The experience of running the Left Front Government in West Bengal (1977-2011) is significant in many ways for the Communist and Leftist movements in the state and in the whole country as well. The long spell of 34 years of Left Front Government is unprecedented in the history of parliamentary democracy. The Left Front Government had to traverse a path on which no one had walked before. The way had to be traced only by striking the path. The Left Front Government has played a historical role in establishing human rights, developing democracy, strengthening the federal system and bolstering secularism. In spite of its shortcomings, it has earned a unique success. Our ideas and experience of running a left-led government at the state level have been enriched by that success.
Along with the success, however, limitations and weaknesses in running a state government have also been perceived. Many impediments had also to be negotiated. Continuous attacks, counter-publicity and conspiracy from the ruling classes had also to be withstood. The sum of all these constitutes the experience of running the Left Front Government. The relevance of these experiences does not disappear with the removal of the Government. Specific discussions about and an understanding of the experience are urgently needed to decide on the contours of future political programmes.
The Left-led Government and the Programme of the CPI(M)
For the CPI (M), the question of guiding or participating in a government within the present state-structure is connected with the strategic aims and tactical understanding of the Party. There are clear directives about this in the Party Programme.
In India, Communists first formed a state government under the leadership of Comrade E.M.S Namboodiripad in Kerala in 1957. This government took some important steps including the spread of democracy, land reforms and educational reforms. The class orientation of the Communist Party was evident in those steps; however, the limitations of the state government’s powers within the constitutional bounds of the bourgeois-landlord state were also perceptible. The Congress held a near-total power over the whole country at the time and felt nervous with the steps taken by the Communist-led government in a single state. Taking the help of the CIA, and with the Congress party leading all the anti-communist forces, a ‘Vimochana’ (‘liberation’) struggle was built up. In 1959, the Congress govt. at the centre removed the Namboodiripad govt. by declaring President’s rule. But the experience of those 28 months has later helped the Leftists to find the way. It was in the light of this experience that the CPI(M) Party Programme adopted by the 7th Congress in Kolkata in 1964 included paragraph no. 112. The Programme of the undivided CPI (first adopted in 1951) did not include any such concept. It stated that the Communist Party would participate in Parliamentary elections and unite all Left and democratic forces to oppose the absolute power of the Congress.
The strategic aim of the CPI(M) Programme is the People’s Democratic Revolution, the establishment of a new state-structure by changing the present state-structure. But the idea of a Left-led govt., though a tactical issue, was included in paragraph no. 112.
Paragraph no. 112 states that the left-led governments (though of limited power where the state power is represented by the centre) may carry out “a modest programme of giving immediate relief” to the people at the state level; but they are not able to offer any radical solution to the political and economic problems of the country. “The formation of such governments will give great fillip to the revolutionary movement of the working people and thus help the process of building the democratic front. It, however, would not solve the economic and political problems of the nation in any fundamental manner. The party, therefore, will continue to educate the mass of the people on the need for replacing the present bourgeois-landlord state and government headed by the big bourgeoisie even while utilising all opportunities for forming such governments of a transitional character which give immediate relief to the people and thus strengthen the mass movement.”
The call for realising this tactical guideline of the 1964 programme was given in the mid-term Assembly elections in Kerala in 1965 and in the fourth general elections in 1967. Though the Congress emerged with a slim majority in the Lok Sabha in 1967, it failed to form govt.’s in 8 states.
In 1967, a United Front Govt. was formed in West Bengal by an alliance of the Leftist and some non-left democratic parties opposing the Congress. In Kerala also, a United Front Government led by Namboodiripad was formed. Specially, the defeat of the Congress in West Bengal was an important event. In the context of urgent tasks, it led state politics a step forward. In April 1967, a detailed discussion was made regarding the Left-led Governments in a document of the CPI(M) Central Committee called “The New Situation and the Party’s Tasks.” This document stated, “… to what extent the people could be benefited, and in extending such benefits what real possibilities could appear before the government. Without harbouring excessive illusions about additional benefits and overcoming the despair that nothing can be done within the present system…” we have to work.
One of the major issues with which the Party’s ideas at that time were concerned was an uncertainty about the tenure of the Left-led state governments. In the first place, the authoritarian Congress govt. at the centre made an absolute misuse of the office of the Governor to dislodge the Left-led governments. This happened in Kerala in 1959. In West Bengal the same fate befell the first and second United Front Governments in 1967 and 1970 respectively. In 1969, the United Front Govt. in Kerala was again dislodged. Secondly, the coordination and unity among the Leftist parties had not grown stable and mature at that time. The United Fronts in West Bengal and Kerala had their own weaknesses also.
The Experience of the Two United Front Governments
A Practical experience of running the state administration in West Bengal was garnered through two spells of United Front Government which were directed by minimum common programmes (an 18 point programme for the first UF and a 32 point one for the second). The first United Front Govt. survived from 2 March, 1967 to 21 November 1967. The period of work for the second UF Govt. was from 25 February, 1969 to 16 March, 1970. Both spells were short, a total of 22 months only. But even within that short span, the struggle for land and the struggle for wages had started. The struggle for the establishment and spread of democratic rights among all sections of the people had started.
The UF Govt. had announced its decision not to send the police force to curb democratic movements and justified trade union movements. At that time the Calcutta Tramways Company was brought under public control. During the UF rule, there was a significant increase in industry-based, united workers’ movements and industrial strikes with demands on wages, labour relations etc.
The UF Govt. gave priority to the land reforms programme. For the first time, the eviction of the homeless from homestead land under occupation and of bargadars from barga land was stopped legally, though temporarily. The state govt. encouraged the organisation of people’s initiative to retrieve khas and benami land. The slogan was : occupy benami land, keep it under control and cultivate the land. The politics in the state and the balance of class-forces were transformed by the rise of new forces in rural areas. Though short-lived, the UF Government made an unforgettable contribution, when we consider it from this angle.
Naturally, the Congress took all possible steps against the UF Govt. But the UF had its own underlying weakness. There were many kinds of opportunist and compromising trends. There were defects in the understanding of the common minimum programme among non-Left partners of the United Front, even among Leftist partners.
The Context of the Left Front
During the United Front Government, the people of the state witnessed a different shape of government initiative, one which looked after the common man’s interests. This was a completely new and positive experience which enriched the democratic movement in the state. It was during the United Front era that the foundations of the formation of the Left Front Government of 1977 were laid.
The maximum misuse of the office of the Governor was observed on both occasions when the two UF Governments were dismissed. During the mid-term Assembly elections of 1971, the Leftists were disunited. Though the largest number of seats were won by the CPI(M), it was not allowed to form the Government. The office of the Governor was treated like a rubber stamp. Once more, the Congress received CIA assistance during this period.
The Congress was not ready to tolerate the presence of the Left even as an opposition in the Assembly, not to speak of the treasury benches. To wield unchallenged power, the Congress turned the 1972 Assembly elections into a total mockery. Though the Party won 14 seats, it boycotted the Assembly for the next five years. To capture the Assembly was not enough for the Congress. As soon as they came to power, they issued an ordinance to dislodge the Calcutta Corporation Board where the Left constituted an elected majority.
The transition from United Front to Left Front and from Left Front to LF Govt. did not happen in a single day, nor was this an easy process. During this dreary journey, the CPI(M) has played an exceptional role. In the field of politics, a relentless political struggle had to be waged against revisionism on the one hand and against left sectarianism on the other. At the same time, the work of consolidating the Left and democratic forces through the formation of a front based on a common minimum programme had to be carried out continuously. A united Left movement grew up on the basis of demands for democracy.
It was after the declaration of the 1975 emergency that people all over India witnessed the barbarity of Congress autocracy. In West Bengal, the semi-fascist terror had started from 1971. During this spell of semi-fascist terror, 1400 leaders, workers and organisers of the CPI(M) became martyrs. Thousands of Party workers had to leave home. The struggle for democracy proved victorious in this state through continuous movements, struggles, and numerous self-sacrifices. The railway strike, the brutality of the emergency, the difficulties in agriculture and industry and various other economic issues caused an explosion of anti-Congress movement in the whole country. At the All-India level also, the CPI(M) played a significant role at that time in unifying the people in the struggle against authoritarianism and in organising the Left and democratic camp.
At the crest of the wave of the countrywide movement against authoritarianism came the 1977 Lok Sabha elections which threw the Congress out of power at the centre. The spontaneous support of the people of West Bengal caused a thundering victory of the Left Front in the Assembly. The Left Front government was formed under the leadership of Comrade Jyoti Basu.
