CHIEF Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has many facets to his personality. He is perceived as a man with a mission to overhaul West Bengal's economy and bring back its past glory. "It is my vision that West Bengal assumes its rightful place at the top in the fields of agriculture, industry, education, science and culture," he said in an interview to Frontline, published in Jan. 27-Feb. 09, 2007 issue. Interview taken by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhay. Buddhadeb spoke about the recent problems and criticisms his government faced, its policies and the need to move quickly from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Excerpts from the interview:
Q:Last year's Assembly elections set at rest all suspicions and allegations of electoral malpractices and rigging in the State. It was an overwhelming mandate for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Please share with us your vision for West Bengal.
First of all, it was not a mandate for just Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. True, I led the election campaign and the electoral battle, but it was a mandate for the Left Front, for its programmes and policies. Individuals matter but only a little. Looking back on what we have accomplished so far, we realise we have consolidated our success in agriculture. We have attained self-sufficiency, particularly in rice, vegetables and fish, and have been able to guarantee food security. It is now high time we moved from agriculture to industry.
I would like to elaborate a little here. Some people think that we can continue with only our success in agriculture; we can improve the economy of the State only through agriculture; even the problem of unemployment can be solved through agriculture. I don't think this is possible. We are right now in a transitional stage; based on our success in agriculture we are moving towards rapid industrialisation. Agriculture alone cannot create new job opportunities and move the economy further. So, it is imperative to move from agriculture to industry; it is not agriculture versus industry.
It is my effort to develop both the manufacturing sector in the State and knowledge-based industries such as Information Technology and biotechnology. In the manufacturing sector, our priority should be SMEs [small and medium enterprises]. It is this sector that provides job opportunities, rather than big projects - take the case of ancillaries of automobile industries, or downstream industries related to the iron and steel major units. Although we are a bit of a late starter in industrialisation, we have managed to catch up with other States, and as far as IT is concerned, I think we are ahead of any other State. It is my vision that West Bengal assumes its rightful place at the top in agriculture, industry, education, science and culture.
Q:Is this vision shared by the other partners of the Left Front, notably the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc and all sections of the CPI(M)?
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: There is opposition from different corners. There is the extreme right-wing like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Trinamool Congress, which are opposing us; on the other hand there is the extreme left-wing - the naxalites - who don't really understand anything and live in a fool's paradise. I do not take them seriously. And there is some opposition within the Left itself. Unfortunately, some of our friends in the Front fail to understand the situation. They don't have that vision. They feel what we have achieved is enough. They fail to understand that we cannot stand on that alone - landlessness is on the rise, it is getting difficult to get remunerative prices for agricultural produce because the cost of inputs in agriculture is increasing; in fact it is difficult to protect even the minimum support price. Therefore, it is now time to move from one stage to another. We must move towards industry; that is the general direction of all civilisations - from agriculture to industry, from villages to cities. Let me explain a little further - agriculture's contribution in the SDP [State Domestic Product] is around 26 per cent, that of industry is 24 per cent and the service sector 50 per cent. The service sector is doing fine. But the given ratio of agriculture and industry is not an indication of good health for the State's economy. Ideally, industry's contribution should gradually increase and that of agriculture decrease. This, my critics fail to understand. I am trying my best to convince them.
Q:It is not just your critics. A section of the general public, too, has not fully understood the reasons for the State's industrial drive. There is quite a lot of misinformation floating around too. What are you doing to allay these fears?
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: I admit there is some information gap. We have to work carefully and patiently. We have to tell the people the whole truth and take them into confidence, or we will not be able to achieve anything. But as I told you, some extremist elements who don't understand the real problems of our economy or the political condition of our country, and who don't even bother to find out, are trying to cause mischief. But I am not bothered about them, or bothered about some unwanted guests visiting our State and making provocative speeches. What I am concerned about is that the people don't misunderstand us, as it happened at Nandigram [local farmers violently agitated on the basis of a mere rumour of land acquisition]. That was a failure of the local administration and we failed to explain to the people what is being proposed there. What is a chemical hub? How did it all start?
It was the Government of India's decision actually. Eight States participated in a presentation, in which West Bengal topped the list as a destination for such a hub. Why Nandigram? Because it is near the Haldia port. But the people [of Nandigram] didn't know what it was about and the local administration, without discussing with them, without taking them into confidence sent a circular that created havoc. We have to correct our mistakes. We have to make the people understand that this project will be good for them and that we are trying to help them improve their standard of living.
Q:The Nandigram imbroglio may have been, to some extent, responsible for the Central government's re-thinking on Special Economic Zones. Do you think the Chinese success with SEZs and export-led growth can be replicated in India, and in West Bengal, in particular?
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: India should not follow any model or any country. The Centre evolved its SEZ policy without really giving much thought. It asked the State governments to decide how many SEZs they wanted. China started off with six SEZs, and the decision rested on the Central government there, not the provinces. In our case, each State sent a long list, and ultimately there were 400 SEZ proposals. Now the Prime Minister has realised that it was a mistake and hence a review has been called.
A question that should be asked is what is an SEZ for - real estate or industry? At least 50 per cent of the land in an SEZ should be earmarked for industry. It ended up becoming a real estate business and we are against that. The CPI(M) wants some amendments. In West Bengal we have at present three small SEZs - Manikanchan, Wipro and Falta Export Block. Now we are planning another four or five. For this, we first have to consider the land required and the rehabilitation package for the displaced, and ensure that at least 50 per cent of the land is used for industry.
Q:The problems in Singur and Nandigram seem to have given an opportunity for naxalites to find a foothold in the State. How do you propose to tackle this?
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: I don't think so. First of all one should not equate what happened at Nandigram with Singur. As you know, Singur was the Tatas' choice. We showed them various sites, but they settled for Singur. We could not say no to such a project, otherwise it would have gone to Uttarakhand. It is important to note that in Singur, 95 per cent of the farmers voluntarily submitted their consent - it has never happened in any other part of the country. Some naxalites were trying to infiltrate into the villages. In Nandigram too, when the local farmers got agitated, naxalites tried to take advantage of the situation. I don't think we should take them seriously. They have no proper organisation, and ideologically, they are bankrupt.
Q:You had mentioned in an interview earlier that education and health care in the State needed further development. What is the position now?
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: The overall situation has improved. The number of schools has increased and the number of dropouts has come down. We provide midday meals in all the schools. These are the good features. But last time, I remember telling you that it was the quality of teaching that was my main headache. We have started a project to provide on-the-job training for teachers in all the primary schools. This will be an in-built mechanism in all the schools, where Key Research Persons will impart training to teachers throughout the year. We have just embarked on this project so it will take a couple of years for the results to show.
As for health, we are trying our best. It is a huge infrastructure to overhaul. But if we can improve the quality of the primary health centres in the rural areas, we will have achieved quite a bit. We are working at improving the health infrastructure and administration at the district level, and at the same time, trying to create a few centres of excellence in Kolkata. There are also some proposals for opening private medical colleges in the State, but first they have to meet the required conditions as set down by the Indian Medical Council.
Q:Your passion for literature is well known. Your translation of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis was well received. Are you working on anything now?
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: I am not writing anything now. Very difficult to find time. But I do still try to find time for my reading, mostly late at night. I am a late riser [smiles].