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.

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt.

A recent GeoCurrents post on Nepal noted that the country has experienced less development than the rest of the southern Himalayan region, which was illustrated with an old map of per capita GDP. A more recent map of the Human Development Index (HDI) makes the same point: Nepal scores worse on this metric than either Bhutan or any of India’s Himalayan states.

The 2021 map of the Human Development Index (HDI) across greater South Asia shows the Himalayan belt in general ranking significantly higher than the adjacent lowlands of north-central and northeastern India. These results may seem paradoxical, as highland areas of rough topography are often much less developed than nearby areas of flat topography, which typically have much better infrastructure. But in many parts of the world, this generalization does not hold. As can be seen in the map below, the mountains of far-northeastern India have much higher levels of human development than the adjacent lowlands, whether in India, Bangladesh, or Burma. India’s small states along the Burmese boundary have relatively high HDI scores despite their rugged topography, problems with ethnic insurgency, and history of relative isolation. This seeming anomaly is partially explained by the educational focus of Christian missionaries in the region. Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya all have solid Christian majorities, while Manipur is almost half Christian and Arunachal Pradesh has a Christian plurality. Recent Indian infrastructural investments, along with the gradual reduction in insurgency, have also boosted human and economic development in the region.

The densely populated lowland states of north-central India have the country’s lowest levels of human development, despite forming the historical core of South Asia. This area of low HDI also extends into the mostly lowland state of Assam in northeastern India. Somewhat higher levels of human development, however, are encountered in the lowland Bengali-speaking zone encompassing Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. This area was until recently one of the poorest and least developed parts of South Asia, but it has experienced significant improvements in recent years. It is probably not coincidental that Bengalis have a well-deserved reputation for educational interest and intellectual engagement. To reflect the relatively high position of the Bengali-speaking zone in lowland northeastern South Asia, I have reconfigured the South Asia HDI map to depict Bengal as if it were a separate polity.

The partition of British India in 1947 was also a partition of Bengal, and the violence and economic destruction associated with it long held back the Bengali-speaking zone. A similar event occurred on the other side of South Asia, as the partition of British India was also a partition of Punjab. But here an entirely different pattern emerged. The parts of pre-partition Punjab that went to India (Punjab State, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) have all experienced striking improvements in human well-being. The large Pakistani province of Punjab, on the other hand, has lagged behind, as has most of the rest of the country in which it is located. This pattern is not easy to explain. From 1947 to 1971, when Pakistan and Bangladesh formed one country, what was then West Pakistan was far ahead of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on almost every economic and human-developmental score. But while Bangladesh experienced substantial improvements, Pakistan has struggled.

To illustrate the human-developmental gap between Pakistan and India/Bangladesh, I made another iteration of the HDI map that breaks down both Pakistan and India into their largest constituent units. I had to go back to 2019 to find easily accessible HDI data at this level, and I am not sure if the data are fully comparable. What the map shows, however, is stark, with Pakistani Punjab and most of the rest of the country coming in with scores much lower than almost any part of India. The extraordinarily low HDI figure for Balochistan is highly significant, helping explain the long-running insurgency of this resource-rich region.

Pakistan’s higher HDI values are found in the mountainous northern regions of the country. Other than tiny Islamabad, the country’s highest HDI levels are in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (areas claimed by India). Gilgit-Baltistan is noted for his extremely rugged topography and, until recently, its relative isolation from the rest of the world. It has, however, seen remarkable gains in education and social development more generally over the past several decades. Pakistani infrastructural investments, aimed at securing access to western China, have no doubt play a role. More important have been the developmental projects of the Aga Khan Foundation. Many of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Nizari Ismai’li Shia Muslims, a group headed by the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismai’lis in general are a cosmopolitan, liberal, and well-educated people, and their leaders are keen to help their co-religionists in the most remote and rugged corners of northern Pakistan.

The final map in this post is the base map on which all of the other maps are constructed. Like all GeoCurrents maps, it is made in simple presentation software, Apple Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint). Before long, I hope to make this map available for free on this website in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. It is a very simple matter to click on any of the units and change their color or their boundaries in any way one sees fit. Similarly, the place names can be deleted, and others can be added, very easily.