The Party Programme Updated (2000)
The updating of the Party Programme, as accepted in 2000, was made on the basis of the experience gained in running state govts, in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. In this updated Programme, some important changes have been made in the statements on the powers and tasks of the Left-led govts. These changes are not sudden either. The pre-liberalisation and post liberalisation experiences of the two intervening decades and more formed the basis of the updating of the Programme. “A modest programme of giving immediate relief to the people” in the 1964 Programme was replaced by paragraph 7.17 of the updated Programme, which spoke of Left-led governments “pledged to carry out a programme of providing relief to the people and strive to project and implement alternative policies within the existing limitations.” Such governments had been termed “transitional” in the previous programme. This term stands deleted, because “transitional” might suggest that the temporary nature of these pre-revolution governments is taken for granted.
Paragraph 7.17 further states: “The formation of such governments will strengthen the revolutionary movement of the working people and thus help the process of building the people’s democratic front. It, however, would not solve the economic and political problems of the nation in any fundamental manner. The Party, therefore, will continue to educate the mass of the people on the need for replacing the present bourgeois-landlords State and government headed by the big bourgeoisie even while utilising opportunities for forming such governments in the states or the Centre, depending on the concrete situation, and thus strengthen the mass movement.”
In this context, it is worth mentioning the guidelines in the document called “On Certain Policy Issues” (the second part of the Political-Organisational Report) adopted by the 18th Congress of the CPI(M) at New Delhi in April, 2005 and the document called “Our Experience Regarding the Left-led Governments and their Roles in the Present Situation” (the second part of the Political Organisational Report) adopted by the 19th Congress of the CPI (M) at Coimbatore in March-April, 2008.
Of course, the “alternative” policies of the Left-led govts have to be understood in their proper perspective. This “alternative” is never the ‘socialist alternative’ or the “people’s democratic alternative”, not even the Left-democratic alternative at all times. As the 2008 document, “Our Experience Regarding the Left-led Governments and their Roles in the Present Situation” asserted, “… everything must be done in such a manner so that the viewpoint of the Left led governments is seen to be people-oriented and they uphold some alternative policies which are part of the Left and democratic platform.” However, this is not supposed to mean that every left- led govt. will execute every bit of the “alternative” upheld or one that should be upheld by the Party all over the country. Therefore the same document states, “While at the all India level the Party puts out alternative policies and seeks to mobilize people in their sphere, it does not follow that all these alternative policies can be put into operation in three states where we run state governments.” (para 29)
It depends on the existing reality of the relations of class forces how much of a given programme can be realized and when. Only administrative goodwill cannot perform the task immediately. Much of this reality depends on the actual situation of the states and the differences in their economic, social and political levels. Even in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, where the viewpoint of the Left-led governments is the same, the priorities and methods in implementing a programme may not necessarily be the same.
Left Front Government : A Unique Experience
The very first cabinet meeting of the Left Front government decided to free all political prisoners.
The tribulations of the partition spelt a calamity in the lives of the people of West Bengal. The cruel deception to which the Bengal economy was subjected by the Centre brought the State to the brink of ruin. The Left Front government brought in the stir of new life.
Immediately after taking the oath of office, Jyoti Basu, the Chief Minister announced that the Left Front govt. would not carry on its work from the Writers’ Building alone. It has, by spreading democracy helped the people of rural and urban areas, especially the working people, to stand up proudly. The foundations of democracy were strengthened by panchayats on the one hand and municipalities on the other. Al all levels of public life, a democratic milieu was created; the necessary institutional structure was also formed by the Left Front govt. It announced that the police would not be used against democratic movements. Not a single event of the kind took place in 34 years. Organised democratic movement enjoyed a new environment in this state and strengthened itself. The Left Front govt. has always respected trade union rights. It has never sent the police force to disrupt strikes. Government and semi-government employees were given the rights to strike and launch other forms of movement and to form organisations. It has never suppressed opposition political activity by force. The state govt. never interfered with the freedom of the media. Even the news media most critical about the govt. have received advertisements from the govt. The Left Front Government was the first in the whole country to establish a Human Rights Commission at the state level. The opposition in the parliamentary system was shown proper respect at all levels: Assembly municipalities, panchayats.
Examples were set before the whole country when the number of seats required to gain opposition party status was lowered, the leader of the opposition was accorded the status of a cabinet minister, the committee system was introduced, and when the opposition was allotted half the total time of a discussion in the Assembly.
The Left Front govt. has played an exemplary role in protecting secularism, communal amity and racial unity. It guaranteed the security of minorities. The Left Front govt. has stood by minorities during many episodes. West Bengal stood proudly aloof from the anti-Sikh riots which plagued the whole nation in 1984 and from the countrywide wave of riots following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992. It was in order to preserve racial unity that the hill council was established in the hills. The govt. was always sincere in recognizing and respecting the Nepali, Santhali and Urdu languages. The alchiki script was given recognition by the LF govt.
The political will in running the administration in these matters had firm roots in the class viewpoints of the Left which cast a positive effect on the political, socio-economic and cultural milieu of the state.
The rights, respects, dignity and security which are women’s due were guaranteed in the state by the Left Front Government. This state has continuously maintained the top position in the country so far as law and order are concerned. It was the Left Front Government which set an example before the whole country when it reserved 50% of the seats for women.
The Left Front govt. was an exception when post-liberalisation corruption gained an institutional form at the centre and in several states. It was the Left Front Government which first established the Lokayata and even charges against the Chief Minister were brought under its jurisdiction.
In trying to realize an ‘alternative’ policy while running a state government with limited powers, land reforms become an important task. The Land-reforms programme in West Bengal (procuring land held beyond the ceiling, redefining land in order to bring excess land within the khas land list, giving patta rights to the landless peasant and ensuring the rights of bargaders through registration) has set an example for the whole country. The land reform policy of the LF govt. bears comparison only with those of the Left-led governments in Kerala and Tripura.
Though mass movements in retrieving benami land were encouraged during the United Front era, it was not possible to provide legal security to the land reform programme. The Left Front has, in several phases, amended land laws to provide a legal shield for the land reform programme. Even the World Bank, in its ‘World Development Report’ for 2006, praised the land reform programme of the Left Front Govt.
As a result of these reforms, more than three million peasants in West Bengal have received more than 11,27,000 acres of land. About 37% of those who received patta belong to the schedule castes, 18% to adivasi communities and 18% to the minority communities. The land reform policy was consciously linked to the question of challenging gender discrimination. That is how women belonging to peasant families also received their patta and became landowners. More than 618000 pattas were issued jointly to men and women and 161000 to women only. The distribution of pattas for land was a continuous process. Land for distribution naturally diminished gradually but even between 2006 and 2010 during the tenure of the seventh LF Govt, 167800 acres of land were distributed through pattas. During that period, West Bengal was the only state in India to distribute surplus land.
Only 3% of the total land area in India is in West Bengal. And yet, this state distributed almost one fifth of the land distributed through land reform in India. 84% agricultural land in the state came to be owned by small and marginal peasants as a result of land reforms. At the national level, the rate is a little above 34%.
In West Bengal the legal rights of over 15,13,000 registered bargadars are well-protected. As early as September 1977, the Left Front government amended the Land Reforms Act to protect the bargadar from eviction. During the LF period, the recorded barga land in the state amounted to about 11,15000 acres. Apart from this, land was bought in order to allot up to 5 cottahs each free of cost to agricultural labourers, rural artisans and fisherfolk under the ‘Agricultural and Residential Land Grant’ project. Nearly 2 lakh families have been benefited by this project . The decision to withdraw land-tax was another important contribution of this period. It is an acknowledged fact all over the country that significant changes in land relations have been caused by land reforms in West Bengal. Feudal and semi-feudal relations in land have suffered injuries because of this policy.
In the first place, the land reforms programme has immensely helped the development of agriculture. Secondly, it has helped in the socio-economic empowerment of the rural poor in West Bengal. In fact, what the Left Front government has achieved in land reforms despite limited powers goes a little beyond “providing relief.” This programme of change in land relations is part of the Left alternative. Some shortcomings in effecting the land reform measures have come to our notice. In many cases the bargadars did not give the landlords the proper share of the produce. As a result, this friendly section of the peasants’ movement gradually grew hostile. There were defects in raising the level of the struggle.
Success and Problems in Agriculture
One of the major success stories for the Left Front is in the field of agriculture. In the Congress period, West Bengal was a deficit state in agricultural production. Every year since Independence, people had to launch movements and march on the streets in demand for food. It was in the period of the Left Front government that West Bengal emerged as a surplus state in agricultural production. In 1976-77, the total production of food crops was 74 lakh tonnes. In 2010-11, it stood at 170 lakh tonnes. It was during the Left Front period that West Bengal topped the list of rice-producing states, with an average rice production of 148 lakh metric tonnes annually, which is 98% more than the production in 1977-78.
