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Mainsteam, Vol XLIX, No 12, March 12, 2011

Plea for an Alternative Development Plan for West Bengal

Wednesday 16 March 2011, by Barun Das Gupta

The CPI-M took its massive victory in the 2006 Assembly elections to be a mandate for its policy of industrialisation of West Bengal by evicting thousands of peasant families from their hearths and homes and their farmland and forcibly acquiring fertile multi-crop agricultural land and handing these over to industrialists for setting up industries. For this they invited Indian and foreign monopolists and unrolled the red carpet for them. Inevitably, such a policy was bound to be opposed by the people. And that is exactly what happened. From the proposed so-called “small-car” factory project of the Tatas at Singur to the proposed chemical hub at Nandigram, the CPI-M and its industrial policy met with resolute resistance from the people. Their movement could not be crushed by the combined efforts of the police and the armed cadre of the party.

Baulked at their efforts to ram their own type of development down the throat of the people, the CPI-M leadership unleashed a propaganda offensive against the Opposition led by the Trinamul Congress accusing the latter of opposing industrialisation of West Bengal, opposing development of the State and opposing the ruling party’s programme of creating employment generation.

The Opposition countered by saying that it did not oppose industrialisation per se, in fact it knew that West Bengal could not develop without industrialisation, but it was certainly against the type of “development” the CPI-M was seeking to impose on the people. Since the Opposition is in the opposition and not in power, leading mass movements against the ruling CPI-M, the necessity of putting before the people an alternative and credible path of development for the State has not arisen till now. So, the Opposition has not spelled out its alternative path of development.

But as we move toward the next Assembly elections the question of an alternative develop-ment plan for West Bengal will be felt more and more and acutely. Not only will the people ask the Opposition to lay bare its plan of development, a cornered CPI-M will increasingly harp on this, claiming that while they have a plan for the State’s development and industrialisation (which may, at best, require some alterations or adjustments or change of priorities here and there), the Opposition have nothing to offer, that they are a muddle-headed bunch of greedy power-grabbers who have no vision and no plan for the future and who can only lead the State to utter ruination.The question of an altelrnative plan, thus, will be both a political and an ideological challenge for the Opposition during the poll battle. Though Mamata Banerjee, on assuming charge of the Railway Ministry, has taken up a number of projects in West Bengal and created the confidence of the people as a future Chief Minister who can take the State on the path of develop-ment, these are not enough.

PREPARATION of an alternative development plan for West Bengal thus becomes an urgent necessity. It has to be drawn keeping in view the fact that the CPI-M, realising its imminent loss of power, deliberately adopted an “economic scorched-earth policy” during its last days and is going to leave an empty treasury. What with the financial mismanagement of the last thirty years, the State’s debt burden has reached nearly Rs 1.96 lakh crores, further aggravated by the spate of last-minute market borrowings of several thousand crores, a reckless spree of fresh appointments and other financial bonanza to different sections of employees. The financial constraint will be the biggest problem of the new government, hamstringing it at every step.

The job of drawing up a plan lies more in the domain of experts from various disciplines rather than in that of a political party or parties. Such a plan will aim at harnessing and utilising local human and natural resources, must be capital-light and labour-intensive. The authors of such a plan must also indicate the nature of industries that can be set up in a particular area, what will be the source of finance, and what would be the institutional mechanism of executing such a plan in which people’s participation will be the driving force, the government playing the role of a catalytic agent. The authors of the plan will have to think about the problem of marketing and the forward and backward linkages necessary.

Take Singur, for example. Potato and vegetables are grown here abundantly. During my several visits to Singur some local people suggested that units could be set up here for making potato chips and wafers. Even for preserving and canning vegetables like peas etc. These products will find a ready market in Kolkata and other urban centres and fetch a good return to the farmers.

The author of this note suggests that an initiative be taken immediately to set up a panel of experts on which there will be economists; retired (and if possible serving) bureaucrats; retired or serving bank officials with rich field experience; representatives of small industries and their organisations etc. Those working in NGOs in rural areas with a rich wealth of field experience may also participate in such an effort. All of them will be able to make useful contri-butions.

The proposed body may draw up a draft plan in three months’ time. This draft plan may then be discussed at district and sub-divisional levels (even at lower levels whenever felt necessary) at meetings of representative people and discussed threadbare. In the interaction, the plan will necessarily undergo changes as partici-pants make their own contributions.

This exercise will serve a dual purpose. First, it will be the first attempt at drawing up a development plan with the participation—even if limited participation—of the people. Secondly, in the course of the public discussions suggested above, some degree of a consensus for the alternative plan may crystallise. This will help the Opposition challenge the ruling CPI-M more effectively.

It is fully realised that a full-fledged and comprehensive plan touching all aspects of economic life and dealing adequately with widely varying local conditions in the entire State will require a much bigger and more systematic exercise than is possible for a small group of experts, unaided by the government machinery, to undertake. What is suggested is an exercise that will (i) assure the people, by the time the 2011 Assembly elections are held, that the Opposition can be trusted with power, (ii) that they will give a far better account of themselves than the CPI-M-ruled Left Front has done during the past three-and-a-half decades, and (iii) that the people themselves will be part and parcel of preparing and executing the plan. It will not be a plan drawn up at Writers’ Buildings, keeping the people out of the planning process and keping them in the dark and then sought to be rammed down their throat.

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