs are keeping rural consumption ticking.
But that’s coming against a huge economic cost. One of India’s most financially stressed states with little earning opportunity from organised activities is failing to invest adequately in infrastructure.
All these boil down to a simple fact, West Bengal has ensured sustenance-level income but failed to offer many opportunities for upward mobility. And, that belies aspiration, which comes tagged along with family planning.
From agricultural labour to IT engineers, people are moving out not for sustenance but for better opportunities. The agricultural wage in any developed state is two to three times higher than in West Bengal.
Changing cultural DNA
Kolkata’s Bhadralok are suffering the maximum brunt of the twin impact of low TFR, low opportunity and out-migration.
Their only son or daughter is moving out to more thriving parts of the country, right from the student age. Most will never come back for fear of getting struck in a smaller market.
Enter any café in upmarket localities and, you may get to overhear a retired man discussing financial consolidation plans. They are limiting physical footprints and consolidating wealth in liquid form, for easy inheritance by children.
One definite pitfall of this trend is a shift in the city’s cultural DNA and the non-availability of too many high-quality manpower, capable to take up senior corporate positions.
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