In the 1980s decade, West Bengal was the first in the whole country in the rate of increase in agricultural production. At the national level the rate of increase in agriculture was 1.6% in 2008-09. In 2009-10 it was 0.2%. In West Bengal, the rate was 4.4% in 2008-09, and 4.2% in 2009-10. Out of the total food crop production in the country, 8% is produced by West Bengal (ASSOCHEM, 2010) although it has only 3% of the agricultural land in India.
A major index of agricultural development is crop intensiveness, that is, more than one crop on the same plot of land. Here also, West Bengal had reached the second position in the country. Crop intensiveness was 155% in 1992-93 and 192% in 2010-11.
At a moment of countrywide agricultural crisis, West Bengal progressed in agriculture by 3.2% which was more than the national average. The variety in agriculture, essential for an increase in the peasant’s income, was also striking. During the LF government, West Bengal reached the top position in vegetable production in India (a production of 130 lakh metric tonnes of vegetables other than potatoes). It was second in India in potato production (almost 95 lakh metric tones). 35% of potatoes in the country was produced in this state. In the production of fruits and vegetables also, West Bengal was in the front rank, having 15% of the total produce in the country. In the production of pineapples, lichis and mangoes, West Bengal held the first, second and eighth positions respectively.
The development of the irrigation system in the LF days was a noteworthy step to achieve success in agriculture. In 1977, only 32% of the land was irrigated. It went beyond 73% in the Left Front era, although no effective measures were taken by the Central govt. in response to the proposals of the state govt. regarding riverine planning in North and South Bengal. Rather, the people of the state had to suffer much because the Damodar plan was left incomplete.
Side by side with the success in agricultural production, there was continuous improvement in fish production during the days of the Left Front government. This helped West Bengal to maintain the top place in the country. In internal [inland?] fish production, the state topped the list among all states in the country for nearly two decades. The total fish production in 1977 was 234000 metric tonnes. During the Left Front period, fish production rose to beyond 15 lakh metric tonnes. This was more than the state’s internal requirements. West Bengal produced more than 62% of fish-spawn required to meet the national demand. This progress in pisciculture not only led to a record increase in fish supply to the state but also extended employment opportunities widely. Pisciculture has had a role to play in the economic development of rural and semi-urban areas.
During Left Front days, social forestry took the shape of a mass movement all over the state. Though forest areas were on the decrease in India, they increased in West Bengal in spite of its immense density of population. Such areas increased from 13% in the 1980s to 16.6% in the 1990’s. The Joint Forest Management in West Bengal earned the praise of international experts because of the way it simultaneously protected forests and opened up income opportunities for the poor. In 1992, West Bengal received the Paul Getty award, famed to be the ‘Nobel Prize’ in wild life preservation.
However, in spite of the success in agriculture, some problems appeared later. Though land reforms played a historic role, the problem of continuous fragmentation of land was increasing. The cost of tilling small landholdings had increased. As a result of neo-liberal policies, prices of agricultural commodities became increasingly uncertain; prices of fertilizers and seeds increased, as did the cost of using agricultural implements. The additional cost of necessary investment posed a grave problem for the small peasant. The problems of small and middle farmers totally dependent on agriculture increased continuously. A section of bargadars and pattadars were forced to transfer land because they were unable to till the land by themselves. Attentions had started being paid to the next stage of landownership of small fragments of land, but no specific way had been found. Various problems of this kind had led to a kind of status quo in agricultural production generally. In providing irrigation, seeds, fertilizers, equipment following new technology, electricity, no means suitable for the new situation (such as the cooperative system) had been devised.
Importance was given to the increase of agricultural produce, the diversification of crops, and the extension of markets. True, there was some success in these areas, but much remained to be done. There was a weakness in the supply of quality seeds; it was not possible to overcome this by using seed farms. Nor could any alternative system be built up in the preservation processing and marketing of agricultural commodities.
The multi-faceted development and coordination of the cooperative movement were very important tasks. This was not performed in all cases. In spite of problems, cooperative loans were offered for agriculture and diversification of crops. Still, it was not fully possible to rescue the peasant from the grip of the usurer. West Bengal can of course claim a special success in issuing Kisan Credit Cards. But the necessary effort in giving publicity to the project and getting the peasant interested in it was lacking. As the role of public sector banks, cooperatives and government investment in the agricultural sector had to be curtailed due to neoliberal policies, it became difficult to tackle new problems.
Decentralisation : Panchayats and Municipalities
It is the Left Front government which has shown the way to the whole country, not only to West Bengal, in establishing the modern Panchayat system. During the first three-tier Panchayat elections in 1978, the Left Front had correctly called for the uprooting of the vested interests of the establishment in village after village. If land reforms provided economic security to the rural people of the state, social and political empowerment has been brought to them by the Panchayat during the LF era. The Panchayat system has struck at the roots of the feudal social relations and the power which had continued for generations past. The LF govt. has held Panchayat elections regularly, the only state government in the country to do so. Through Panchayats, development projects have been initiated from the bottom layer. A little before the Constitution was amended, the fourth Left Front Government effected reservation for women of at least one-third of seats and that for scheduled castes and tribes in proportion with their numbers in the population. The seventh Left Front Government enacted seat reservation of at least 50% for women and proportionately for OBC’s. It is relevant to state that the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi marked the decentralization through panchayats in West Bengal as a model for the whole country when he was inaugurating the East Zone Panchayat Conference in Kolkata in 1988. It should be mentioned that the decentralization through panchayats and municipalities in this state served as the basis for the 72nd and 73rd constitution amendments. In 1992, even before the 73rd amendment of the Constitution, the Gram Samsad was formed in West Bengal to ensure the participation of the people in the Panchayat system. In comparison with the rest of the country, Gram Samsads in West Bengal have played an effective role. Through the activity of continuously farming village development committees, conflicts and contradictions appeared in villages, and even hostilities in some places, leading to instability in rural life. In many cases, leftists were also unable to adopt an appropriate role. The opposition took advantage of all this. The training of panchayat members was an urgent necessity.
An important success was also gained in the struggle to achieve a positive change in the socio-political and class balance of the rural society through the three-tier Panchayat system. This programme has also changed the sense of rights among the rural poor. The weaker sections came to be represented in the leadership of the Panchayat system in West Bengal. From this angle also, a new precedent was created in the country by West Bengal Panchayats.
Not only through Panchayats in rural areas, but also in the decentralization of power in urban areas through the democratisation of the municipal system, the Left Front govt. took an unprecedented initiative. It was the first Left Front Government which effected voting rights for 18 year olds in municipal elections, thus setting a unique example before the country. As in panchayates, so in municipalities also, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Alongside rural development, the increasing rates of new marketplaces in the countryside and of urbanization in the state left the rest of the country behind. The number of municipalities rose to 126 during the LF period. Regular elections to municipalities, unthought of before 1977, now took place. Statutory means of the participation of common people and development planning were adopted for municipalities also. Aiming at decentralized urbanization, new development organizations and corporations were created. Priority was given to civic amenities and especially to slum development. The state government started the 100-day employmet guarantee scheme in towns also. Decentralise power and involve the people in your work: this basic outlook of the Left Front government was equally applicable to Panchayats and municipalities.
It cannot be denied that our success in local self-government was unparalleled. But even there, common people were distanced from us by the spread of a narrow party-oriented mentality instead of a class outlook, by nepotism and by corruption, however little. These lapses became evident after the 2001 Assembly elections. We tried to overcome these lapses but were practically unsuccessful. Particularly missing was the class outlook in building the unity among the poor. The APL/BPL difference introduced by the Centre created a division among the poor to which, perforce, the state government, panchayats, municipalities etc, became parties. The subjective considerations behind the formation of the village development committees did not fit the reality. The division among the people on this question has gone against us. The alienation from the people increased because of the absence of popular initiative strong enough to develop participatory democracy. This was reflected in the 2008 panchayat elections. In rural areas and in some urban areas, hegemonism and undesirable intervention took place and was not well received by common men and women. Apart from this, in the later period, there was an excessive bureaucratic trend in the running of panchayats and this also created problems.
Progress in Human Development
West Bengal made significant progress under the criteria of human development as a result of serial efforts of the Left Front government even within the difficult circumstances of neo-liberal policies. In each and every case, the Left Front govt. had to start almost from scratch. Yet, it established an unprecedented example in human development.
