The just-released West Bengal Human Development Report (HDR) 2004 focuses on the two major public initiatives that have characterised the state in the past 26 years: land reforms and decentralisation. While there is no separate chapter on gender, the attempt has been to incorporate a gender perspective on all issues considered in the report. This is the first HDR from West Bengal and is of particular interest given that the Left parties, with their emphasis on economic equity and social justice, have ruled the state for an uninterrupted 27 years.

Gender discrimination has been an ongoing feature of economic and social processes in West Bengal. While it has declined in some respects in the recent past, it remains significant. It is much less apparent in health indicators such as longevity and infant mortality, and most evident in economic variables and in literacy. The life expectancy data indicate the improving health position of women relative to men. West Bengal has been successful in bringing down both birth rates and death rates, with one of the most rapid declines in birth rate in India. Historically, the sex ratio in West Bengal was worse for women than the all-India level. But it has improved faster, and is now just above the national average.

For women in the state, economic exclusion remains one of the most significant problems, and which tends to have a spillover effect in other aspects of life. West Bengal has among the lowest recorded rates of female work participation in the country. Typically, this is evidence of gender discrimination, not only because low participation rates reflect a resistance to women working outside the home, but more significantly because they may reflect under-reporting due to the social invisibility and lack of recognition of women's unpaid work. Both of these suggest a major undercurrent of gender discrimination in society.

It is true that female work participation rates have been rising in the recent past according to the census, both for main and marginal workers. But it is not clear how much of this is due to better recognition and enumeration of women's work, and how much was actually the real trend.

In rural areas, micro evidence suggests that more women are entering into various types of economic activities related to the expansion of local networks, such as panchayat-based groups and self-help groups (SHGs). Most of this work is in non-agricultural activities, although it may be in related activities such as dairy, livestock rearing and food processing. SHGs have also helped in increasing women's work involvement in a range of services, some of which are relatively new.

Female employment in the urban areas is in low-income occupations. Even in self-employed activities, women workers tended to be crowded into sectors that are less remunerative and involve greater drudgery.

 •  WB State Human Dev. Report SHGs are also active in urban areas, where they have assisted women in income-generating activities that have added to household income. In the urban areas, more women are entering into the workforce as paid main workers, as well as those self-employed, especially in various services. And the increase in the number of female main workers has been more than three times the rate of growth of urban female population.

But the urban gender gap in wages remains large, mainly because most female employment in the urban areas is in low-income occupations. Even in self-employed activities, women workers tended to be crowded into sectors that are less remunerative and involve greater drudgery.

Land reforms in the state - land distribution and registration of tenants - were very effective in improving the class position of the rural poor, and unleashed productive forces in the countryside. They redressed social inequalities of caste, and also benefited minority groups such as Muslim peasant households that were among the poorest in rural West Bengal.

But they were much less effective in reducing gender discrimination. In fact, until recently, the allocation of pattas (small land holdings) reinforced existing gender inequalities. Joint pattas for husbands and wives started only from the mid-1990s. Before that, when most of the land was redistributed, pattas were granted only to the head of household, who was typically male. Joint pattas account for less than 10 per cent of the total, while pattas in the name of women as single holders account for less than 6 per cent of the total. The rate of allocation of joint pattas has picked up recently in the state as whole, and most pattas are now granted jointly to husband and wife.

The other important initiative of the state government - enhancing people's participation through democratic decentralisation and a greater role for panchayats (village councils) - has had much more positive effects in terms of the empowerment of women. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s - well before the 73rd Amendment Act of 1994 - more than one-third of panchayat members were women. This has had dynamic effects on the social and political empowerment of women in general and also positive effects on the general functioning and responsiveness of panchayats to people's needs.

The significant increase in the proportion of girls in education, the better performance of girls in schools, and the strong motivation for schooling even among girls in low income or socially deprived groups, can be at least partly attributed to the influence of women panchayat members in raising consciousness and gender awareness in the local communities.

Numerous examples show how local women leaders have emerged through this process, transforming their own lives and those of the society around them, and altering both social attitudes towards women and the aspirations of women and young girls. There is a proliferation - even in relatively "backward" districts - of young women panchayat members from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, who are increasingly more articulate and empowered. They are able to express the concerns of women in public platforms, and are conscious of the need to influence policy-making.

Until the last decade, improvement in literacy was relatively slow in the state, especially for women. But in the past decade, the state government has been making concentrated efforts through various special schemes (such as total literacy campaigns and non-formal education) apart from formal schooling for children to achieve the goal of 'education for all' as soon as possible. While literacy among rural females is still low compared to other groups, it has increased rapidly in the recent past, going up by nearly 16 per cent in the last decade.

The influence of women panchayat members in raising consciousness and gender awareness in the local communities has been significant. However, illiteracy remains a significant problem. Even as late as the end of the 1990s, more than half of rural households and nearly one-third of urban households did not have any female adult literate person. In agricultural labour households, nearly two-thirds of the females are non-literate. Poor school infrastructure contributes to gender imbalances. In the government school system in rural areas, separate urinals for girls are very rare, while latrine facilities do not exist in most schools. Even so, overall, girls are performing better in schools than boys.

So, while it appears that the condition of women and girls in West Bengal is definitely improving, literacy and economic empowerment are two areas, among others, that require more focussed attention. And the pace of change is not as rapid as could be desired.