Tuesday, March 29, 2011

‘Our assessment now is that we will win the elections’: Prakash Karat


The Full Text of an interview by Karan Thapar, with Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Prakash Karat, for the programme ‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ telecast over CNN-IBN on March 27.

How does the Left view its prospects in the forthcoming elections? Let’s start with the forthcoming elections in West Bengal and Kerala. There’s a widespread expectation that the Left will lose both. Can you accept that the wind is against you?

No, I think these expectations will be belied. In the case of West Bengal we have seen this in the last two elections, in 2001 and 2006, also. They said we’re facing a very difficult fight, and we proved that we could win quite comfortably.

All right, let’s for a moment focus on [West] Bengal, I’ll come to Kerala later. Last year, in 2010, you lost the provincial polls; in 2009 you lost the national polls as well as State byelections; in 2008 you lost the panchayat elections. Isn’t there a clear trend against you?

No. Indeed, [in the] Lok Sabha elections and the municipal elections we lost ground. We’ve taken note of that, and in the last one year, since then, we’ve made efforts to recover the ground.

But when you say you made efforts to recover the ground, just concentrate for a moment on the sweeping nature of these three electoral defeats. In 2009 you collapsed to your worst-ever performance in a national election in your party’s 47-year history. In 2010 in the provincial polls, you won just 18 out of 81 [local bodies], whilst the Trinamool [Congress] and the Congress won 40 together. The ground that you’ve to make up is huge.

We’ve made up ground, and the response we’re getting in the last few months in particular show that we’ve recovered ground quite a lot compared to the situation in 2009.

But are you really telling me that you’ve recovered enough ground to be able to claim that you can win the State elections?

Yes. Our assessment now is that we will win the elections. We know that there is a very strong combination against us. There is an anti-Left combination which stretches from the right to the extreme left. But despite that we are confident of winning the elections.

I’m going to make you repeat it. You’re really saying to me, sincerely, and this is not bravado, that you believe you can win the elections in Bengal?

Yes.

But look for a moment at the collapse of your party, not just your party, the Left’s image in the State. Nandigram and Singur have battered you. In contrast, Mamata Banerjee’s simplicity, integrity and her stand on Nandigram and Singur are being praised. Your negatives have become her positives.

No, no, it’s not so. As far as Singur is concerned, I don’t think the people of Bengal are going to blame us for the loss of that [Tata] automobile project.

You mean they’ve forgiven you, or they’ve forgotten?

No, they’re not going to blame us, I say. They’re going to blame the Trinamool Congress for this.

But what about the impression that has been created that you were land-grabbing at the cost of the poor. That’s the real problem that you face?

I think that propaganda against us has been dispelled because they will look at our record for the last 34 years — that this is the State which has distributed land to the highest level in the entire country.

You know, you say that it has been dispelled, and in fact you call it propaganda. But let me quote your colleague, the General Secretary of the CPI, A. B. Bardhan. He says, and I’m quoting that: “After 34 years in power the Left in Bengal has become swollen-headed, arrogant and alienated.” Then, he added: “It seems to me that there is some alienation between our cadres and our activists on the one hand and the people on the other.” Are you saying that he’s wrong?

The statement was made…

… roughly eight months ago.

That’s what I was going to say, more than six months ago. One aspect is that if there is alienation among many sections of the people with our party and our party organisations, we’ve identified that and taken steps to remove that alienation.

What steps have you taken?

Well, at the party level, at the government level, we have taken steps. We’ve reached out to these people, we have forged links again with people who may have turned away from us.

You may have taken steps and you may have reached out. How do you know that it has actually had the desired affect on the people? Because everyone is saying that the Left is heading towards its first defeat in 34 years.

We’ve won elections [in West Bengal] seven times. We’ve a party organisation which makes an assessment of our support, of the type of links we have with the people. And we will rely on that organisation again to make an assessment.

But isn’t that one of the problems you’ve faced: that after 34 years in power there’s a certain boredom, or at least an ennui, with you, people want a change? You’re battling against anti-incumbency.

Let’s see what the people decide. As far as we are concerned, we are confident that the people of Bengal will judge us and judge the Trinamool Congress alliance by what they stand for and their respective records.

Let me give you one other reason why people believe that actually, within your hearts, the Left is terribly scared. Look at the nature of your candidates. You’ve dropped 91 sitting MLAs including nine Ministers, over 50 per cent of the people.

It’s not [about being] scared, it’s a part of party policy. In the last election we dropped as many candidates.

Well, actually this time you have 8.9 per cent more new faces than you had in 2006.

I hope it’s good. We wanted it.

But, in fact, you’ve gone even further. You’ve increased Muslim representation by 33 per cent, women’s representation by 35 per cent. In fact, overall over 50 per cent of the faces you’re fielding are new and untried. Most people say that when a party takes such radical reforms, it’s a clear sign of desperation.

Well, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Because on the other hand they say we keep repeating the same old faces and they don’t bring any change, or don’t bring any new people.

So your bottom line is: you’re going to win in [West] Bengal and surprise everyone?

Our approach is that whatever reverses we suffered we’ve learnt the lessons from that. Our Chief Minister has again and again said that we have learnt form those mistakes and we are confident that the people will support us.

On Kerala

Let’s then come to Kerala. Now this is a State where for over 40 years since 1970 at each election a new government has been formed in Thiruvananthapuram. Do you really have the confidence to say you’re going to buck a 40-year trend?

No, I think this is overrated, this five-year cyclical change. There have been instances [where] elections have been won by the same party again.

Not since 1970.

But in 1991 there was an aberration because… we would have won the election but an abnormal situation developed after Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. So I’m confident that here also we can break this five- year pattern.