Alleviation of poverty: The number of persons living below the poverty line in West Bengal has continuously fallen during the period of Left Front government. Before 1977, more than 58.6% of the people in the state lived below the poverty line, taking the urban and the rural together. As calculated by the planning commission, the figure had already come down to 20.5% in 2004-05. In 1973-74, the average national proportion of poor families was 56%; at that time, in West Bengal, the proportion was 73%. The proportion in the state fell to 63% in 1983-84 and further to 48% in 1987-88 and to 32% in 1999-2000. According to the information provided by the Central government, West Bengal held the second place in the rate of alleviation of poverty, immediately after Kerala. Poverty Eradication in India by 2015: Rural Household Centre Strategy Paper (2010) is a report of the Rural Development Ministry of the Central govt. It states that poverty has been significantly reduced in West Bengal in 2005-06. Though the population has increased, the number of villagers living below the poverty line has come down in the state to a figure below the national average.
In spite of many problems, the picture of continuous development was noticeable. In the days of the sixth and seventh LF governments, the rate of economic growth in the state remained above the national average. In the 2001-06 period of five years, the growth rate of internal production in the state was 7.3% which was above the national rate of 6.7%.
Buying Power: As a result of the economic development, in the rural areas of West Bengal alone, there was a market of nearly 27000 crores of rupees for industrial commodities in 2010-11. This was possible because the buying power of common people had increased. Alongside buying power, savings also increased. In small savings, this state held the first place in India, even up to the last day of the Left Front Government.
Literacy: The literacy rate in the state was 38.86% in 1971; in 2011, it rose t to 77%, much higher than the national average. In spite of this progress, much more of an advance could have been made in 34 years in the field of literacy.
Education: Chaos and gross indiscipline marked the condition of education in the state before the Left Front came to power. Many hurdles had to be negotiated before a normal and democratic condition could be restored in schools and in higher education; a further big challenge before the state government was the extension of educational opportunities together with improvement of qualities. The Left Front government has been successful in achieving all these. We failed to maintain the momentum on education from the 1990s onwards.
The greatest success was in primary education. 99.6% of the students in the age group of 6 to 10 years were brought into schools. 96% of the children could be brought under the scheme of mid-day meals. The number of school dropouts was fast descending. It decreased to 1.8% at the primary level and to 5.4% at the upper primary level. But there were problems about the standard of primary education. There was scope for improvement in the quality and commitment of teachers. On the question of learning the English language, it may be said that it were better if changes had not been effected or if it had been optional.
Learning opportunities also increased at a record rate at the secondary and the higher secondary levels. In 1977, less than 2 lakh pupils appeared in the Madhyamik examination. In 2011 the figure was about 10 lakhs. The number of girls was more than that of boys among the examinees. West Bengal was the first state to introduce the School Service Commission for appointing teachers, As education spread, negative features like private tuition also increased.
There is no precedent in the whole country for what has been done in the field of Madrasah education by the LF govt. Salaries of madrasah teachers were paid from govt funds; pension was introduced for them, as also higher scales; syllabuses were modernised and the diplomas from madrasahs were recognised as equivalents of those from school education. All this received the praise of the whole country. In 1976-77, the state govt. spent 5,60,.000 rupees on madrasah education. In 2010-11, the sum allotted by the state govt. was 605 crores of rupees. The whole country praised the steps taken by the LF govt. in the improvement of madrasah education.
In higher education also, the success was striking. This has been acknowledged again and again by the University Grants Commission. Though 46 Central universities were established after independence, the Central govt. did nothing like that in West Bengal, apart from declaring Tagore’s Visva Bharati to be a Central university. Incessant pressure from the Left Front govt. led the Central govt. to establish ‘Indian Institute of Science Education and Research’ in 2006, ‘National Institute of Biomedical Genomix’ and a new campus of Aligarh University in Murshidabad in 2010.
It was the effort of the LF govt. that led to the establishment of 14 new universities and a deemed university in West Bengal, along with 200 new colleges. The tenure of the seventh Left Front govt. alone saw the launching of 73 new degree colleges. The higher research that is available in state-aided universities today developed almost wholly during the LF period by stages. For further encouragement of minorities in higher education, the Alia University was established.
Less than 200,000 pupils had opportunities for higher education in 1976-77. In 2011 institutions of higher education under the higher education department of the state govt. had an intake of nearly 10 lakh 50 thousand.
For a long time, the modernisation of professional and technical education stood partially ignored. There was a doubt about whether the balance between school education and higher education in the budget provisions for education favoured universalisation of education or not. It became difficult to face the challenge of liberalization and the spurt of non-govt. commercial educational institution.
Democratisation in higher education made positive contributions to curb the chaos which prevailed during the Congress rule and to develop the quality of teaching-learning and research. But there were also some undesirable political interventions. Party-based elections in managing committees were not necessary.
Health : Neo-liberal policies greatly reduced government expenditure in areas like health services and pushed them into the costly ways of the open market. In such a situation, an alternative mode was adopted by the Left Front government to serve the interests of the people as far as possible. In 1977, in the health sector also, the LF had to start its work in a hopeless situation. There were only 1326 hospitals/health centres. The number increased to 12000 in 2010. Family welfare centres increased 10 times during this period. 73% of the people received their medical treatment from govt. hospitals in the state, while the figure for the whole country was 40%. As a result, West Bengal was far ahead of the national average in life expectancy, birth rate, death rate, delivery death rate and infant deaths. The national rates for life expectancy was 65.8 years (men) and 68.1 years (women) while in West Bengal they stood at 68.25 years (men) and 70.9 years (women). The birth rate for India is 22.8 per thousand white for West Bengal it is 17.5 per thousand. In West Bengal, the birth rate in urban areas was 12.4, while the national rate was 18.5. The death rate at the national level was 7.4 per thousand while in West Bengal it was 6.2 per thousand (the lowest in the country). Delivery death at the national level was 254 persons per lakh; while in West Bengal the figure was 141 per lakh. Infant deaths amounted to 53 per thousand (national) and 35 per thousand (West Bengal, 4th place).
Diagnostic centres were introduced in govt. hospitals and health centres. This provided some relief to poor and middle-class people. On the other hand, more control over non-govt. health establishments was needed. It was during the tenure of the Left Front govt. that the University of Health Sciences, new medical colleges, dental colleges, nursing and paramedical courses were established. The number of seats at diploma, graduation and PG levels increased by 3 to 6 times.
It must, however, be conceded that, in spite of such success, there were inadequate infrastructure in the health sector and consequent problems. “the primary health centres and overall health care sector could not maintain standards and quality of service as people expected.”
Culture : The LF govt. played an appropriate role in creating an environment for practicing a salubrious culture and developing variety and plurality in the cultural field. A decent and democratic ambience for the practice of folk culture, films and literature was prepared. The state govt. came forward to encourage little magazines also. Bangla Akademi, Hindi Akademi, Urdu Akademi, Santhali Akademi, Nepali Akademi, Centre for Folk and Adivasi Culture (with its North Bengal branch in 2010) : all these were established during the period of the LF govt. Another important aspect is the 34-year-long maintenance of a secular milieu in social life, which was made possible through the development of plurality and variety in culture.
Helping the People under Attack from Neo-Liberal Policies
In February 2002. the 20th West Bengal State Conference of the CPI(M) adopted a document called ‘‘the Left Front Government and our Tasks.’’ In this, it was stated, “The question of the creation of working days in implementing each project of the state government must be given central importance.”
During the days of the seventh Left Front govt., the ‘Agricultural and Residential Land-Grant Project’ was introduced for agricultural labourers, rural artisans and fisherfolk. This was done to further integrate the work of land reform. No such attempt had been made anywhere else in the country at the time.
The LF govt. took a number of steps, not only in villages but in urban areas too, to allot residential plots to the poor. These included unconditional greats of land to the refugees, amendments of the Thika Praja Rights Act, grants of 99-year lease for only one rupee to those who had lived on government land for more than 20 years, etc.
Prices of commodities in everyday use have increased as a result of neo-liberal policies of the Centre. The Central govt. has taken no measures to case the ever-increasing pressure of price-rise on the poor and the middle class. In levying taxes, the LF govt. has tried to provide relief to the pressurised common people from the cruel conditions demanded by the open market. The extra pressure has been borne by the state coffers.
The state govt. provided a subsidy of 400 crores of rupees to save potato producers harmed by the glut of 2009-10. Potato is a cash crop; the peasant would suffer from uncertainties in potato prices. That is why the state govt. stepped in.
