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Restoring Bengal

The more significant aspect of West Bengal?s performance is the fact that this is a growth led by agriculture in complete contrast to the national experience, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Apr 06, 2006 03:01 IST

Come election time in West Bengal and the familiar anti-communist refrain starts building up to reach a crescendo on the eve of polling. Such refrain ranges from wild allegations of ‘scientific rigging’ and ‘politics of terror’ to mounting an anti-communist critique.

A year ago Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul commented, “Bengal was the economic and intellectual leader of India till it discovered Marxism. It discovered Marxism and, like poor Russia in 1917, committed suicide. The economic lead of Bengal has vanished.” One need not go into the ideological inclinations of Sir Vidia. These are all too well-known. The common thread that runs through such allegations from the baser to the finer varieties is that all of them are based on untruths.

Let us take a look at the economic development in West Bengal which is often deliberately ignored. In the post-reform decade between 1993 and 2003, the average growth of net state domestic product was 7.10 per cent — the highest among the 16 big states in India. This is well ahead of the media favourites like Maharashtra (4.74 per cent), Gujarat (5.87 per cent), Karnataka (6.27 per cent) Andhra Pradesh (5.27 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (5.24 per cent). This is from a study done by the Centre for Policy Alternatives quoting statistics from the Central Statistical Organisation, the Economic Survey and RBI bulletins.

Studies undertaken by the World Bank (2000) and Montek Singh Ahluwalia (2000) corroborate such findings. In terms of per capita income, West Bengal has registered an average growth of 5.51 per cent as opposed to the national average of 4.01 per cent. This has happened despite the fact that the annual population growth was 1.64 — much higher than the high flying states like Tamil Nadu (1.06). The study notes: “Without doubt, the seemingly uncontrollable and unabated migration, particularly from Bangladesh but also from Nepal and neighbouring states like Bihar and Orissa, has contributed to this relatively high growth of population. Whatever are the reasons for this, we can only surmise that the rise in per capita income could have been higher if there had been no population influx into Bengal.”

The more significant aspect of West Bengal’s performance is the fact that this is a growth led by agriculture in complete contrast to the national experience. Land reforms are often seen purely from the humanitarian aspect of providing a source of livelihood for those who otherwise have none. This is definitely an important aspect. But a proper rational land distribution also contributes to a growth in productivity (both land and labour) and enhances the purchasing power in the hands of a vast majority of the people who otherwise excluded from the market.

All these three aspects are visible in Bengal today. Nearly 13 lakh acres of agricultural land was acquired by the Left Front government and distributed to the landless poor. Nearly 25 lakh people have benefited as a result. Even if one were to assume the value of one acre of land to be a conservative Rs 10 lakh, then this land distribution amounts to Rs 130,000 crore worth of resource transfer from the rich to the poor. Such a massive redistribution of wealth has contributed to making West Bengal the fastest growing rural economy today. In addition, nearly 20 lakh share croppers have been recorded — which means that the landlord now cannot evict them. They have also been conferred hereditary rights to cultivation. Combined, these two measures have radically transformed the lives of nearly 50 lakh individuals, or nearly 2.5 crore people if we include their families.

Such a massive redistribution of wealth in favour of people is, not surprisingly, resisted by the reactionary vested interests who continue to seek its reversal. Every election, an effort is made by all these reactionary forces to try and defeat the Left Front hoping that this would permit them to regain their past glory.

What is often passed off as murderous clashes of political rivalry in Bengal mask this reality. Land reforms in rural Bengal have given a new economic status and a consequent new social and political consciousness to the rural poor that was denied through centuries. Today they seek to defend these rights against attacks by the vested interests.

This is the reality. People support and defend the Left Front in order to defend their hard won rights. It is this simple truth that explains why, unlike anywhere else in the country, the Left Front continues to negate the ‘anti-incumbency’ factor.

West Bengal is the third-most intensely agricultural state in India with 76.61 per cent of its land under cultivation. However, only 28.1 of this is irrigated, unlike, say, Punjab which has 89.72 per cent. Despite this, Bengal today has the third highest average yield in India and its volume of foodgrains production is also third after Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Today it is the country’s largest producer of rice. In the early Eighties, the per capita net agricultural product in West Bengal was 18 per cent lower than the national average. Today it stands over 10 per cent higher than the national average.

It is clear that Naipaul’s assertion is without any sound basis. However, like all wintering NRI intellectuals, he receives disproportionate media attention that seeks to fashion popular perception.

However, such performance in agriculture is often contrasted with the so-called lack of industrial development in the state. Apart from the fact that the vast mass of people in West Bengal were and are agriculture-dependent — and hence the priorities of any pro-people government would be in accordance with this reality — the full story is often ignored.

Being the most industrialised state at the time of Independence, there was a conscious decision by the Government of India that in order to have a more balanced economic development in the country as a whole, it was necessary to prevent further growth of industries in West Bengal. The licence-permit system ensured that this happened.

Further, in order to make investment in West Bengal less lucrative, a policy called ‘freight equalisation’ was implemented that made production of similar goods in West Bengal more expensive than in other parts of the country. Both these measures deterred the further industrialisation of West Bengal for full four decades after Independence.

While the first prevented the entry of new industries, the second encouraged the flight of existing industries to outside West Bengal. To attribute this flight of capital merely to ‘trade unionism’ would be too facile. This situation is fast changing with the dismantling of earlier policies. The significant factor heralding such a change is the growing purchasing power of the people. Calcutta was once considered as the jewel of the British crown. Kolkata is destined today to emerge as the jewel of modern India.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the people in Bengal, apart from various important factors like relative communal peace and harmony, good governance, lack of corruption in high places, etc. support the Left Front precisely because its rule has given the hitherto deprived sections of the vast majority of the people rights and opportunities that no other political formation has been able to do so.

The writer is MP, Rajya Sabha, and member of the CPI(M) politburo