The First Faltering Steps – Suvobrata Ganguly
One year. Three hundred and sixty five days. Are they enough to pass judgment on the Government, especially in view of the circumstances that has led it to where it is? The tsunami like tidal wave of popular support that swept all opposition in a historic mandate brought the Government to power – naturally, the expectations of those who brought about this change was and continues to be sky high. Should this expectation, even abnormal by normal yardsticks at times, not be factored in while commenting on the achievements?
There are other things that have to be kept in mind before we go about commenting on the success vis a vis failures of this government. For thirty four odd years the communists had systematically “purged” the state. Every institution worth its name – be it in the field of education or commerce and industry – was stripped of talent and filled with loyalists with a view towards imposing the will of the “party.” People, who may now be in disarray, but are fast regrouping to make the functioning of the Government just that much more difficult.
The mandate that has brought the government to power is a result of movements that are now forgotten by many of us. Singur and Nandigram may sound like names from the distant past, but they continue to cast their influence as the Government cannot overnight disown the core of its being. Naturally, land for industry will be the tightrope that the Government will have to walk even at the expense of looking anti industry despite making the right sounds.
To understand the ground realities better, let me take two examples. The chattering classes of Calcutta were at their vocal best when the Singur stand-off had led to the Tata withdrawal. Let me point out to them that the stand that the lady had taken then was vindicated by successive popular mandates since. Now take the case of the drama surrounding the resignation of the erstwhile Railway Minister. While the chattering classes again went on the overdrive braying for blood, the situation on the ground was completely different. When I queried an octogenarian farmer from Midnapore about the fiasco, he was all praises for the “Didi”, “look how concerned she is about the poor like us. She has not spared the high and the mighty for trying to impose a fare hike on us.” I am using these examples for a reason. The reality is far from what we perceive sitting here in the air conditioned comforts of the city. It is this reality that drives her and her actions. Unfortunately, this reality is bound to clash with what most of the city dwellers will seek and I am sure that she has the ability to make the ends meet for the greater benefit of all. However, one year is too short a span to comment on this. And yes, it is not fair for the media, jaundiced by city centric opinion to castigate her actions and a much more holistic view is called for the sake of a fair perspective.
“What has been the biggest achievement of the Government so far?” people ask me. And I reply, “the biggest achievement so far, lies in what the Hon. Chief Minister did not do!” Then I go on to explain to the bewildered listener that after three decades and a half of plunder, pillage and rape a substantial section of West Bengal’s population had actually “rebelled” to rid itself of the party’s yoke. In victory, this temperamental mass was joined by the lumpen that deserted the sinking ship of communism in search of fortunes and was ready to unleash a kind of carnage that would have put the post Godhra riots to shame. It is the singular credit of the Hon. Chief Minister that she not only read the pulse right, but by putting restraint on victory celebrations averted this catastrophe that was just waiting to happen.
In victory, a bankrupt treasury, crumbling institutions, burning mountains and insurgent infested forests is what she inherited. Add to it stagnation in agriculture and morass in industry. Now tell me, by what stretches of imagination can one expect miracles to transform them all, that too within a year?
The simplest way out of all this is the infusion of massive doses of capital into the state’s economy. Capital that will create infrastructure and industries, which in turn will create employment and have the multiplier effect, leading to prosperity. Even if one were to leave aside the contentious issue of land availability, it will not be an easy task. And, there are compelling reasons for the same.
Every time this topic of industrialization comes up, almost inevitably parallels are drawn between Bengal and Gujarat, which is a tad bit unfortunate. Land is not an issue in Gujarat considering the fact in Bengal the fertility is much better which is why, the farmers are more reluctant to part with it. Besides, Bengal does not have a pool of son of soil entrepreneurs to queue up to pay heed to the clarion call of industrialization like Gujarat is blessed with.
Since those bleeding days of the Seventies, local industrialists have been hunted and obliterated. The void left by their extinction was filled by a breed of traders who flourished under the patronage of the rulers that were. Fuelled by illegal coal and flouting every norm with impunity, they had prospered in a cozy understanding of back scratching. Yes, the willful negligence that led to the tragic loss of lives in AMRI can be cited as an example of this unholy nexus.
The sponge iron makers, the real estate promoters and now that multi level marketing “Chit Fund” owners – they come in various garbs with one common agenda – to “manage” the system and make hay while the sun shines. Asking these so-called “promoters” to set up green field projects and aid the process of industrialization of the state is not only fool hardy but will actually border on insanity. For used to being pampered and “fixing” their way to easy money, they are not capable of either setting up or running honest industries. As one senior bureaucrat put it, “our biggest problem is that our industrialists have forgotten how to be industrious.”
Is all lost then? No way. From where I stand, contrary to popular belief, the view is extremely encouraging. The steel industry is quietly rambling back to the pit-heads, to its chosen destination in eastern India and Bengal is poised to regain her lost glory as the smithy per excellence by riding this crest. Our traditional areas of advantage – education, service, IT and ITES are all ready to move out of incubation and massive scale ups. With a pro active Government with welfare in its heart, there can be huge strides in all these directions which are capable of bearing the fruits in the near future. The financial services hub that the CM has set rolling is another step in this direction.
With a hinterland that is bigger than many a state of Europe, abundantly available, skilled workforce that is reasonably priced to boot, rich mineral resources West Bengal has all the natural advantages. The Kolkata port system therefore could have continued to be the harbinger of positive change the way it was during the British Raj. With a Government eager to foster development in place, the port system can regain its lost glories and be the gateway to prosperity, especially in view of India’s “Look East” policy and the reemergence of the east as the center of the steel industry.
The new Government has started off in the right direction and has initiated steps whose impact will be felt in the long term. Even her worst critics will not question the honest intentions of the Hon. Chief Minister as she takes the first faltering steps towards building a Bengal that we all dream of. Yes, the road ahead will be arduous with many pitfalls on the way. Come, instead of bickering over small things and rising above petty politicking let us join hands. For if we let go of this “mandate of change” history will not treat us kindly.
(my story in Today's Business Standard)