We also provided subsidies in electricity for the sake of the poor and the middle class. For people in straitened or impoverished circumstances, the state govt. provided subsidies worth Rs. 120 crores when the State Electricity Control Commission raised power tariff in July 2010. As a result, the tariff actually proved less than before for 20 lakh consumers. For 22 lakh more, the tariff remained unchanged. To lessen the suffering of the common people from the price-hike in petrol and diesel, as far as possible, the state govt. slashed the sales tax on these commodities and accepted a loss of revenue to the extent of nearly 200 crores of rupees.
With sincerely, the LF govt. has stood by the self-help groups. There were 3 lakh 80 thousand self-help groups in West Bengal in 2006. In 2011, these went beyond the target and rose to 15 lakh. Of the total membership of over 150 lakh, 90% were women. The total amount saved by these groups was more than 2000 crores of rupees. Aiming to increase their income resources, the LF govt. subsidised the interest paid on their bank loans. The groups paid only 4% as interest because the state govt. paid the rest of it (7%) as subsidy. A new example was set before the country when self-help groups were employed as agents for collection of rice and paddy. The seventh LF govt. established a new department of the state govt., the ‘Department of Self-help and Self-Employment.’ Among Central govt. self-help projects, West Bengal reached the top position. In the ‘Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme,’ a Cenral project, West Bengal was recognised for best performance.
The LF govt. took the responsibility of paying the salary, pension, family pension, D.A. at central rates not only to state govt. employees, but also to the teachers and other employees of schools, colleges, madrasahs, universities and to the employees of Municipalities, Panchayats and cooperatives. The process of regular appointments in primary and secondary schools and madrasahs continued. The state govt. never reduced salaries, pension, family pension and D.A.
On the Problems and Developments of Religious Minorities
Since partition, the Muslim minority community in this state, continuously pressed to a corner socially, economically, politically, educationally and culturally, had become used to a life of helpless insecurity. What became overridingly important was the question of security in an atmosphere of dormant communalism or rampant riots. During the Left period, an environment of decentralized and extended democracy, especially the totalized and general programme of land reforms and human development, led to a certain development even among this backward section. It was possible to bring them on a participatory basis into mass enterprises and mass movements enriched with secular consciousness ad aimed at self-respect and equal rights. The spread of school education among girls from Muslim families had unprecedented success. To ensure their participation in higher education, educational institutions were established; alongside, Muslim girl students’ hostels under Wakf Board were established and these were the first examples in the whole country. This state was the first to introduce scholarships for higher education and professional education from its own funds even before the practice became countrywide after the Sachar Committee recommendation. Apart from extending Madrasah education, this state alone modernized Madrasah syllabuses to make them equivalents of high school syllabuses. On the basis of the Kidwai commission report, the Alia University was established to promote Madrasah education to the college and the university levels. Along with this, professional training designed for to the times also became an available opportunity to ensure vertical mobility and horizontal migration. The participation of young people from the minorities in self-help programmes were noticeably increased through vocational training programmes and low-interest micro-finance programmes. In this task, the W.B, Minority Development and finance Corporation continued to win the distinction of the best in the country for more than a decade. During the same period, residential schools were established through social enterprise in many districts to spread quality education. In this task, the corporation played a significant role by directly assisting pupils in adversity to spread modern education in an underdeveloped socio-economic environment. Accepting the report of the Ranganath Commission, we started job-reservation for backward Muslim Communities. We did not receive a favourable response because of delays due to constitutional compulsions.
Though the positive role of the Left Front Government led to the growth of a new generation of educated middle class among the minorities, deficiencies persisted in finding income-oriented avenues for them and integrating them with the political-cultural milieu. Actually, the kind of importance we gave to the question of security from the nineteen sixties, was missing in launching an adequate research on the demands raised after the nineteen nineties on questions of ‘identity’ and ‘participation.’ Political, orginisational and administrative weakness prevented the devising of programmes based on such investigation.
Social Security for the Marginalised
Facing the stiff challenge of liberalisation in a national and international context, the Left Front government prioritized social security projects as part of the Left alternative programme. The LF govt. had started some projects in the pre-liberalsation period too. It emphasised the social security projects in the 1990’s when neo-liberal policies at the national level had made the life of the common people unbearable.
The first LF govt. had introduced the Disabled Allowance (form 1980), Old Age Allowance (from 1979), Peasants’ Allowance and Widows’ Allowance. The amount given as allowances of this kind were later increased; the number of recipients also increased. Naturally the increase in the amount of allowance was always in our consideration. Several projects were also started through the Welfare Board for workers in the organised sector and their children.
In 1998, the LF govt. started monthly financial assistance for workers of closed factories and closed tea gardens in the state. This measure had no precedent in any of the states.
In 2001, for the first time in the country, West Bengal witnessed the introduction of Provident Fund for agricultural labourers and workers in the unorganized sector. Not only that; the LF govt. also introduced health security scheme for those enrolled in the provident Fund for more than 2 years.
The seventh LF govt, took steps for pension and other benefits for nearly 25 lakh transport workers. When the court issued an order that all modes of transport in the Kolkata Metropoliton area constructed before 1 April, 1993, should be replaced, many vehicles were not so replaced; as a result, many transport workers lost their jobs. For each of those workers, the state govt. issued an assistance of 2 thousand rupees, something unknown in the country heretofore. For bidi workers ‘West Bengal Bidi Workers’ Welfare Project’ was introduced. In the State Health Insurance Scheme of the Central govt., the state govt. paid the dues for each worker. The worker did not have to play anything.
For construction workers, too, pension, family Pension, house building allowance and other welfare projects were introduced by the State Govt. For this, ‘West Bengal House and other Construction Workers’ Welfare Council’ was introduced.
Agricultural laboures are a part of the rural proletariat. In our state, their minimum wage was comparatively low and there was a weakness in adopting specific social security projects for them.
Another project without any precedent in the country, the Provident Fund Scheme for landless agricultural workers, was introduced in 1998 by the LF Govt.
At the child Labour Residential Schools 800 rupees per child worker was paid every month. Eight such schools wee opened in 8 districts.
Rice at 1 rupee per kilo was sold to 2.64 crores of poor people by the LF Govt., a benefit enjoyed not only by BPL but by the poor among APL too.
During the tenure of the seventh LF Govt., the “Policy Regarding Hawkers in Urban Areas” was adopted (October 2009). This is a novel measure in protecting the interests of the hawkers and giving them legal recognition.
Continuously, importance has been given to the construction of brick-built houses for the poor and family toilets under Indira Abas Yojana. In 2009, the Housing department started the ‘My House’ project for the poor. Brick-built houses were constructed for those poor people who had none and whose income was Rs. 6000 or less per month. This project was realised by associating the Minority Development Department and other departments with it. The Urban Development department worked for the improvement of slums and accorded priority to the construction of new houses for slum dwellers.
According to a report of the Central Govt. (2010), West Bengal held one of the top three positions in the country among states building houses for the rural poor. For constructing houses for the poor people belonging to minority communities, West Bengal held the second place.
Another important effort in the field of social security was the LF Government’s liberal arrangement for stipends, scholarships and financial assistance to poor and meritorious pupils, specially those belonging to backward communities and minorities. Cycles were gifted to girl students. Nearly 5 lakh students of the Muslim community enjoyed pre-matric scholarships.
Nearly 26 lakh pupils (class 5 to class 10) belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes received grants from the LF Govt. for buying books and paying examination fees. In 1977-78, the number of such pupils was less than 15,500.
The LF Govt. in West Bengal was the only state govt. in the whole country which paid old age pension for Adivasis. Advasis constitute 6% of the state’s population; but 18% of those benefiting from land reforms during Left Front days belonged to Adivasi communities. It was the LF Govt. which brought ‘LAMPS’ workers within the orbit of the state pay commission. In realizing ‘Mahila Samriddhi Jojana’ and ‘Adivasi Mahila Swashaktikaran Jojana’, West Bengal topped the list of states. It is relevant to state here that the Left Front Govt. was the first to accord recognition to the use of Santhali language in official work and in the education sector. It was the Left Front Government which introduced education through the Nepali language from the primary to graduation and postgraduate levels.
These enterprises make it clear how the Left Front government was looking for a Left alternative in spite of constitutional limits and adverse circumstances. Many of these programmes were adopted in the last 3/4 years of the LF government. There were problems in their attaining reliability. In spite of all this, the harassment faced by the poor in obtaining ration cards, BPL cards and testimonials made the impoverished and backward people angry with us.
The Situation Preceding the 1994 Industrial Policy
At the time of independence, West Bengal was the most industrially developed state in India. But in the post-independence period, this situation rapidly deteriorated. The main cause of this downsliding was the so-called freight equalization policy of the Nehru era. Earlier, West Bengal had a comparative advantage because raw material required for industries was easily available. The Centre’s freight equalization policy took away that advantage. Apart from that, the Central Govt. and its bureaucracy used the industrial license policy to thwart the progress of industrial development in West Bengal. Several interested lobbies saw to it that profits from industries in West Bengal are not recycled into this state or elsewhere in the eastern zone as reinvestment.