But look at the handicap that you face when you go into this particular poll. Your party goes in torn between the Pinrayai Vijayan faction on the one hand and Achuthanandan on the other. That’s a huge handicap.

In fact, this is exactly what they said in 2006, when they said our party’s riven by factionalism. And we won the highest number of seats ever in Kerala.

But you’re forgetting an important fact that in 2006 the LDF was new, the UDF had been in power. You had anti-incumbency in your favour. This time the anti-incumbency [factor] is against you.

As far as we’re concerned, there is no real anti-incumbency in Kerala against the LDF government.

But the problem is that you’re creating your own problems. Look at the flip-flop over the candidature of Achuthanandan. It happened in 2006, but because circumstances were different you survived it. It has now happened in 2011 when anti-incumbency is against you, and this is going to underline to everyone what a divided house you are.

No, it’s not that. Our party held consultations at all levels before finalising the candidates.

And then reversed it.

No, we didn’t make any changes. The final list of candidates was announced on March 18. There was no change in the list.

Except that the State Committee had announced — and it was on every front page — that Achuthanandan would not be a candidate. Two days later you changed it.

We expected that in the media it would come in this way. That’s why the final list of candidates was not finalised till the State Committee sent it down for opinions, down below to the party committees, and then they made the finalisation.

But even beyond this controversy, there’s another reason why people say that Achuthanandan’s candidature shows that you’re out of touch with the mood of the people. He’s 87. Ordinarily at his age he should be happy to retire. Yet, you’re fielding him again at a time when polls by Deccan Chronicle show that 42 per cent of young Kerala voters between 18 and 25 prefer the UDF and only 31 prefer your alliance, the LDF. He’s the wrong man for these people.

In fact, everybody says that the strongpoint of the LDF has been Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and his record as the Chief Minister for the past five years.

Then it’s even more bizarre that you should have actually seriously considered at the State level not fielding him.

No, there was no such question at all. The discussions inside the party culminated in a final decision by the State Committee, which announced Mr. Achuthanandan as the candidate.

Except… the problem is that the discussions inside the party had been published outside the party.

The information the Malayalam media is speculating [over] is why from the Polit Bureau I did not go and take a decision there. We did not do that because we wanted the State Committee to take the decision.

But the problem is that all of this has been on the front pages, it’s been on television. Hasn’t it underlined the belief that this is a divided party quarrelling within itself?

As you said, this is what was done in 2006 also. It didn’t matter at all to the results.

So just like Bengal, you’re saying to me that you’re confident you’re going to win in Kerala?

We’re hopeful, we’re expecting a good result in Kerala too.

Is that confidence, or are you being careful with your words?

No, we’ve made an assessment. The issues that will dominate the Kerala elections will be price rise and corruption, in which the Congress and the UDF will stand indicted because of the record of the Central government.

So, I’m going to get you to repeat, just for clarity, what you have already said a couple of times. You’re saying to me as General Secretary of the CPI(M).

Yes.

And the most important person in the Left as a whole. That you believe that the Left will retain power in both [West] Bengal and Kerala, that’s what you’re saying?

Yes, yes.

You really mean it?

In both [West] Bengal and Kerala.

You’re sure this isn’t going to end up being famous last words?

No.

WikiLeaks revelations

Let’s come to WikiLeaks and let’s first talk about allegations that MPs were bought in 2008. In your eyes, is this just an opportunity to embarrass the government, or do you really believe Congress MPs like Satish Sharma would boast to unknown, unnamed junior employees of the American Embassy, that they had not only bribed four RLD MPs but that they had a stash of Rs. 50 crores to bribe more?

First of all, I think it should be clear that these are cables sent by the U.S. Embassy in India to the State Department, and they’re reporting something which is confidential. It was not meant to be made public. So I don’t see any reason why U.S. Embassy officials should fabricate something which is not there. Secondly, we don’t see this as the first proof available of such bribery or votes-for-cash having happened, because all of us who were there involved at that time in the vote of confidence… On the day before the vote of confidence, the days preceding that, every party got reports of MPs being approached by ruling party persons offering money, or other forms of intimidation, etc.

I won’t deny that contemporaneously…

So we’ve all gone public. We all held press conferences saying this is what is happening.

I won’t deny that contemporaneously there was bribing happening or about to happen. The problem is in these leaks. It’s not Stephen White, the Deputy Chief of Mission, who actually saw the money or who had this conversation with Nachiketa Kapur. It’s an unnamed junior employee of his Embassy, so junior that he can’t even be defined by his designation. Now, that man may have been misled, he may have been actually making up a story, for all we know. Stephen White was simply relying on what he was told. And that’s why I repeat: do you really believe the revelations?

No, I think the person involved — and we have a fairly good idea — is at the level of the Political Officer or the Political Counselor.

We don’t know that the junior employee is a Political Counselor.

Nobody said that it’s a junior employee.

Well, he’s described as an employee of the U.S. Embassy. He’s not described as a Political Counselor.

We know the type of people who maintain contacts with political parties and political leaders. Generally it’s the Political Officer or the Political Counselor.

Let me bluntly put it like this. Are you really prepared to believe the word of an unnamed employee of the U.S. Embassy over the word of the Prime Minister of India?

We believe this is additional confirmation of what we already know, and the case is not only of three MPs inside the Parliament producing cash. There were innumerable instances of money being offered to MPs, and I can give you a whole list of them because we compiled them at that time.

All right, so you’re saying to me that you believe the credibility.

And this was done by the Congress leadership and I don’t see how the Prime Minister was ignorant of this.

So you’re saying to me that you believe the cable which says that there was money.

I’m saying that it is an additional confirmation, that’s all.

Additional confirmation. It fits into a pattern?

It fits into what we already know.

