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The Growth Barricade

Omkar Goswami

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 Glorious March”.

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 given.

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


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