Though there was public sector investment in this state after independence, the rate of investment slowed down from the mid-1960’s.It is relevant to state that, due to historical reasons, West Bengal was one of the first few states in India to be industrialized. Many of the industries in the state were too old and naturally losing efficiency. In many cases Central public sector units closed down but no appropriate step was taken to modernize or reopen them. The change in the political climate of the 1960’s had a somewhat adverse effect on industrial relations; this is used as an excuse for the waning of industrial investment in the state.
The industrial situation in West Bengal reached its worst in 1972-77. Not only did public and private investment decrease, but there was a huge shortfall in power which is so necessary for industries. The situation was further degenerated by a climate of political chaos.
Renewed efforts for an industrial development in the state began after the Left Front government assumed power. The first industrial policy statement of the LF was made in 1977. On the question of investment, priority was given to the public sector. Efforts for power production received emergency treatment. Strong demands for the withdrawal of the freight equalization policy and licensing policy were made. But no sympathetic response was received from the Central Govt. on any of the issues.
Trade Union rights were also given importance in the declared industrial policy of the LF, because we have always thought that workers must participate honourably to achieve industrial development.
At the end of the emergency and in the post-1977 period, a new situation emerged. The tenth Congress of the CPI(M) (Jalandhar, 1978) reviewed this situation and prepared a tactical line. It was stated that it was no longer enough to consider the Left-led governments only as “weapons of struggle.” The fulfillment of the hopes and aspirations of the people must be incorporated, along with their needs for development and organising the people on questions of alternative policy. The questions that came to the fore were how to fulfill our commitment to the people and how to present them with a government different from that of the bourgeois parties.
Also in 1984-85, when the Haldia project was founded as a joint enterprise with the private sector, we had discussed the matter in the Party (approved at the 12th Party Congress, 1985) and reached the understanding that our policy would have to be realized within the bourgeois landlord system. Industries were not coming up because the Central policy was discriminatory; but industries were necessary for generating employment. Industries with the help of private capital had emerged at that time as a tactical necessity.
Keeping Haldia Petrochemicals and Bakreswar Thermal Power Station in front of us, the industrial development became a statewide political issue. Because the attitude of the Centre on this issue was unflinching, the state govt. decided to build Haldia Petrochemicals as a joint enterprise with the help of private capital. This was a completely new aspect of the issue of developing industries in the state. In the 1980’s, the Central govt. had offered a ridiculous reason to prevent the establishment of electronic industries at Salt Lake. The state govt., therefore, had to proceed on its own venture within a limited economic ability.
We laid emphasis on effective execution of whatever little lay in the jurisdiction of the state government, since the Central policy was discriminatory. The matter of small and medium industries was within the state government’s power. As early as the 1980’s, West Bengal topped the list of all states in the country for its success in small industries. Rural economy progressed through land reforms. As a result, fresh markets were created. Consequently, an appropriate climate was created for the development of small and medium industries. But the old public sector units and the big private sector units either weakened or closed down, thus throwing into crisis the small and medium units dependent on them.
But we had to take into consideration that land reforms was not a step complete by itself; its merits could not be sustained unless industrial development followed. Land reforms is a precondition for industrialization. The possibility of employment generation in agriculture was on the wane. The demand for new employment resources could not be met by agriculture alone. Nor could this shortfall be satisfied by the ancillary areas. The development of education in rural areas was gradually attracting village youth towards jobs outside the agricultural sector. All in all, it was because of the special characteristics of our state that it was becoming imperative to add speed to the process of industrialisation and extend big and medium industries as far as possible. The Left Front Government tried to utilise all such opportunities.
In 1991, the Congress Government at the Centre, led by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, adopted a neo-liberal path. This new policy changed the situation qualitatively. The neo-liberal policy put unbearable pressure on the common people. The possibility of public sector investment in industrial development had been destroyed by the neo-liberal policy.
Apart from industries, the neo-liberal policy affected two other areas of the economy which are important for the states. First, the increase in agricultural production lost pace noticeably all over the country. Secondly, Central investment in the social sector was decreased. The fall in the allotment of public funds in important areas like health and education hit the lives of common people very hard.
The Left Front Government could not remain aloof to all these. To the already limited fiscal power of the state, this new responsibility was added. It was in the interests of the common people of the state that the enhancement of the state’s own resources was urgent. This could not have been done without the rapid growth of industries. In the context of the economy of the state, the question of investing in new industries because a pressing question.
The rights won by working people were also under heavy attack due to neo-liberalism. We have continuously opposed these attacks and tried to counter them as far as possible.
The LF Govt. had opposed the dangerous directions taken by the neo-liberal policies. It also submitted to the Central Govt. a set of alternative proposals. The Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, addressing the National Development Council in Delhi on 22 December, 1991, submitted his views on the eighth plan (1992-97), indentifying the dangerous aspects of the neo-liberal policies and tabling well-thought-out alternative plans. But the Central govt. turned a deaf ear to them. Not only at the Centre, but the governments led by the bourgeois parties in State after state launched activities oriented to neo-liberal policies. As a result, it was necessary to review the powers of the Left-led government and its tasks in the light of this new situation.
As an inevitable corollary to the neo-liberal policies, the state refused to play its welfare role and left everything to the so-called open market. It also tried its utmost to launch structural reforms as prescribed by imperialism. All these made the task of the Left Front Government in playing its role in the interest of the people more difficult than ever. The state’s ‘limited powers’ of pre-neoliberal days became practically more limited in the neo-liberal era. This opened up a discussion on what the Left Front Govt. could do in such a situation, what alternative it could pursue and how.
In 1995, the political-organisational report, adopted by the 15th Party Congress of the CPI(M) at Chandigarh, said : “We can use the state governments to project alternative policies and to provide relief to the people in areas where the state government had jurisdiction.”
About West Bengal, the political resolution of the Chandigarh Congress stated in para. 2.87 that the Left Front government “has shown that within the present framework the Left can implement certain alternative policies. Within the limitations of the Constitution it has done a great deal for the people particularly the working class, the toiling peasantry as well as the middle class employees.”
Of course, the Chandigarh Party Congress had a relevant backdrop. The document to be specially mentioned here is the resolution adopted by the Central Committee on 27-29 December, 1994, “On the Role of the West Bengal Left Front Government in the Context of the New Economic Policies. This was the first document adopted by the Party to reappraise how the Left Front Government can chalk out a path of development and formulate policies in a new situation.
Industrial Policy Statement 1994
It was impossible for the Left Front Government to pronounce a separate economic policy for only one constituent state. However, to protect the interests of the people of the state in a new situation, we had to think of possible alternative efforts.
Industries were a must for the sake of the state’s economy and for extending job opportunities. But industrialisation was not possible without private capital, Indian or foreign, because neo-liberal policies had scratched out state investment in this sector. Nor was it permitted by the limited financial abilities of the state govt. In such a background, the question of new steps becomes urgent. When thinking of new steps, we took everything into consideration: The special characteristics of West Bengal, natural resources, social infrastructure, market trends, the political situation, limitations/weakness.
At the same time we noticed that, whatever the intention of the ruling classes in relaxing the freight equalisation policy and the licensing policy, such relaxation had incidentally removed some of the difficulties posed by a discriminatory Central policy which stood in the way of industrial development in the state. It also created opportunities of participation in a competition aiming at extending industries. We decided to explore the opportunities as far as possible, keeping in mind the success in agriculture and the socio-economic progress in the state.
After a comprehensive analysis of the situation, the new plan of the Left Front government was prepared under the leadership of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. On 23 September, 1994, the Chief Minister announced the ‘Industrial Policy Statement’ in the State Assembly. This was not a sudden announcement. This new plan was adopted after reviewing the past experience in running the administration and on the basis of discussions with all concerned. The priority areas were specified on the basis of discussions and reviews carried on with trade unions, chambers of commerce and specialists. Raw material and infrastructural opportunities were also taken into consideration. In this industrial planning of the LF govt., the future-oriented areas of priority were steel, petrochemicals, engineering, leather, information technology, food processing etc.
The industrial Policy Statement of 1994 tried, as far as possible, to eschew the anti-people character of neo-liberalism. It was stated that emphasis would be given to the important role of the public sector alongside encouragement to private capital. Public sector, joint sector, private capital : all would participate in the industrialisation of the state. Revival of the public sector was also given importance. This policy was directly in opposition to the Central policy of closing down public sector units indiscriminately.