Cabinet choices

Let’s come to something else that WikiLeaks has revealed. David Mulford, the American Ambassador, says that he believes that the Cabinet reshuffle in 2006 where Mani Shanker Aiyar was replaced by Murli Deora as Petroleum Minister was done to enhance Indo-U.S. relations. At that time your party was supporting the government. Is this true?

It’s 100 per cent true, and that same cable says the Left is going to be infuriated by this reshuffle.

How do you know it’s 100 per cent true?

Because we knew it. We knew why Mani Shanker Aiyar was shifted out of the Petroleum Ministry.

You knew it at the time?

Yes, we knew why it was done.

What was the reason why you think it was done?

Because of the energy policy he pursued, which is said there in the cable. His efforts to bring the India-Pakistan-Iran pipeline to fruition. His efforts to bring an alternative energy grid. His talks in China. All this we knew, that’s why he was being shifted out.

So you’re saying to me, and you’re saying it as the General Secretary of the CPI(M)…

And they bring a pro-American person into the Ministry replacing Mani Shankar Aiyar. We strongly objected to that.

You’re saying to me as General Secretary and as a man whose party supported the government in 2006 that at the time, in 2006, you knew that Mani was replaced by Murli Deora as Petroleum Minister because Mani was pursuing an energy policy the Americans didn’t like.

Yes, exactly.

Murli Deora would have pursued a policy they would have liked? That’s why he was replaced by the other man?

That’s only part of this. But the entire Cabinet reshuffle or the expansion brought, as the cable points out… people are closely associated with United States of America.

So you believe all those other claims made in that cable that people such as Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal were all brought in…

The entire 2006 was the period we were having increasing problems with the UPA government for their adopting pro-American policies.

Let me put this to you. If you were aware at that time — and additionally, without your support the government couldn’t have survived — why didn’t you at that time protest?

No, we’re protesting all the time.

Why didn’t you protest in public?

Why should we protest in public? We conveyed our displeasure to the Prime Minister on the Iran policy, on the IAEA vote, we cannot interfere in the Cabinet-making but we made public responses…

But Mr. Prakash, never once in public did anyone from Left — not just you, anyone — ever say that these Cabinet reshuffles were happening at America’s behest, to please America and follow a pro-American line.

Let me finish, on policy matters we went on record from July 2005 when the Prime Minister went to Washington. On every issue which concerned policy. But individual Cabinet [issues] we don’t comment [on] publicly because we are not in the government, we are not the part of the coalition.

But you’re saying something very strange. This was a Cabinet reshuffle done perhaps at America’s behest to bring pro-American people and to follow an American line, and you were aware of it. You protested in private but in public you kept quiet…

No, not about the reshuffle. I said the policies we protested.

But if you were aware that the reshuffle was because of pro-American…

No, it’s not our government, it’s the Congress’ government. They can bring anybody they want. We’re not a coalition partner. That is why we withdrew support, because of the continuous pro-U.S…

But you did not withdraw support till two years later…

No, everybody knew from 2005, if you see every record from the military agreement to the nuclear agreement to the joint statement to the energy policy to the attitude to Iran, everything. Everybody knew for two years we were fighting the UPA government.

I agree that people knew what your policy differences were. But what I find bizarre is that you were also aware of the Cabinet changes happening at America’s behest and you said nothing about it, you didn’t even speak out in public about it?

Because the whole government is pro-U.S., headed by the Prime Minister himself, why should I talk about individual Ministers?

You could have brought the government down. You chose not to do so.

No, we brought the government down after they went ahead with all those policies.

But you acquiesced over the reshuffle?

No, you don’t know the two-year struggle was there… which everybody knew.

You have no conscience about this?

We fought it publicly.

You don’t think people will think it’s bizarre that you…

If you’re talking about conscience, we were the only people in this country… when the entire corporate media were pro-American, when the government was pro-American, when the Congress leadership was pro-American, surrendered to America, we were the only ones who fought it.

My last question, you are not worried, leave aside embarrassed, that people will say, he knew it is being done America’s way yet he kept quite about Mani [Shankar Aiyar] being removed?

It’s not about Mani, why are you saying Mani? I’m saying from the Prime Minister onwards they were like this.

All right, I’ll leave it there, but I think this is an issue that will probably attract greater attention in the future.

No, this is not an issue. This is a question on how we fought this government, and still the WikiLeaks show that they’re still following those policies.

Mr. Karat, a pleasure talking to you.

THE HINDU , Published: March 27, 2011 17:31 IST | Updated: March 28, 2011 11:59 IST

Monday, March 28, 2011

Believe it or not, Bengal is among the best performers in health sector

Is West Bengal lagging behind in comparison to other states? Not quite. Jhilam Karnajai looks at the health profiles of the two neighbouring states Kolkata,

Sunday, March 27, 2011


In the recent past, media reports about West Bengal have generally been negative. Apart from the debates on land acquisition for industrialization, an increasingly strident Opposition has been accusing the government of gross failures on the health front.

But the real picture is very different. Data from the office of the Registrar-General of India, using the Sample Registration System (SRS), show that West Bengal is now one of the best-performing states in the country in terms of the most basic health indicators.

As a result, among the major states, West Bengal in 2008 had the fourth lowest birth rate (after Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab) and the lowest death rate among the major states, even lower than that of Kerala. In 2008, the rural death rate in West Bengal was 6.1 compared to the urban rate of 6.6 (a gap of just 7.5 per cent), whereas, for India as a whole, it was eight in rural areas compared to 5.9 in urban areas (a gap of 26.2 per cent).

Even Tamil Nadu, the state that has otherwise performed very well in health indicators, shows a rural-urban gap in the death rate of 23 per cent. This fact has left doctors and health officials of the state surprised as Tamil Nadu is considered well ahead in health services than West Bengal. Even now thousands of patients throng to the hospitals of Tamil Nadu to be treated.

