THE elections to West Bengal state assembly, this time, is receiving unprecedented level of attention not only inside the country, but even internationally. That a Communist Party led government can perform and successfully seek re-election for six times in a multi party election in a bourgeois landlord State is a unique enough event. So, the eventuality of a seventh successful re-election of the Left Front government is indeed an event with unparalleled political significance.
India: Elections in West Bengal
By Nilotpal Basu
THE GLOBAL AND THE NATIONAL CONTEXT
Our Constitution empowers the state governments in a very limited way to carry out developmental and welfare programmes. In the present context of globalisation and the policies pursued by the central government, even this limited empowerment faces an unprecedented challenge. The last one and a half decades have accentuated disparities between the rich and the poor in the country. Recent studies have shown that unprecedented level of growth in the number of billionaires is accompanied by the fall in the real income and the purchasing power of 80 per cent of our people in the country. This has also been accompanied with rapid growth of unemployment and industrial sickness. This is also resulting in organised sector workers being shifted away to the unorganised sector and currently 92 per cent of work force is in the unorganised sector.
The other primary sector, agriculture, is witnessing unprecedented crisis. Sharp reduction in public investment in agriculture is leading to the contraction of infrastructure like irrigation and power availability. This is resulting in agriculture itself becoming unviable. The credit flow to the small and marginal farmers is a casualty. This manifests in the phenomenon of farmer suicides. Peasants are forced to sell their children and kidney sale centres are being opened up in villages. The gravity of the crisis has been brought out by the National Commission of Farmers chaired by Professor M S Swaminathan.
The other crucial aspect is the increasing withdrawal of the State from the social sector which is affecting public health, education etc. The overall phenomenon of a miniscule of the Indian society thriving at the cost of the vast majority is starkly evident. And far from being apologetic, the previous NDA government had coined the perverted slogan of 'Shining India' to glorify this reality. Great, as our people are, have rejected this perversity with the contempt it deserved in the last elections.
THE CONTEXT IN WEST BENGAL
West Bengal presents an alternative picture. Ownership to land is the most crucial question. In the whole of the country, 60 per cent of agricultural land is owned by 15 per cent. In West Bengal 78 per cent of the land is owned by small and marginal peasants. West Bengal has 3 per cent of total land in the country but accounts for 22 per cent of the total redistributed land. Nearly 29 lakh peasant farmers benefited from 11 lakh acres of redistributed agricultural land. More than 15 lakh sharecropper farmers have benefited from recording of bargas or sharecropper rights. Large majority of these beneficiaries belong to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the minorities. More than five and half lakh of agricultural workers have gained homestead land. The state government has embarked on a new programme of purchasing land and covering all agricultural worker families in providing homestead land. In other states, agricultural land is shrinking while more uncultivated land is coming under cultivation in Bengal. In 1991 the cultivated land amounted to 1.25 crore hectares. In 2001 this has risen to 1.37 crore hectares. Apart from the land resource, there is a phenomenal success in the use of water resource. From 28 per cent in 1977, land under irrigation has increased to almost 72 per cent of total cultivated land now.
The state government's effort is focused on using almost entire land available in the state under cultivation for further enhancing agricultural production. With an active programme for enhancing productivity, the emphasis is on reinforcing food security. However, enhanced productivity alone cannot ensure increased levels of income in a market-driven economy. So there is a repositioning of the agricultural strategy with focus on crop diversification, soil testing, expansion of minor irrigation and extension of newer technology and implements. This is leading to enhancement of agricultural incomes. The average wage of the agricultural workers has increased from Rs 28 in 1993 to Rs 60 today.
But this is not to say that the situation is without challenges. Markets tend to drive down prices of primary agricultural commodities in an increasingly globalised market economy. Therefore, to sustain and enhance incomes new initiatives for agri-exports and agri-processing have been embarked upon.
The Left Front government cannot relent on its achievements. A government with commitment to the people cannot relax. It is true that farmers do not commit suicide, the people in the villages do not go hungry. But, of course, there are pockets where improvement has not taken place as rapidly as it should have. There is, in some areas, the problem of malnutrition despite growth and rapid reduction in poverty levels. Sensitive as it is to peoples' concerns, the state government undertook detailed study to identify 4612 villages as chronically poverty-ridden. As part of waging war against poverty in these villages, comprehensive development programme has been undertaken by the government to ensure sustainable livelihood by strengthening infrastructure and other income generating and social development oriented programmes. Around 70 per cent of such villages have been brought under this programme.
Decentralisation through panchayats has been elevated to new levels through Gram Sansads and village development committees to make this development process truly all inclusive and participatory.
The overwhelming predominance of the central government had led to skewed centre-state economic and financial relations, apart from the basic lacunae in the capitalist path of development. This had, in the past, led to ruination of industries in Bengal. The need for general industrial license and major public investment for the development of industry made West Bengal vulnerable to political discrimination. With the coming of delicensing policy in the beginning of the 90s, new opportunities had opened up which allowed the Left Front government to seek alternatives in a context of general decline due to the disastrous policy towards public sector, which successive central governments pursued and which included selling of profit making PSUs and closing down sick units. The present process of industrial turnaround in the state has taken place due to the pragmatic policy pursued by the LF government, which while trying to strengthen profit making PSUs adopted a course of reviving chronically sick units through joint ventures and new infusion of private investment.
