The Hindu, Monday, Jun 21, 2010
The Left Front in West Bengal completes its 33rd year in office on June 21— a unique achievement in the annals of multi-party parliamentary democracy in India. Spontaneous and massive mandates of the people in the successive Assembly elections have ensured the Left Front's emphatic return to power for seven successive terms.
This electoral achievement assumes greater significance, given that there have been several changes in the political leadership over the period, in both the national as well as international arena.
The Left Front, when it voted to power first in 1977, promised to promote the cause of the under-privileged, the working class, the middles class and all backward sections and to restore democracy that was severely undermined during 1970-77. The withdrawal of cases against all political prisoners was the first step the government took towards achieving these objectives.
In the preliminary years, the government's primary emphasis was on accelerating the pace of agrarian reforms and lifting the State's rural economy from the doldrums. Measures, including land reforms, were given the maximum thrust to ensure economic security and restore the social dignity of the poor and landless farmers.Over the past 33 years, West Bengal has created a record by recovering surplus land and providing bargas and pattas to the original tillers. Simultaneously the government extended irrigation network, developed fisheries and animal resources and offered financial assistance to cottage and village-based industry.
The Panchayati Raj institution was also expanded and, after many years, the elections to the three-tier panchayats were held all over the State for the first time in 1978. This was in accordance with the Left Front government's decision that the administration should involve people's representatives at the grassroots in formulating policies and executing government programmes. The decision was taken to ensure that development acquired a just direction and a certain pace so as to ameliorate the problems and wipe out the ills plaguing the economic growth and to ensure social justice in rural areas.
In the subsequent years, elections were held regularly in all municipalities. At present, more than 50 per cent of the State's plan outlay is spent through panchayats and municipalities.
Agrarian reforms apart, democratisation of political institutions and decentralisation of administration, and education, health, social welfare, refugee relief, forests, environment and public health engineering were given due attention to ensure growth in every sector through employment generation.
All-round development initiatives like the revamp of the Public Distribution System to supply essential commodities through ration shops to the people have brought down the number of people living below the poverty line.
When the Left Front assumed office three decades ago, agriculture was in distress, with the ownership of cultivable land resting predominantly with non-productive farmers, though the rural population was composed mainly of sharecroppers, land labourers and part-time labourers.
With the rural economy burdened with a poorly constituted cottage industry, it would not be an exaggeration to say the scope of development in the rural sector was limited. The government's undaunted efforts at developing the rural economy have helped the State achieve the highest rate of growth in agriculture. The benefit of growth has gone largely to small and marginal farmers, since they own 85 per cent of agricultural land in West Bengal. The fisheries sector has also made considerable progress.
The term ‘development,' however, should not be read only in terms of income or financial well-being. The ability of an individual to decide upon matters relating to education, health, the standards of living and social affiliations collectively determine the understanding of development.
From the very beginning, the Left Front government was aware that the overall development of the State was not possible unless a well-equipped policy to accelerate industrial development was in place, besides the development of agriculture and allied sectors. Development in the two sectors is inter-related and inter-dependent, so the government shifted attention towards bringing about a turn-around in the sphere of industry towards the end of the second decade of its rule.
The industrial progress of the State, which had a prosperous heritage of trade, commerce and industry, suffered profoundly in the 1970s and 1980s owing to the Centre's licensing policy and discriminatory freight equalization scheme for coal and steel. A case in point was the deliberate delay in issuing licence for the Haldia Petrochemicals Project.
The Left Front launched a nationwide movement against the Centre's neglect of some States. The Centre ultimately made policy changes on these two issues in the early 1990s.
This enabled the State government to formulate the draft industrial policy in 1994 that sought to adopt an alternative approach to industrialisation, encouraging new technology and investments, so as to further economic growth through creation of more jobs. The Left Front government felt that emphasis must be laid on heavy industries, especially in the manufacturing and engineering sectors, sunrise industries, petrochemicals, IT, telecommunications and shipping to fulfil the rising aspirations of the people.
After the revamp of the industrial sector, the situation improved faster, with more investors showing interest in West Bengal. Besides the commissioning of the Haldia Petrochemicals Project and Mitsubishi PTA, many projects have already come up, while plenty more are in the pipeline.
One sector that has witnessed a phenomenal growth in recent years is the information technology and information technology-based services sector. Most of the IT companies have set up shop in the State. With the vast local talent pool and the ideally built infrastructure, Sector V of Salt Lake is a major IT hub in the country.
The proposed Jindal iron and steel plant at Salboni in Paschim Medinipur district and the Jai Balaji Group's steel plants at Raghunathpur in Purulia district are expected to have a significant impact on the turn-around of large manufacturing units, spurring growth through employment generation not only in the respective regions but in the entire State.
The Left Front government is convinced that all that the State and its people have achieved in the agrarian sector will be in peril unless a balanced growth of the secondary and tertiary sectors through industrialisation is ensured now.
Through this balanced growth, it has pledged to ease the growing burden of workforce dependent on agriculture, ensure a more sustainable growth of the primary sector by providing inputs for modernisation and higher productivity, and augment the revenue resources for more public investment in the primary sector.