The infant mortality rate (IMR) —expressed as the ratio of the number of deaths of infants of one-year-old or less per 1,000 live births — is often regarded as the single most important indicator of overall health conditions in a particular area. The relatively rapid decline in IMRs in West Bengal (by 57 per cent, compared to the all-India average decline of 34 per cent) has made it one of the best performing among major states with respect to this indicator.

The IMR in 2008 in West Bengal was 35, putting it in the fourth position after Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Even going by the data available with the central bureau of health intelligence, West Bengal has been one of the best performing states in most of the basic health indicators. West Bengal has the lowest death rate with 6.2 percent and fourth with an overall birth rate at 17.5 per one thousand but has the lowest urban birth rate with figures of 12.4.

West Bengal is also fourth in maternal mortality rate with figures of 141 whereas the national average is 254. Similarly, West Bengal is the third in fertility rate at 1.9 with only Tamil Nadu and Kerala ahead. The only indicator in which West Bengal has a lot to improve is the case of mortality of children less than five years with figures of 59.6 where the ranks are at seven.

Under the universal immunization scheme, the state government administers TT (PW), DPT, Polio, BCG and measles vaccines. The success rate of 1999 was 90.43 per cent, 98.73 per cent, 100.35 per cent, 105.11 per cent and 84.85 per cent respectively. After ten years, the success percentage has slided marginally. The values for 2009 are 77.73 per cent, 68.62 per cent, 81.48 per cent, 97.78 per cent and 80.67 but the values are very close to the national average.

Further, throughout the decade, West Bengal has had a very low gender gap in IMR. This is also confirmed by other survey data, including the various rounds of the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS), which have found that the gender gap in the IMR in the state is either the lowest or among one of the lowest in the country.

The maternal mortality ratio (MMR) is the rate of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births among women aged between 15 and 49 years. MMRs have been declining faster and are now lower in West Bengal (141) than the national average (264). West Bengal health department can also pat themselves since the Confederation of Indian Industry (Eastern Region) report of 2010 has praised the state government for the sustained 10-year strategic framework.

The report states that the results of the initiative have been excellent, however monitoring by community and decentralization, though easy on paper, are challenges on the ground that need to be worked at continuously. The report further apprehends that with the state elections around and the DFID stopping funding suddenly, the programme may lose its political focus.

Well begun is half done, the report concludes. But health officials feel that more stress has to laid on the sincerity of health workers from doctors to the ground staff. “They lack the sincerity to execute immunization till the end and earlier had a great tendency to file false reports, which has reduced a lot,” complained a senior health administrator.

“In our state, more than 70 per cent of the people come to government hospital unlike in Bihar; so a little bit of more sincerity would help a lot,” he added. Director Health Services Dr Subhamoy Dutta Chowdhury accepted that there were gaps in the immunization programme.

“Since there are gaps, polio cases have been reported but we are working on the gaps. But we also feel that increasing the literacy level of mothers will always ensure that children are properly immunized and a healthy family,” said Dr Dutta Chowdhury.

Health indicators of West Bengal

_Birth Rate: 17.5 (National Average 22.8) Fourth _Death Rate: 6.2 (National Average 7.4) Lowest _Infant Mortality: 35 (National Average 53) Fourth _Total Fertility Rate: 1.9 (National Average 2.7) Third _Neonatal Mortality Rate: 28 (National Average 36) Fifth _Maternal Mortality Rate: 141 (Nat Average -254) Fourth (All figures are out of 1,000 and MMR out of one lakh live births)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

WEST BENGAL: A JOURNEY AGAINST THE CURRENT

By Amiya Kumar Bagchi


BRIEFLY, from the time India became independent, many major countries of the world adopted policies that benefited the peasants and workers. The world, especially the increasingly hegemonic capitalist world, turned against the poor from the 1970s. From 1973 the USA, in collaboration with the UK and other members of the G7 group, launched a determined assault against the rights of their own workers, and against the legitimate claims of developing countries to gain a less inequitable share of world output and more equitable terms of trade. The rulers of India were also turning against the poor and their democratic rights from the 1970s. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency had as its backdrop the brutal suppression of the strike of the railway workers in 1974, and even more brutal suppression of the democratic rights of the people of West Bengal from 1971. The victory of the Left Front parties in the elections of 1977 demonstrated that the ruling Congress party had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people of West Bengal. With all the rhetoric of self-reliance, Indira Gandhi’s government had begun to formulate better conditions for foreign investors, and the Janata government following it went further in wooing foreign capital.

From the very beginning, the West Bengal government, led by the Left Front, was marked out as an enemy by the rulers at the centre not only because the Front had no place for the unprincipled policies of the ruling parties in New Delhi but also because it represented a threat to the pro-rich, clientelist politics of those parties. When the Left Front came to power, the state was in desperate straits, socially and economically. There had been massive de-industrialisation of the economy, with profits generated by existing private sector companies being directed outside the state from the beginning of independence. This was caused mainly by the massive dislocation of communications, transport and markets due to the carving up of Bengal into two regions in two separate and hostile States. The trend of outflow of capital from West Bengal was aggravated by the policy of equalisation of prices of coal and steel, which robbed the whole eastern region of India of the natural advantages it enjoyed in respect of the basic ingredients of fixed capital formation. Public sector investment up to the beginning of the 1960s made only a weak compensation for the virtual cessation of large-scale industrial investment by the private sector.

