There is a West Bengal that its chief minister,
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, projects to businessmen. It
is of a state whose people are industrious; whose
bureaucracy is helpful; a state that wants major
private investment in manufacturing and services.
The official website of the Government of West
Bengal proclaims, “Investors Are Headed For West
Bengal”. And when you click on an applet titled
“Advantage West Bengal”, up pops a Mao-esque slogan,
“West Bengal is on the Move. Join us in this
Queering Mr. Bhattacharya’s pitch is a different
reality. Except at the very top, the bureaucracy
just doesn’t work. “Aaj hobeyna” (“Can’t be done
today”) is as much a Pavlovian reaction of today’s
babus as it was three decades ago. Tens of millions
of unemployed Bengalis desperately seek jobs that
don’t exist. Once thriving cities like Durgapur and
Asansol have become industrial wastelands.
Agricultural growth — once the pride of CPI(M)’s
agrarian reforms programme — has petered off.
Agriculture can no longer support even a third of
the rural population; there is hardly enough small
and medium scale industry and services to support
the other two-thirds. And since the second half of
the 1960s, West Bengal is the only state where
bandhs are not only a part of daily life, but are
repeatedly called by the government! Thus, when the
chief minister dares to speak against strikes he is
officially censured by his own party.
Almost every economic indicator suggests decay.
Consider the 2001 Census, and focus on rural West
Bengal, where there has been apparently the greatest
progress. If one were to look at a composite index
of things such as pucca houses, electricity
connection, bank accounts, ownership of TV and
two-wheelers and the like. Hugli (where Singur is
located) is the best district. How good? Its rank is
192, or between the 35th and 40th percentile from
the top. Rural households in 10 districts with a
population of over 37 million rank among the bottom
30 per cent. Thus, in terms of ownership of assets
and amenities, 65 per cent of West Bengal’s rural
population in 2001 ranked in the bottom 30 per cent
of all districts in India.
Yes, agricultural growth helped. With a per capita
rural expenditure of Rs.6,839 in 2004-05 [NSS, 61st
round], West Bengal ranked 12th among the 20 major
states. However, it is not much different from Assam
or UP, neither of which rank as advanced states.
Moreover, there has been little additional income
from industry and services. Thus, with stagnant
agricultural productivity, there just isn’t enough
non-agricultural income to create a better life for
the rural populace.
This is the prism through which one should see
Singur. Forget for the moment the kudos that West
Bengal would earn for having the most visionary car
project in the world being located in the state. The
Nano with all its ancillary plants will create much
needed extra employment and income in a region that
is not even ranked in the top one-third of India’s
districts — far more than what agriculture will be
able to offer.
This is what is upsetting. At their intellectual
best, Mamata Banerjee and her ilk suffer from a
grand delusion that agriculture alone will make the
marginal farmers and small sharecroppers of India
significantly better off. It can’t. The salvation of
rural India lies in more industry and services. Here
is another fact. Rural India accounts for 48 per
cent of the country’s GDP; while agriculture
comprises 18 per cent. Thus, over 62 per cent of
rural Indian income (30 divided by 48) comes from
various types of industry and services. And their
share has been increasing — in many states faster
than West Bengal.
But Singur is not about Mamata’s intellectual best.
It is about her confrontational worst. A visionary
called Ratan Tata is committed to changing the
landscape of Hugli for the better. He faces a
destructive force called Mamata who is firing her
salvos from the shoulder of poor peasants and those
who know no better than to raise slogans and create
blockades. As I write this, we don’t know the Singur
outcome. But if it were to lead to Tata pulling out,
it will scar West Bengal immeasurably. That’s a
The CPI(M) too has to shoulder some blame. Mr.
Bhattacharya may be talking about investment
climate. But his party has been brought up on a diet
of confrontation with business — a rich 40-year
regimen of bandhs, gheraos, strikes and “Amader
daabi maante hobey”. Now, in the evening of their
lives, they find that the arch enemy has pinched
their trump card and repaying them in spades.
The victim: West Bengal, which sinks with every
passing day. Make no mistake about it.
Published: Business Standard, September 2008