I always imagined that my first trip to India would have entailed a visit to either a southern state of the country such as Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh due to my ethnolinguistic affiliation to those regions by virtue of my ancestry or to the capital of New Delhi. But, as fate would have it, my initial impressions of India have been borne out of a trip to the state of West Bengal that I recently embarked on due to National Service commitments. Although my journey to the town of Kharagpur in Paschim Medinipur district was atypical of one undertaken by any ordinary civilian, I left the shores of India with a renewed outlook and vivid memories of the country. When Geographers travel, things start to unravel. What I saw could only have been a fraction of the immense geographical diversity that a country as big as India must have; with 5.9 million inhabitants, Paschim Medinipur (refer to Map A below) is the country’s 14th most populous district, accounting for merely 0.49% of 1.2 billion Indians, according to the 2011 Census. Given the sheer size of India, the uniqueness of Paschim Medinipur’s specific urban features, local economy, demography and physical characteristics is unsurprising.
At first glance, a careless observer might assume the comparatively lower standards of living in a place like Kharagpur, as opposed to those we are fortunate to experience in Singapore, to be indicative of the rural nature of the settlement. After all, merely 12.22% of Paschim Medinipur is urban. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that Kharagpur is indeed an urban centre and a town in Paschim Medinipur that is separated from other cities and towns in the state, including the state capital of Kolkata, by rural settlements and a number of forest reserves. Such confusion may arise due to a lack of comprehension of inherent differences that exist between the ways in which urban zones can be delimited in the cities and towns of Developed Countries (DCs) such as Singapore, and those in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) such as India. Typically, in DCs, urban areas have an identifiable urban core, inner city locations and suburbs that would have experienced the increasing decentralisation of residences, industries and services. In LDCs, however, urban zones in a city or town may be organised along other lines – middle class and lower class residences, formal and informal industries are usually located in distinct zones of their own. The same is true in Kharagpur, where middle class residences are located closer to modern services and amenities in the town centre and where lower class residences, while not slums or shanty towns, are located slightly further away. A definitive feature that has influenced the distribution of industrial sites in Paschim Medinipur is the collection of railway lines, the earliest of which was built in 1989. Existing industrial sites are mainly linearly distributed (refer to Map B below), parallel to the rail network, the nucleus of which lies in Kharagpur which boasts one of the world’s longest railway platforms. Stretching a distance of 1072.5m, the railway platform connects Kharagpur to important port cities and centres of commerce such as Mumbai, Maharashtra on the western coast and Chennai, Tamil Nadu on the southeastern coast. Hence, the spatial distribution of residences and industries in Kharagpur proves that it is typical in its nature as an urban settlement in a LDC while unique in its specific industrial functions.
Demographically, Paschim Medinipur seems to be a microcosm of West Bengal and, indeed, India. While it had a lower population growth rate than the national average of 17.64% in 2011, it has followed the national trend of declining growth rates, decreasing from 26.87% in 1971 to 24.73% in 1991 and finally, to 13.86% in the 2011 Census. This renders the district a good representation of India as a LDC having transitioned from Stage 2 to Stage 3 of the Demographic Transition Model which offers an explanation for falling population growth rates as being attributable to a significantly lower death rate in Stage 3 than in Stage 2 coupled with a faster decline of the birth rate due to a variety of factors that accompany the industrialisation and development of a country. These factors may include better access to education, better family planning, better healthcare and higher incomes among a host of other factors. Other key indicators of Paschim Medinipur’s development are in line with this. For instance, average literacy had increased from 70.41% to 78.0% from 2001 to 2011. Furthermore, across this period, whilst the gap between male literacy, which stood at 85.26% in 2011, and female literacy still exists, improvements have been made to the latter; female literacy rates increased from merely 59.11% in 2001 to 70.50% in 2011. Hence, the demography of Paschim Medinipur generally mirrors that of India as a whole, owing slight differences to the unique local factors present at the state and district levels.
The significance of improvements in the key indicators of the development of Paschim Medinipur are perhaps better understood and appreciated against a backdrop of the vulnerability that persists there. Highlighted as one of the country’s 250 most backward districts, the region is plagued by hazards of both a physical and social nature. Situated in the southwestern corner of West Bengal, Paschim Medinipur experiences the tropical monsoon climate and has four rivers flowing through it that drain into the Bay of Bengal. Due to variation in relief, on the one hand, the southern and eastern areas of the district are usually well inundated and enjoy higher crop yields although this implies an increased risk of flooding in those areas (refer to Map C below). Kharagpur, in particular, has an abundance of waterlogged soil due to its location on the lower plains of the Kangsabati River, rendering agriculture an arduous activity. On the other hand, the western and northern areas that consist of undulated land with lateritic soil experience a higher frequency of crop failures and associated food insecurity due to a higher dependence on the monsoon as well as poor irrigation infrastructure. Hence, in a district located in close proximity to the Bay of Bengal and where 80% of the population are dependent on the monsoon for their livelihood and survival, the ill effects of drought, floods and cyclones have collectively not been unfamiliar to the people of Paschim Medinipur for the past few centuries.
As in other parts of India, social vulnerability caused by indebtedness, internal displacement and Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-related violence has had devastating effects on social mobility and security for the region’s poorest. An estimated 500 lives had been lost during the 2 years preceding 2011 due to violence inflicted by Maoist rebels alone (refer to Map D below). Hence, juxtaposed against such appalling instances of vulnerability, any improvement to the overall standards of living and quality of life in Paschim Medinipur are positive signs of development.
The future of the district is surely not characterised solely by doom and gloom. Kharagpur, for instance, has been noted as being one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the entire state, where not only Bengalis reside but where there is also a significant presence of Indians from other corners of the country such as Telugus from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. There are plans for civilian flights to land and take off from the Kalaikunda Air Force Station located in Kharagpur, in coming years, to serve not only West Bengal but Orissa and Jharkhand states as well. These features of the town may put it in good stead to capitalise upon the opportunities afforded by the merits of better connectivity, for its future economic development.
Moreover, for all the areas in which Paschim Medinipur is less developed than Singapore, one area that perhaps instills a sense of hope for the region is the vibrant political scene that is present in the district. One only needs to take a ride through the unpaved roads of Kharagpur to witness evidence of the political plurality that exists there and, by extension, in the rest of the world’s largest democracy. From the scene of a gathering of party activists at the local All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party office to the spotting of an Indian National Congress (INC) election office to the numerous Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M))-inspired hammers and sickles painted and plastered onto the walls of the most humble of homes to a centrally located poster of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Minister, the influence of regional and national politics in Paschim Medinipur is hard to miss. One hopes that this vibrancy will translate into social action and continued development for this geographically intriguing part of India which I have been fortunate to count as a gateway of sorts to the land from which my ancestors hailed.
Census2011. District Census 2011. (2011, January 1). Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.census2011.co.in/district.php
Government of West Bengal. (2011, May 1). District Human Development Report – Paschim Medinipur. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://wbplan.gov.in/HumanDev/DHDR/DHDR_Paschim Medinipur.pdf
Henry G. Overman & Anthony J. Venables, 2005. “Cities in the developing world,” LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 19887, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
Paschim Medinipur District Collectorate. Maps – Paschim Medinipur. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.paschimmedinipur.gov.in/maps/index.php
Singh, M. (2013, October 1). Gorakhpur set to have longest railway platform in world – The Times of India. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Gorakhpur-set-to-have-longest-railway-platform-in-world/articleshow/23327791.cms?referral=PM