SITUATION IN THE 60s &70s

The coup de grace to West Bengal’s industrial prospects was given by the deep recession in the economy over the period 1966-69, the period of the plan holiday and a famine-like shortage of food supply in the country. The recession and West Bengal’s plight were aggravated by the drastic fall in public investment, including investment in railways, which was the major customer of West Bengal’s engineering industry. In 1972-73, the year which is taken as the base year for defining the poverty line and making estimates of the number of people below that line, the proportion of persons below poverty line in rural areas was more than 73 per cent, far above the corresponding all-India figure of about 56 per cent. Taking urban and rural areas together, the proportion of persons below poverty line was about 55 per cent for India and 63 per cent for West Bengal. By 1993-94, the proportion of people below poverty line in India and West Bengal had come to very nearly the same figure, with most of the contribution to poverty reduction being made by people in rural areas.

The disastrous material conditions in rural areas down to the 1970s were reflected also in literacy rates and health conditions. As I had written a few years back: “In 1951, West Bengal had a literacy rate of 24 per cent and was second in terms of literacy among the major Indian states, Kerala being the top state with 40.7 per cent... Three states were close behind West Bengal, Gujarat with a rate of 23.7 per cent, Maharashtra with 20.9 per cent and Madras with 20.8 per cent. By 1961, all the three states had overtaken West Bengal. ..[During the decade 1961-1971], for India as a whole, the literacy rate advanced from 24.03 per cent to 29.45 per cent and for West Bengal from 29.8 to 33.20 per cent only. West Bengal has not been able to close its gap with the more advanced states since then..” (‘Studies on the economy of West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, November 21-28, 1998, p. 2973).

In 1961, according to the information provided by the Registrar General of India, the infant mortality rate (IMR), that is, the number of children per thousand births who die before their first birthday was 95 for West Bengal and 115 for India as a whole. By 2005, the IMR for India had come down to 58 but that for West Bengal had come down to 38. The IMR for West Bengal is still unacceptably high, but its rate of decline has been faster during the period 1981-2005, since the IMR for West Bengal was as high as 91 in 1981, according to figures compiled by the State Bureau of Health Intelligence.

ADVERSE FACTORS

As we will note soon, three of the top priorities of the West Bengal government since 1977 have been expanding opportunities of gainful employment as a means of raising the purchasing power of ordinary people, and advancing their levels of education and health. In pursuing these objectives, the government has had to struggle against a number of adverse factors. First, there are the usual constraints in a class society. West Bengal, after all, is part of the semi-feudal and semi-capitalist society of India, with vestiges of the colonial ideology pervading the consciousness of many sections of the people and the resurgence of a neo-imperialist and inegalitarian mindset being propagated by an increasingly aggressive array of print and electronic media, penetrating into every locality, if not every home. That ideology has to be fought continuously. The neo-imperialist and neo-liberal propaganda machine also makes use of communalist sentiments and can lead to intense discrimination against the targeted minority leading to riots and pogroms, as has been seen repeatedly in Gujarat and Maharashtra from the 1980s. One of the signal achievements of the Left Front government has been to withstand the repeated assaults of that communalist ideology and prevent any major communal riot since 1977. But there is no room for complacency in this regard. We must recognise that there is a naturalised distrust of ‘the other community’, sleeping even in apparently secular breasts and that distrust can take a demoniac form when insidious whispers penetrate into the chamber of that sleeper.

Secondly, there is a historical legacy of inequality, combined with ascribed religious and ethnic or caste affiliation, in the composition of the population of West Bengal. According to the Census 2001 data, the proportions of Muslims, people belonging to Scheduled Castes and those belonging to Scheduled Tribes formed 25.2 per cent, 23.0 per cent, and 5.5 per cent respectively. For historical reasons, these communities, who together form the majority of the people of West Bengal, were less advanced than the Hindus of upper and so called Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in respect of education and material conditions of living. Facilitating equal access of the underprivileged groups, as indeed of other poor and illiterate people to public health care and public education involves not only spending money on infrastructure but also continuous campaigns to make them aware of their rights and to combat the influence of many retrograde ideas (such as the killing of ‘Witches’), which often masquerade as tradition.

Thirdly, the geo-economic location of West Bengal also is a factor against rapid transformation of people’s lives by arming them with employment with dignity, education and reasonable standard of health. West Bengal is surrounded by regions, in which by and large, the condition of the labouring poor is worse than in West Bengal. So West Bengal attracts migrants from these states, and an overcrowded countryside and towns with squatters’ colonies become even more crowded, with unmet needs of infrastructure and facilities for education and health care. Even though West Bengal has been experiencing a rapid fertility transition, it is largely because of these flows of immigrants that West Bengal has become the most densely populated state in the country and one of the most densely populated regions of the world.

Fourthly, the post-independence history of West Bengal’s economy left it with enormous burdens. Since there had been very little net investment in the older agro-processing industries of West Bengal, the mill areas had derelict infrastructures and obsolete equipment and technology.

Fifthly, under the Indian Constitution, there is a serious imbalance in the division of responsibilities and powers, especially financial powers, of the constituent states and the central government. The major responsibilities for providing education, health care and infrastructure are vested in the states, whereas all the financial powers, such as decisions regarding income and corporation taxes, customs and excise duties, and the regulation of banks, the borrowing of money from the market, the regulation of external payment systems rest with the central government. Usually, in order to defray their expenditures the state governments have to borrow from the central government. But once they are indebted to the central government, the states cannot borrow a single rupee from the banks or the capital market without the permission of the central government. Under the neo-liberal regime of so-called ‘economic reforms’, the financial powers have been further concentrated in the fist of the central government and correspondingly, the state governments have become highly dependent on hand-outs of the central government and the donor agency programmes sanctioned by the central government. Thus the financial powers of the West Bengal government were totally inadequate to tackle the needs of industrial and urban renewal. The attitude of a generally hostile central government totally opposed to the egalitarian, pro-peasant and pro-worker ideology of the Left parties further aggravated the government’s problems. In agriculture, the refusal to legally implement the minimal measures of land reform by earlier governments and the resistance of peasants against the forcible re-possession of the lands they had earlier occupied through militant movements created a huge problem of incentives on both sides. As a result, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the peasants of West Bengal failed to secure the benefits of the Green Revolution and agricultural productivity stagnated. James Boyce wrote a book covering this period and predicted an agricultural impasse for West Bengal.