The Left Front government was also against any compromise on issues involving workers’ and employees’ rights. Importance was given to the conscious role of the working class in accepting the challenge of industrialisation in the state and to maintain productivity in industries.
Invitation to Indian or foreign capital was not unconditional. From the point of view of the Left Front government, two things had to be specially noticed when welcoming foreign capital: (1) whether new technology was being introduced; (2) whether new employment opportunities were being created.
The preconceived notion, that ‘West Bengal is not a comfortable place for industrial investment,’ was one of the hurdles on the way to investment. Extra efforts had to be made to overcome this misconception.
To attract capital investment from all areas of the country, a stiff contests with other states had to be negotiated. In this competition to attract capital, all states offer some extra opportunities to investors. There is stiff contest here also. We had to build up a system of competitive empowerment from within the accumulated wealth of the state, without striking any compromise on principles.
The efforts of industrialisation started in 1994 gathered momentum slowly after 2000. As a result, during the 1991-2008 period, on the question of the amount of industrial employment, West Bengal reached the third position in the country. The investments were chiefly in iron and steel, manufacturing, petrochemicals, information technology, food processing etc. The investment in 2005 was of 2515.58 crores of rupees; the amount increased in the years that followed. There were investments of Rs. 5072.26 crores in 2007, Rs. 4434.50 crores in 2008 and more than Rs. 15000 crores in 2010.
An important precondition of industrial development is general and social infrastructure. We had started working on it.
To create new human resource to meet the requirements of new industries posed a challenge. This work had to be done rapidly. Therefore, in this field also, private investment was encouraged, though that was confined to engineering and other technology. Our state soon rose high in knowledge-based industry through the creation of advanced human resource.
Planned urban development was needed for this new industrialization. That work had also started. The largest project was Rajarhat-New Town. But planned urban development was not Kolkata-centric. Projects came up at Siliguri, Durgapur, Asansol industrial belt and Khargpur area. The project for a new airport at Andal was undertaken. Following continuous efforts, power production in the state reached a level where it could meet new demands. Power situation in West Bengal has improved at an unprecedented rate. Only 1615 megawatts of electricity used to be produced in 1977. At the end of 2010, the figure stood at 9974 megawatts. This was to the state’s advantage in attracting investment for industries. In rural electrification, too, we have many success stories. To reach out of every family with electricity was only a short wait away.
Special Economic Zones (SEZ)
The Central govt. effected the law on SEZ in 2006. The approval for these zones used to be given by the Central govt. According to their plan, investors in SEZ would enjoy tax concessions, relaxation of labour laws and appropriate infrastructure. The Central govt. gave effect to this law without giving it a proper thought. The reality that emerged was the purchase of huge chunks of territory by private investors who took advantage of this law. Instead of bringing in foreign technology or meeting special needs, real estate business boomed in these zones. From the first, we had opposed indiscriminate and thoughtless approval of SEZ. We never accepted land speculation, irregular trade in real estate, and hire-and-fire rule for workers.
What we took up as the task of the state govt. was the creation of SEZ in a compulsive and competitive situation, zones which will be product-specific and won’t need much land.
In reality, only 11 SEZ were put into operation in West Bengal. As many as 9 were related to IT. The largest SEZ had an area of 48 acres. All 11 SEZ taken together enjoyed a total of 210 acres. Compared to this, even a small state like Goa had 250 acre SEZ. We set the conditions that 75% of the allotted land area must be covered by industries and related infrastructure; and that labour laws won’t be relaxed.
On Acquisition of Land
Land in required for new industries. Vacant non-agricultural land is rarely available in our state. These plots have to be indentified in a planned manner. Such land has been acquired on the basis of negotiations and agreement.
The total amount of arable land in our state is 135 lakh acres. To execute all future plans of the state government, scarcely 1 lakh acres would have been needed, that is to say, only 1% of the arable land. It was decided that fertile land would be spared as far as possible during acquisition. In reality, there was not the slightest possibility of putting food security at risk in acquiring land for industries and infrastructure development.
In acquiring land for industries and for infrastructure development through discussion with people, not much obstruction was faced anywhere. Not the state govt. alone, land for PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sarak Yojana) has to be acquired through donations of land. The govt. does not buy land. During the tenure of the Left Front govt., nearly 9500 kilometers of roads were constructed under PMGSY in West Bengal. The people of the state donated land voluntarily. There was no problem.
However little the land really needed for industries, however realistic the government’s plans, what is important is to form a close relationship with the people before extending industry and infrastructure; to explain to the common people, with care, our class outlook in utilising land for extending industries and infrastructure, why industrialisation is needed in the common people’s interest, for the sake of the state’s economy. One must remember that the issue of land is not only a matters of compensation and rehabilitation. For the peasant, it is a very sensitive issue.
Exceptions : Singur and Nandigram
On the question of acquiring land for industries, problems emerged in two cases, at Singur and at Nandigram, for underestimation of the farmer’s consciousness about land. The circumstances, however, were different in the two cases.
Primary planning for a petrochemicals complex at Nandigram with the assistance of the Central Government was made. But the project was early discarded because a section of the local people raised objections. However, the opinion of the people went against us because of the unnecessary initiatives of a section of the local leadership.
At Singur, peasants voluntarily allowed the acquisition of 82.82% of the land. The amount of compensation was decided on the basis of discussions with them (the amount still remains the highest in the country). But the agreement of owners of 17.18% of the land was not received. Not all of them can be called ‘unwilling’. Some of them did not even have the necessary documents. Some were misled also.
A political chaos was created all over the state. Even after 90% of the car project was complete, the Tatas cancelled it and left. This incident gifted the whole country with a big question mark about future investment in the state.
All anti-Left political forces were fielded on the land acquisition issue, using Singur and Nandigram as focal points. Attempts of direct resistance against all efforts of industrial and infrastructural development were made. A negative message about the possibilities of industries in the state spread throughout India. The whole state witnessed political turbulence. All anti-Left forces (of this state and the whole country) unitedly joined the issue: from the Maoists to the right-wing communal forces, from the corporate media to NGO’s funded from mysterious sources. A section of the so-called ‘civil society’ also joined them. A ‘rainbow alliance’ was formed under the leadership of the Trinamul Congress. Without any care for the law or the judiciary, they fielded their forces under the garb of the violent Maoist bands. The other opposition forces also became gradually visible around the ‘rainbow alliance.’ The role of the Central government also gradually grew hostile.
In general, the urban people were for industrialization. But some of them thought that the land acquisition by the government went against the interests of the peasants. On this question, the opposition was able to organize opinions against the state govt. and create widespread confusion. Our distance from the common people began to widen. Even the higher reaches of the administration and the police force were affected. Attempts were made to push the administration into inaction.
We were influential among advasis of the Jangalmahal in the 3 districts of the western part of the state. We had stressed the agriculture development, education, health and communications in that area. Priority was given to the increase of job opportunities in this area. It was here that we first started the project of selling rice at 2 rupees per kilo to the poor. But the Maoists had increased their activities in this area which is close to inter-state boundaries. Trinamul was directly helping them. The situation became more complicated with the problem of land acquisition in the state and defeats in the Panchayat elections of 2008 and Lok Sabha elections of 2009. As a result, our supporters also started getting confused. This situation was utilised by the combined alliance of Trinamul, other anti-Left forces and Maoists. “LF government took consistent stand on restructuring of Centre-State relations and the rights of the states in a federal set-up. This applies in the political, administrative and financial spheres. This was seen in the National Development Council, for implementation of Sarkaria Commission recommendations and review of Article 356 of the Constitution, the role of the Governor etc.”
Revenue and Expenditure of the State Government
There is a serious imbalance between the constitutional structure and the financial structure in our country. This structure centralises fiscal wealth in the hands of the Central government, but the main responsibility of allocating funds to the most important areas of common people’s lives (e.g. education, health) rests with the state government.
The Left Front govt. felt this problem more keenly, committed as it was to a specific class outlook. In collecting resources, it always tried to exempt poorer people, while in allocating funds, the lion’s share was to provide for the needs of this section which were always kept in consideration. Common people were never unreasonably taxed. Even if some commodity was taxed, that part of it which was used by the poorest section was as far as possible exempted. The major part of the resources was spent on education, health, local development, production of electricity and other items which are important for the common people. As a result, the govt. had to move through financial straits. Time and again the Left Front government strongly raised the demand that a reasonable portion of resources raised from states by the Centre should be reallocated to the states (at least 50%). No opportunist ‘Special package’ for the state; what was demanded was a revised formula for distribution of resources among all states of the country. This demand led to the appointment of the Sarkaria Commission, but effective steps were scarce.
