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Left exposed in waste Bengal

Left exposed in waste Bengal

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 2, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/173349/Left-exposed-in-waste-Bengal.html

One of the noteworthy features of the 2009 election has been the scrutiny of the Left Front's governance record in West Bengal. In its extent and intensity, this interrogation has been fairly unprecedented.

There have been, broadly, three reasons for this. First, after 2004 the Left has acquired a bigger national profile than ever in its history. For four years, the CPI(M) remote-controlled the UPA Government. Left spokespersons had strong opinions on economic, social and foreign policy.

They are determined to have a decisive say in the next Government as well. As such, it is entirely natural that their precedents and performance be examined carefully.

Second, the past few years have seen the first stirrings of change in West Bengal's economic decision-making. This has led to social and political turmoil, as the Nano episode and the so-called 'peasants revolts' in Singur and Nandigram have shown.

It has also provoked a closer study of rural conditions and village prosperity in West Bengal by national analysts. After all, only those from outside the circle can make a cold, rational assessment.

Again, there is a context to this. With honourable exceptions, the media in Kolkata is completely compromised and largely unable to take a disinterested view. Having lived a lifetime in the intellectual autarky of Left-ruled West Bengal, the provincial intelligentsia is out of sync with the rest of India and its currents. It has no reference points by which to judge whether the State is racing ahead or falling behind.

Siberians cannot tell if they are better or worse off than Moscow. They know no world outside Siberia.

Third, following the bitter parting of 2008, the Congress has made an onslaught on the Left and on West Bengal essential to its election plan. A post-May 16 reconciliation may still happen but the party is bent upon wearing down the CPI(M) and reducing its Lok Sabha strength.

The alliance with the Trinamool Congress reflects this. That aside, the Congress has unleashed its propaganda machine and opinion-making auxiliaries. This past week, Mr Rahul Gandhi was biting in his criticism, comparing West Bengal's poverty to the darkest zones of Orissa and virtually calling the State a basket case.

Unused to being asked tough questions by its largely captive gaggle of intellectuals and journalists, the Left Front Government is rattled. Mr Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) has hit back by comparing the junior Gandhi to his father, Rajiv Gandhi, who had accurately classified Kolkata as a "dying city" in the mid-1980s. The State Finance Minister has come up with trademark obfuscation to somehow prove West Bengal is actually a world leader in development.

What has hurt the Communists most is the interrogation of their failure to combat rural poverty. On April 5, the Congress released a booklet titled 30 Years of Left Front Rule in West Bengal: A Development Report Card. It quoted a survey by Jean Dreze, a Left-leaning social scientist, to point out that, "West Bengal has the highest rate of hunger in rural households among major Indian States."

The figure for all of India is 2.5 per cent, for Bihar it is 3.2 per cent and for Orissa it is 5.9 per cent. In West Bengal, however, 11.7 per cent of rural households go hungry every night.

The Congress document also says "14 of West Bengal's 18 districts … are among the 100 poorest districts in India". The single "poorest district in India" is Murshidabad - the former capital the riches of which dazzled Robert Clive 250 years ago - "where 56 per cent of the people live in abject poverty".

"An astonishing 1.47 per cent of India's rural poor live in this one district alone," the Development Report Card says of Murshidabad. It has sourced these figures from a study earlier this year by the Indian Statistical Institute, based on National Sample Survey data.

A few weeks ago, economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari published a critique of West Bengal called A Story of Falling Behind. It had a particularly trenchant section on income inequality and rural poverty. These issues are at the heart of the CPI(M)'s political credibility.

"West Bengal's per capita GSDP was Rs 29,457 in 2007-08. This gives West Bengal 18th rank in the country," write Debroy and Bhandari, "… And one shouldn't forget that there is a considerable amount of variation across West Bengal's 18 districts. Kolkata isn't representative of West Bengal. West Bengal's Human Development Report, published in 2004 and endorsed by the Left Front Government, acknowledges this too. The HDR identified six northern districts (Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur), three western districts (Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum) and the Sunderbans area of the two 24 Parganas districts as particularly backward."

Kolkata is West Bengal's richest district. "Uttar Dinajpur, which is West Bengal's poorest district," Debroy and Bhandari write, "has a per capita SDP that is only 33.6 per cent of that of Kolkata. For all its talk about equity and removal of inequalities, the West Bengal Government hasn't been able to improve the lot of the people in the worst-off and backward districts."

A Story of Falling Behind cites other numbers. "In 2004-05," it says, "from the Planning Commission's estimates, the percentage of population below the poverty line in West Bengal was 24.7 per cent". Only Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Dadra and Nagar Haveli did worse.

Debroy and Bhandari find "42.4 per cent of West Bengal's rural Scheduled Tribes population is below the poverty line". They cite NSS 1999-2000 data to compute that 78.7 per cent of rural Purulia's population lives below the poverty line, as does 61.5 per cent of urban Jalpaiguri's population.

"The (poverty) situation is especially bad in backward and deprived districts," they conclude, "and this isn't thrown up in aggregate State-level figures."

The districts Debroy and Bhandari mention as extremely poor and deprived merit closer attention. Darjeeling wants out, and is voting for Gorkhaland. In Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, the autochthonous Rajbangshis too are demanding a separate State - Kamtapur.

In Purulia, there are pockets of armed rebellion against feudalism and tribal oppression by CPI(M) party bosses. Some of this is being exploited by Maoists; on April 30, voting day, a landmine attack in Purulia killed two people.

The Maoists cannot be defended, but neither can the Left Front's neglect of poverty in the interiors of West Bengal. This election, they have nowhere to hide.

- malikashok@gmail.com


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