II

THE Left Front government, after coming to power, set about to change the political equation between the remote villages and towns and Writers’ Buildings in Kolkata. The instrument for that was the proper installation of a three-tier Panchayati Raj system on the basis of universal suffrage. The laws for installing that system were on the statute book. But West Bengal was one of the few states, if not the only state, to have conducted regular elections for the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) since 1978. One of the first notable achievements of the newly elected PRIs was to tackle the devastating floods of 1978, with a minimal loss of life. The government also then modified the tenancy reform laws to give effective rights to the sharecroppers and seize the lands of the landlords above the legal ceiling. The linking of the PRIs with an effectively implemented pro-peasant land reform dramatically changed the agricultural growth situation. From being a laggard in growth, West Bengal began to record, from around the middle 1980s, the highest rates of agricultural growth among all major Indian states. It was estimated, in a paper by Manoj Sanyal and others (published in the Economic and Political Weekly, November 1998) that the rate of growth of West Bengal’s agricultural output (in real terms) between 1977-78 and 1995-96 was nearly 5 per cent per year. For the shorter period of 1980-81 and 1990-91 Anamitra Saha and Madhura Swaminathan estimated that rate as 6.4 per cent per year. From the middle of the 1990s, partly under the onslaught of the one-way free trade regime and the slowdown of public investment implemented by the central government, the rate of growth of West Bengal’s agriculture declined. On the basis of data published by the central government, the agricultural component of West Bengal’s Net State Domestic Product (NSDP) growth has been estimated as 3.30 per cent per year for the period 1993-94 to 2003-04. But this has been partly compensated by the faster growth of industry and especially services in the recent period. Between 1993-94 and 2003-04 West Bengal’s NSDP grew at the rate of 6.48 per cent per year whereas the net national product of India as a whole grew at the rate of 5.73 per cent over the same period.

TOPPER IN LAND DISTRIBUTION

The government has been the top achiever among all Indian states in requisitioning ceiling-surplus land and distributing it among the poor, and pattas have been given to landless women, though this has been rather a late development. That the distribution has been overwhelmingly biased towards the most deprived sections of the population is indicated by the fact that of the nearly 2.9 million beneficiaries of land distribution until November 2006, more than 1.6 million belonged to the Dalit and Adivasi communities, and this proportion is about double their weight in the aggregate population of the state. The overwhelming proportion of operational as well as ownership holdings belong to the size classes of two hectares and below. Moreover, it has also been revealed through research conducted by Vikas Rawal, Aparajita Bakshi and others, that unlike in other states, in West Bengal, the net buyers of land are small and marginal farmers. Thus despite the continual working of market forces pushing resources towards the richer sections of population, in West Bengal, in most cases the attempted equity of land distribution still holds (Frontline, 20 April 2007).

But the situation is still fraught with contradictions. Driven partly by the low level of literacy and relative lack of opportunities of employment for women in rural areas, and under the continued working of patriarchal values, the pressure to marry off daughters quickly, many patta-holders of ceiling surplus land have to sell that small piece of land in order to pay the daughters’ dowry. Secondly, the National Sample Survey (NSS) 59th Round (January-December 2003), found that while the vast majority of the farmers (more than 90 per cent) of West Bengal operated land measuring less than one hectare, even farmers owning 2-4 hectares of land could not meet their consumption needs from the net earnings of their cultivated land alone. There has been diversification of occupations of rural people away from agriculture: many of the farmers supplement their earnings with wage labour, artisanal work or working in the services sector. According to NSS 61st Round (2004-05) on employment and unemployment, 45.8 per cent of the workforce of West Bengal is still dependent on agriculture, but the per capita income of the cultivators is considerably lower than that of non-cultivators and the incidence of poverty is greatest among agricultural labourers, casual workers and marginal farmers.

While attempting to improve the earnings of people dependent on agricultural work, a determined attempt must also be made to find alternative occupations for people in industry and services. Agriculture and rural development are intimately connected and the government’s programmes have spanned a large variety of activities. Extending minor irrigation has been one of the principal means of raising productivity. In order to make the agricultural sector a part of a sustainable development plan, watershed development and afforestation programmes need even more serious attention as the area of cultivable land is squeezed further by the progress of urbanisation. Initiatives have been taken by the government to promote storage and processing facilities for perishable products such as potatoes and tomatoes and fruits and vegetables in general. Under the neo-liberal regime, farmers’ credit was severely restricted in order to improve the bottom line of public sector banks and bring down subsidies to poor and marginal farmers. The co-operative banking sector, with the support of NABARD, has tried to stem this blockage of farm credit. Fortunately, under central government directive, very recently, agricultural credit flow has increased again, so that growth of commercial bank credit at 33 per cent in 2007, over a similar period of 2006, has overtaken that of co-operative credit flow. But the increased flow is mainly for crop loans and mechanisation. It must be seen that farmers’ allocation of resources do not become distorted by the imposition of priorities of commercial banks.

BENGAL GOVT INITIATIVES

In order to help farmers in distress, the West Bengal government has taken the initiative of procuring rice in areas and seasons in which the Food Corporation of lndia fails to act. It has also linked the procurement and processing of rice to local self-help groups (SHGs), which in turn supply the mid-day meals to the schools in the locality. This initiative would help ensure the supply of good-quality rice to children and generate employment, and especially employment of women, who are the primary agents in this kind of activity.