It was in the interests of the common people that the Left Front government wrote off land rent, introduced free education up to class 12 and took the financial responsibility for salaries and pensions of teachers and other employees of schools and colleges, for other developmental activities of these institutions, and financial responsibility for employees of panchayats and municipalities. The benefits of state government employees wee raised to the level of Central government employees. All these were necessary steps. But these entailed a great financial burden on the state government.
After adopting neo-liberal policies from 1991, the Central government gradually began giving up responsibilities for important areas like health and educational services. As a result, whatever little assistance the state received in these sectors from the Central projects now began to disappear. But the Left Front government decided not to compromise. Nor was it possible for us to accept the neo-liberal conditionalities of the Central assistance which now started arriving, because these were against the interests of the common people. The state found itself in a financial impasse.
A hostile mindset was formed among the people in the past and by the inability to live up to promises made in budgets and elsewhere. Against such unrealistic promises, including election manifestos, relentless struggle had to be waged inside the government against the lazy inaction of some departments which took the stability of the government as permanent, against the trivialization of the inventive ability of the people. There was a stubborn unwillingness to learn from the public distribution system in Kerala, the cooperative model presented in the past by ‘Amul’ in Gujarat, the mid-day meal in Tamil Nadu, food education, and welfare programmes. This had to be fought but the effort did not always succeed.
The financial advance of the common people does not add directly or rapidly to the wealth of the state government, but the amount of wealth starts increasing with the increased buying power of the people and the introduction of new industries. However, that falls far short of the financial burden of the state government. Like the other state governments, this state also was in a condition of permanent deficit. The amount of loans was on the increase. But we were also repaying them, though the Central government’s high rate of interest created problems. Loans from the market never outran limits in our state. We were being guided by the aim of a rapid change in the tax-picture of the state once the big industries arrive.
In spite of all this, we had our weaknesses. We could have been more inventive in the collection of revenue or resources. West Bengal was at the bottom of the tax to state SDP Ratio among the large states. There was an opportunity for improving the system of tax collection. Later when VAT became effective the revenue from taxes increased. But surely there was room for the farther advance.
We gave lots of benefits to the government employees and teachers, but we could not instill in them a new style of work culture. This had its impact on delivery of government schemes and also overall efficiency. Being for long in government, the Party and the mass organisations started relying more on the administration instead of taking up independent political and mass work. Their discussions with the government were confined mainly to demands. Instead of government programmes developing out of mass organizations and mass struggles, there appeared the inaction of organizations in realizing programmes devised by the government. The relations among the government, the party, the Left Front and mass organizations were not always happy. Continuous efforts must go on to renew these relations.
In spite of many successes of the Govt. during this long period, there was rook for improvement in the composition and function of the Left Front cabinet Reviews of its work were often formal and mechanical.
Learning from Experience: in Search of an Alternative
The objective which prompted the inclusion of directives in the Party Programme regarding the participation in Left-led state governments were sincerely followed by the Left Front government for 34 years, in spite of some blemishes and weaknesses. The political importance of the Left Front government was not confined to issues of development. The Left Front government has made unprecedented contributions to strengthen the multi-layered foundation of democracy. In serious matters like developing the federal system, maintaining national unity and in the struggle to protect secularism, the Left Front government was the guide to an alternative. It will be unjust to deny this role of the Left Front.
In the case of land reforms, the role of the Left Front government has won national and international recognition. It is because of that role that agricultural production has seen unprecedented success. It was during the tenure of the Left Front that the base for industries was created in the state. Compared with the pre-1977 period, the human development indices have improved a good deal in the state, though more precautionary measures in some cases could have yielded further success.
But this programme of land reforms and rural development had reached a kind of status quo. A workable alternative other than industrialization could not be specified in all cases.
For about a decade, positive results had been achieved in employment and industrial projects. But on the issue of land acquisition, the two exceptions of Singur and Nandigram halted our industrial progress. There was an adverse reaction among a section of the people of the state. We have to learn from this also.
We have looked for alternatives in agriculture, industry, education, health, all within a capitalist framework. The rural development policies adopted by us also need an urgent review. The industrial policy was correct. But we must learn from the problems faced in connection with acquisition of land. All in all, the Left Front government in West Bengal was surely a valuable experience, an important chapter in the democratic movement of the state and the country.
We must remember that in the history of parliamentary democracy in the whole world, this was the only government to run continuously for 34 years within a bourgeois-landlord state apparatus. It worked (1) with Marxists and Leftists associated with them, depending on a class outlook totally opposed to that of the Central government; (2) against the challenge of continuous centralization and attacks against the federal system; (3) in the background of discrimination and deception against north-eastern and eastern zones, especially W Bengal, (4) for 20 the 34 years In an advance situation when the balance of the country and the whole world had changed in favour of imperialist globalization, privatisation and neo-liberal policies; (5) under compulsious of protection West Bengal as a frontline outpost of democracy in the context of unequal development of leftist movements in the whole country; (6) giving priority to the duty of uniting and extending the longest living front government, (7) against conspiracies at home and abroad. We have to remember that we were able to counter all these challenges for 34 years. It is also possible to counter them in future. For this, the need is to improve the quality of ideological and political consciousness in future, as in the past. It is necessary to have a revolutionary organisation which is able to apply all its strength to build up the mobilisation and the struggle of all left and democratic forces. We need a more developed Party which can identify the defects and rectify them. Without a more developed Party, it is impossible to struggle for a mature broadbased left and democratic alternative. A daily co-ordiation of the Party, the Front, mass organizations and the government is necessary. It is necessary to arrive at collective decisions, to distribute specific responsibilities regarding those decisions and to have a collective check-up and review of performances. The Left Front government started its journey through the establishment and spread of democracy, land reforms and decentralization. The success of these measures are reflected in increased agricultural production, decrease of poverty and increase of buying power in the countrywide, progress in small industries etc. Alongside, limited land reforms had inflicted wounds on feudal relations to some extent, and in proportion with these, capitalist relations were growing. In the period of liberalization, a section of poor and middle peasants were no longer finding agriculture profitable and were losing lands, while the member of workers among agricultural labourers and in the unorganized sector was increasing. Apart from land, wealth earned from non-agricultural sources was also being concentrated in the hands of the rural nouveau riche, Differences increased, They were engaged in extending social and political control within a decentralized framework. The increased number of semi-urban market towns, unplanned urbanization, increased intensity of employment problems in urban and rural areas and the multilateral influence of liberalization gradually revealed the imprint of corruption and criminalization in society and politics. Using of changes the balance of power, the nouveau riche of rural, semi-urban and urban areas were preparing their counter attack. Powers abroad were also active. Starting with the Purulia arms drop, the so-called “Panskura line” of the Trinamul Congress and other anti-Left-Front conspiracies, though temporarily reversed, were ultimately able to build up a rainbow alliance. The 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the 2011 Assembly elections took place against this backdrop. The internal reasons have been explained in detail in the election reviews of the State Committee and the Central Committee in 3 parts: political, administrative and organizational. These are to be regarded as a part of the review of 34 years of Left Front government but must not be confused with the subject-matter of the review of those 34 years.
The substance of the review of the Left Front government is a comparative analysis of West Bengal as it stood at the end of the 30 year period from 1947 to 1977 (excluding the 22 months of the tenures of two United Fronts) and West Bengal as it stands from 2011 till now. From the success, the mountainous problems and the failures of these 34 years, we must take lessons; and then look for a better, updated Left alternative in the specific future circumstances in the state; and in due time, present its completed shape contours of that alternative are (1) to re-establish democracy in the state by destroying the present authoritarian structure; (2) to revive the tradition of peace and fraternity among the people of the state, irrespective of caste and religion, based upon unity of the working people and destroying the wall of communal division, (3) to free the politics in the state from the clutches of corruption and criminalization, to restore the displaced to their homes, to withdraw false cases, to end the stifling environment of anarchy and chaos everywhere, (4) to gain the power of resistance against the attacks on lives and livelihood of the working people in the state; (5) to keep the correct slogan of “agriculture is our base, industry is our future” in front for the development of the state, to give priority to service, infrastructure, education, health, social security, human development; to lessen the unemployment problem as far as possible and stop undesirable interventions in education. (6) The defects and weaknesses in realizing these programmes, as already identified, and those that will be identified through discussion, are to be rectified in order to earn the confidence of the people and to build up a close relationship with them. We appeal to everyone, from the common people of the state to the intellectuals who are their well-wishers, to help us in this difficult task. As a Party in opposition we will strive for that alternative, and if we receive popular support we will be promise-bound to put that alternative into practice.