Sunday, March 27, 2011


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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