The new area attracting private investment in the state is the IT sector, where the average growth has been 88 per cent, which is double the national growth. Around 4 lakh people will be employed in IT and IT enabled service (ITES) industry by 2010. Similar turnaround is visible in iron and steel, petrochemicals and textile sectors.
The small and medium industries sector has also witnessed a turnaround. These units have increased from 19 lakh, employing 44 lakh people in 1992-93 to 27 lakh units, employing 60 lakh people in 2004.
The Kolkata-centric industrial scenario has now been substituted by a more wider geographically dispersed industrial growth, with industrial growth centres located in far-flung districts also throbbing with activity. Sector specific industrial parks are being established in leather, foundry, rubber, apparel, chemicals and jute.
To capture the full range of opportunities with the new 'Look East' policy, there is an appropriate focus on infrastructure. In the power sector, West Bengal has come to occupy a frontranking position. The present installed capacity is of 7600 mega watts. In the next three years another 2400 mega watts will be added. There has been major enhancement in the transmission and distribution of power sector and by 2007 the state will become fully electrified.
There is a definitive push towards strengthening the port sector. The Kolkata Port, with its two terminals at Kolkata and Haldia, became the second largest cargo handling port in the country. The state government is pursuing actively the setting up of a new deep sea port.
In the road sector, new backbone roads under the NHDP programme and ADB funded programmes are being laid. There has been truly phenomenal growth in the expansion and augmentation of capacities of highways, districts and village roads connecting remotest parts of the state. West Bengal is truly showing signs of many sided and widely dispersed economic resurgence.
The Left Front government is also pursuing the setting up of a new airport along with articulating the need for modernising the present Kolkata airport. There is a spurt in the aviation activity with airports being restored in Cooch Behar and Malda. Bagdogra airport is also seeing a growth in activity in terms of both passenger and traffic movements. This growth momentum can also provide a big boost not only to passenger movement but also to agri-exports, which is a new thrust area.
Overall, with the growth of economic activity in all sectors – agriculture, industry and services – the state GDP is clocking 7.06 per cent as against the national average of 5.66 per cent.
EMPLOYMENT IS THE FOCUS
Growth is an objective, which is not an end in itself. The Left Front government is trying to ensure an employment generation led growth not a jobless growth. The agriculture scenario in the state poses a refreshing contrast to what is happing in the rest of the country and the emergence of new sectors of the rural economy in fishery, animal husbandry and agri-processing industry has ensured major enhancement in the process of employment generation.
A truly unprecedented momentum has been attained in the creation of almost two and a half lakh self help groups involving about 25 lakh people. Notably 90 per cent of these groups comprise women. With the government trying to link them with credit technology and market access, they are slowly transforming into real instruments for supplementary income generation and providing solidity to family and community livelihoods. These groups also are contributing handsomely towards reinforcing self assurance and confidence.
The Left Front government's approach is to make the development all embracing and inclusive. The expansion of literacy in the state has been by more than 10 per cent in the past decade between 1991 and 2001, which is the highest in the last 100 years. Nearly 70 per cent of the population are covered by government health services. With new private investment supplementing the government efforts, there is an unprecedented growth in the number of engineering colleges, medical colleges and other avenues of higher learning. Universities are increasingly involving themselves with community development and technology programmes.
As distinct from all other states, 70 per cent of the state populace are accessing government run health services from rural primary health centers to sub divisional and district hospitals and medical colleges-run hospitals. In all social indicators like infant mortality rate reduction in school enrollment, coverage of mid-day meal scheme in schools, gender equality, West Bengal has joined the top bracket of the country.
THE WAY AHEAD
The elections to West Bengal assembly this time do not involve merely a question of re-election of an incumbent government. That the Left Front government of West Bengal is the bastion of the process of consolidation of the Left and democratic forces in the country is an established fact. With its achievements, it is not only becoming a signpost for alternative policy orientation; but at the same time it is also inviting the ire of the enemies. With the new vigour of pro-imperialist orientation of our foreign policy, Bengal's steadfast opposition to imperialism has activated an array of forces inimical to the people. They are assuming new names and new forms of extremism ranging from some extremist groups in North Bengal to the Maoists in small pockets of South Bengal.
The ideological, political, socio-economic and administrative measures initiated by the Left Front government are helping the sustenance of the unity of the people. The traditional political adversaries as represented by the opposition parties appear to be in disarray and stand completely bereft of political credibility. More isolates, they are betraying a desperate and unprincipled hurry to come together to oppose the Left Front by hook or crook; perhaps more by crook than hook.
With the overall global context of encouragement to anti-Left forces, they are trying to adopt newer forms and methods to dislodge the LF government. The Left Front government of West Bengal and its record of achievement are not only a product of people's struggle within the state alone but also an _expression of the aspirations of the entire democratic and patriotic people in the country. So, the coming elections and the cause of re-electing the seventh Left Front government are a challenge not only for the people of West Bengal but for the entire democratic secular and patriotic forces in the country.