The growth of SHGs is also aiding the process of upgradation of facilities for short-term and long-term credit in rural areas. In my opinion, the large number of SHGs can be grouped into federations that should be equipped with accounting, marketing and technology specialists. Many of them can then start medium-scale industries, with the help of specialists in food-processing and other technologies, and graduates of management institutions who have specialised in marketing. The West Bengal Finance Corporation operates two schemes, namely, the Technology Upgradation Fund and the Equipment Refinance Scheme. The possibility of extending the span of their activities can be seriously explored.

Besides the SHGs, extending proper help to PRIs in accounting has become a major need. Now a very large fraction of development expenditure takes place under the rubric of centrally sponsored schemes. In a large majority of cases, the culpability for unspent funds lies at the door of the inadequate capacity of the implementing bodies in keeping proper accounts and submitting utilisation certificates. The peculiarity of blaming the victims, when funds remain unspent because of the complicated procedures demanded by many central government (and state government) departments, and then denying further assistance to them, only perpetuates deprivation of the already disadvantaged groups.

Are there other kinds of initiatives that can be taken in encouraging the growth of industry? In answering that trillion-rupee question, the first point to signpost is that any growth should be seen only as a means of improving the standard of living of the people. Ideally, it should generate more employment and cause no unemployment. If there is any unemployment, the state should provide unemployment insurance and training for credible new employment. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a centrally sponsored scheme, which started in February 2006, can be used to provide employment to displaced persons. In case of persons who are threatened with displacement from agriculture, the compensation package worked out by the Commerce and Industries Department, with local modifications wherever necessary, can be offered. But this negotiation should be treated as a democratic process for obtaining consent and not as a matter of administrative fiat. It must be recognised that the West Bengal government is operating under multiple constraints in trying to chart a path to industrial transformation. First, it cannot try to set up large-scale industry on its own, simply because it does not have the resources, under the current dispensation of totally unequal centre-state financial relations. Second, under the current neo-liberal regime, the central government will not set up any industries even in a region rich with mineral resources. Third, in the nanny State for the rich that the central government has become, constituent states are being pushed into showering enormous subsidies for attracting private industrial projects and the West Bengal government is being pushed into that rat race. Fourth, if the West Bengal government does decide to subsidise a big private industrial or real estate project, it has to calculate the costs and benefits carefully. Would an equivalent subsidy for medium-scale industries spread into the interior have generated more employment and income for the poor? But however carefully they are done, there are always uncertainties involved in such calculations. Will petrol cars remain viable and affordable if the price of oil rises further? Will the ancillary units in West Bengal remain operational, if the Myanmar junta provides even more attractive lollies to the same entrepreneurs or their rivals? Finally, convincing poor peasants, who have obtained their minuscule pieces of land after decades of struggle, that they will get more profitable earning and employment opportunities after losing their land and getting the compensation package, will remain a formidable political task. People who do not have any recognised rights as cultivators or sharecroppers may join protest movements, however misguided they may be, as happened in Singur, even though, according to Mrityunjoy Mohanty, the majority of the people there have only a tenuous connection with agriculture. But the fact remains that just allowing the market to take its own course under a neo liberal regime is not an option for a responsible, democratic government.

STATE OF EDUCATION

Let me now turn to some areas and those are the most important ones, in which there is still a lot to be accomplished and in which further determined efforts in the directions the government has chalked out can make a very great difference. These are the areas of education and health, which are, in Amartya Sen’s evocative formulation, both ‘constitutive’ and ‘instrumental’ elements of human well-being. West Bengal’s literacy rate increased from 48.64 per cent in 1981 to 68.64 per cent in 2001, which is considerably lower than I would have hoped for in 1981. Apart from the structural factors I have alluded to earlier, and shortage of resources for investment in basic facilities in schools such as school rooms, toilets, especially for girls and rural roads, there was an unexpected failure of motivation among teachers. Once teachers’ salaries were protected and raised to reasonable levels by the Left Front government, many of them displayed unattractive features of a semi-feudal work culture. They shirked their work, treated poorer students with contempt and acted as moneylenders, besides engaging in private tuition to the neglect of the work they drew their salaries for. Many surveys also found rampant absenteeism in schools. The government’s introduction of Shishu Shiksha Kendras was partly meant to address this issue of incentive failure, although fund scarcity under the neo liberal dispensation also played a part in the decision process. Several surveys have found these Shishu Shiksha Kendras, mostly run by women, performing better than or at least as well as, the formal schools. I would plead for more recruitment of women teachers in primary schools and, wherever necessary, providing them with school quarters. Already the spread of the Mid-day Meals scheme, which now covers nearly a crore of school children, and its linking up in many instances with the ICDS programme, has reduced the problem of absenteeism of teachers and student dropouts. Now, the issue of the quality of teaching should be addressed properly. In all these cases, involving teachers’ unions in improving attendance and quality can be a positive step. In our interactions with teachers’ unions, we found the leaders fully aware of the issues and willing to mobilise their members for better performance.

The West Bengal government’s initiative in modernising Madrasha education and endowing it with more funds is leading to the training of several lakhs of students in education that is no longer imbricated in a particular strand of theology and helping to raise the average level of education of the minority community.

COMMUNITY HEALTHCARE

I am a strong believer in the active participation of the community in education, environment and health. But that community must be an open one with the involvement of democratic State institutions as monitors and facilitators. In joint forest management, West Bengal showed the way. Now in health care also the initiatives for facilitating community participation are beginning to yield a rich harvest, although given the enormous burden on the state, and media propaganda for privatising health care, the results do not appear to be miraculous.

