Planning Commission show that 33.7% of Bihar’s population lives below the measly poverty line, 16.6% of the people of Gujarat fall below it, while it’s 7.1% for Kerala. But nobody, absolutely nobody, applauds the Andaman and Nicobar islands, where the percentage of people below the poverty line is just 1%. What’s more, Port Blair is apparently the first poverty-free town in India. Surely this calls for a brand new Andaman and Nicobar model of development?
Does the lack of poverty have to do with the place being a Union Territory? Nope, because Dadra and Nagar Haveli has a huge 39.3% of its people living below the poverty line, even worse than Bihar.
But it’s vital we know what makes the Andamans poverty-free, so that we can learn from them. Could it be its distance from the Indian mainland? “Look at China,” said a dubious political scientist, “its western parts, the areas closest to India, are poor, while its eastern seaboard, the farthest from India, is the most developed.” He admitted, however, that being far away from India has not helped the Congo.
The Planning Commission numbers also show the Lakshadweep islands have a poverty headcount of a mere 2.8% and zero poverty in their rural areas. Obviously, the common factor between the Andamans and Lakshadweep is they are both small islands. Add to that the fact that Mumbai too is a small island and the richest city in India. Could there then be a small islands growth model? “Absolutely,” concurred a shady geographer, “Look at islands like Britain and Japan.” But sceptics pointed to Papua New Guinea and Haiti.
Frustrated, I looked up the Andaman and Nicobar government website in the hope of finding clues about its model of inclusive growth. A look at the ‘Know Andaman’ section reveals the administration there has a distinct fondness for literature, liberally quoting Keats on ‘perilous seas in faery lands forlorn’ and talking of an ‘invincible faith in the philosophy of Wordsworth.’ Nobody has so far thought of Wordsworth as a growth theorist, but we may need to change that. Perhaps, who knows, Manmohan Singh could improve economic growth by dancing with daffodils, or being a phantom of delight?
Just to be sure, I turned to the website of the Lakshadweep administration to check whether they too owed their poverty reduction to Wordsworthian policies. Unfortunately, there isn’t even a mention of the Romantics, although there is a reference to sun-kissed beaches, fishing and coconuts.
Could these items be the ingredients in the anti-poverty cocktail then? After all, the numbers show that the place with the least poverty on the mainland is Goa, blessed with sun-kissed beaches, prawn balchao and coconuts. An economist I spoke to said, “Much depends on how productive they are, what their ICOR is….” I interrupted him excitedly, “Of course, the Incremental Coconut Output Ratio, you’ve hit the nail on the head.”
And that is why I am in the Andamans, studying poverty reduction by sitting on the beach, having fried fish with toddy, the complete works of Wordsworth by my side, patiently waiting to examine coconuts when they fall.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint. Views expressed by the author are personal.