Per Capita GDP in Nepal and the Rest of South Asia

The most recent GeoCurrents post compared Nepal with the other political units of the southern Himalayan region on the basis of the Human Development Index (HDI). Today’s post does the same in terms of per capita GDP. The map below shows the per capita GDP standings (in Purchasing Power Parity) in 2020-2021 of the independent countries of greater South Asia along with the states of India (and India’s two largest union territories). This map is problematic in that the data for the states of India and for the region’s independent countries are not completely comparable, as is explained in the map legend. But the general pattern is clear: Nepal continues to lag behind its Himalayan neighbors on this metric, just as it does in regard to the HDI. The gap between Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim is stark, especially when one considers the close cultural and physiographic similarities of these two polities. Sikkim is actually more Nepali than Nepal, in that only 44.6 percent of the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their first language whereas 66.6% of those in Sikkim do (with only 6.9 speaking Sikkimese). It is also noteworthy that Nepal falls into the same category on this map as the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (demoted from state status in 2019). On the HDI map, Jammu and Kashmir has a significantly higher standing than Nepal. Finally, note that Pakistan scores much better in this regard than it does in terms of HDI.

The second map is limited to the states and larger union territories of India, showing their per capita GDP in PPP for 2020-2021. Here there are no problems with data comparability. What I find surprising about this map is the relatively low standing, compared to those of neighboring states, of Maharashtra and Punjab. Maharashtra is often considered to be India’s economic pacesetter, and it clearly has India’s largest GDP in total. Punjab, in earlier decades, stood near the top of the per capita GDP list of Indian states. It is interesting that Punjab has lagged behind its neighbor, Haryana. Together, these two states are the core area of India’s agricultural green revolution, and until recently they had more similar developmental indicators.

Bihar, not surprisingly, stands at the bottom of the per capita GDP list for India. Bihar comes in last place in almost every socio-economic indicator in India. I once quipped when teaching that Bihar has been described as India’s Mississippi, meaning that it is in the bottom position in almost everything. That statement deeply offended a student in the classroom from Mississippi, leading me to stop making such comparisons in the classroom.

It is also notable that the small state of Manipur in far eastern India comes in at a much lower ranking on the per capita GDP map than it does on the HDI map. Manipur, like its highland neighbors, has relatively high levels of education, which propels it into a higher overall developmental position than its economic figures alone would warrant.

In the classroom, I like to complement maps of per capita GDP with ones showing per capita income. Per capita GDP can be quite misleading, as regions that have high levels of economic output based on a few key economic sectors, such as mining, often appear much more prosperous than they really are. China’s region of Inner Mongolia exemplifies this problem. I therefore made a map of India showing per capita income based on the most recent data that I could easily find (2017-2018). As can be seen, however, this map is very similar to the 2020-2021 per capita GDP map.