In recent years, the government has started implementing a community healthcare management initiative with gram sabhas, SHGs, anganwadi workers, auxiliary nurses and midwives, NGOs and health supervisors for managing the primary health care units in rural areas. A scheme of this kind, but in an urban setting, has been in operation for a number of years in New Barrackpore. The municipality has managed the Dr B C Roy General Hospital and Maternity Home and other public health care units with community involvement. The participation of the municipal residents in the operation of the system is ensured through women voluntary health workers belonging to the locality, and through committees on which elected members of the municipality as well as the doctors and other technical persons are represented. The outcome is that through the operation of this system, the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) of the municipal population has been brought down from 68.29 in 1994-95 to 9.58 in 2006-07, the maternal mortality rate has come down to zero, immunisation against tuberculosis, DPT and polio has been universalised from levels of 33 to 40 per cent in 1994-95, and ante-natal care of pregnant women now covers 100 per cent of expectant mothers, instead of only 35 per cent in 1994-95. Hospital delivery now covers 97 per cent of births instead of 73 per cent in 1994-95. In urban areas, New Barrackpore is exceptional today, but it need not remain an exception if the municipal bodies take the initiative and continuous participation of the people of the locality can be ensured in every case.

The government of West Bengal has tried gradually to extend the coverage of the public health care system especially in rural areas. All health department properties in the primary health care sector in rural areas have been handed over to the PRls for maintenance. The government has also allocated funds to these institutions for special attention to pregnant mothers and children, and has set up separate neo-natal care units in two district hospitals. It has also connected the local government institutions to self-help groups and village health committees. It appears that these initiatives are leading to a higher percentage of birth deliveries in rural hospitals and even sub-centres, which are the lowest tier of primary healthcare units. Some recent work of Subrata Mukherjee of the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata, and Frederic Levesque of the University of Montreal has shown that in recent times the utilisation of the public healthcare system in West Bengal, has improved and the rate of utilisation has become more evenly distributed among different income groups. Recognising that maternal mortality rate and IMRs even in Kolkata and other urban areas remain unacceptably high, the government has increased the facilities for neo- and ante-natal care in many major government hospitals.

In an egalitarian society, it is human development that should drive the growth process rather than human development being treated as only a byproduct of growth. It happens to be the case that improvements in health, education and substantive freedom in general also help growth. A beleaguered country such as Cuba has managed to improve all indices of human development while being under illegal siege by the US administration. Unfortunately, West Bengal is not a socialist economy like Cuba. The Left Front government of West Bengal has to deal with the multiplicity of constraints that I have sketched above. I have struggled, along with many other citizens of the state, to see that the basic egalitarianism that it carries on its masthead is not torn by squalls of false propaganda and misleading advice. I hope that both the government and its egalitarian creed will outlast me.

People's Democracy, March 13 & 27, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

FRESH BLOOD IN LEFT FRONT CANDIDATE LIST


KOLKATA, 13th March, 2011: 149 candidates out of total 294 seats are new faces, said Biman Basu while declaring the candidates’ list of the Left Front for the forthcoming assembly election in West Bengal. The introduction of these new faces is nothing new in left tradition, added Basu, mentioning that the number was 134 in the previous assembly election. However, names for two seats have not been declared today.

Basu declared the candidate list today (13th March) after the state Left Front committee meeting. The meeting of the CPI (M) state committee held on 12th and 13th March. CPI (M), the largest party of the Left Front is going to contest in 210 seats, Forward Block is going to contest in 33 seats, RSP is going to contest in 23 seats, CPI is going to contest in 15 seats, Socialist Party is going to contest in 5 seats, DSP is going to contest in 2 seats, Marxist Forward Block is going to contest in 2 seats. BBC and RJD are going to contest in 1 seat each.

The candidate list represents all sections of the society. There are 46 female candidates in the list. In the previous assembly election it was 34. There is considerable representation of schedule caste and schedule tribes. In totality there are 84 constituencies reserved for SC/ST candidates. The Left Front has nominated 11 more such candidates (including 2 OBC candidates) from the unreserved general seats. The list also reads the name of 65 minority candidates, among them 57 candidates come from Muslim community.

Seven ministers are not going to contest elections. ‘But they would concentrate on organizational responsibilities and the left front workers do not hanker for being candidates’, added Biman Basu. Moreover he said the ministers themselves were not keen enough to contest the election either due to health hazards or increasing organizational responsibilities.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will be contesting from Jadavpur constituency, Nirupam Sen will be contesting from Burdwan South, Dr. Suryakanta Mishra from Narayangarh and Gautam Deb will be contesting from Dumdum.

Campaign Will Intensify: Biman Basu

Left Front will intensify its election campaign through street corners meetings and reaching out door-to-door. While announcing the list of 294 candidates Biman Basu, Left Front chairman declared that ongoing campaign from 8th March to 24th March will be intensified now. From 24th March onwards all street corners, local rallies, Jathas, Baithak Sabha (group meeting), village meetings would subsequently be organized extensively.

Basu alleged that Election Commission in these days is showing bias against Left Front. Cut-outs, banners, hoardings of the opposition parties are even evident when that of the Left parties are immediately removed. West Bengal has not witnessed such partisan culture where even Trade Unions can’t even use Red Flags, averred Basu.

Basu also announced that only three days available for open meetings and rallies before the first phase of Election would commence. On 13th, 14th, and 15th of April all district Left Front committees of North Bengal would decide campaign agenda for mass meetings, averred Basu.

When asked, Biman Basu staunchly clarified that the Left Front would publish the Election Manifesto in time within a couple of days that would clearly clarify the political agenda of the Left Front. Basu even clarified that Left Front leaders are not keen to become candidates; they have many other organizational responsibilities to perpetrate.