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Mainstream, VOL L, No 10, February 25, 2012

On Taslima, Infant Mortality, Farmers’ Suicides

Monday 27 February 2012, by Amitava Mukherjee


Even the worst critics of Mamata Banerjee will admit that the West Bengal Chief Minister has street wisdom. This became evident recently over the release of Taslima Nasreen’s latest book in the just concluded Kolkata Book Fair. An orga-nisation of the minority community threatened demonstrations inside the Book Fair venue if any function was allowed in the auditorium for the book release. The news reached Mamata right on time. She did not exhibit any sign of panic or over-reaction as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had done on a previous occasion when the law and order situation in the city was severely disturbed as some organisations had protested against Taslima’s presence in the city. Mamata quietly sent across the message that she did not want any untoward incident in the Book Fair. The function was cancelled. But the book was released. A major embarrassment was averted thanks to the low-key but firm attitude of the Chief Minister.

Was Mamata right or did she trample on one’s right to express oneself freely? As usual, a section of the city people, so fond of raising a storm over a cup of tea, jumped into the arena and in the forefront were the “human rights-wallas” who found in it a grave sin. Mahasweta Devi, the litterateur who just in the recent past had given enough expression of her imbalance by calling the State Government fascist in the wake of Kishenji’s death, appeared in the picture this time too and severely criticised the cancellation of the function.

Now these “human rightswallas” were nowhere to be seen when 94 people died in the AMRI hospital due to some allegedly grave criminal activity on the part of the hospital management which included the owners and some independent professionals. What really prevented them from launching a campaign against the alleged misdeeds of the management? When confronted with this question in a TV talk show, one such champion of human rights even had the temerity of calling the questioner uneducated in an indirect manner. Or consider their fulminations after Kishenji’s death. Without delving deep into the matter they pronounced that the Maoist leader was murdered in a fake encounter. Varavara Rao, the revolutionary poet, came down to Kolkata and tried to raise public opinion against the State Government. But the general public largely remained unmoved. Forensic reports, however, proved that it was no case of fake encounter and Kishenji died while firing from his own weapon. Since then the human rights groups have shied away from speaking on the subject.

Now the time has come to draw the final curtain on the Taslima chapter. No right is absolute in a civilised society and the Bangladeshi writer has certainly overstepped the limit long back. She is no litterateur and her books have often hurt the sense of beauty and decency. True, she has courageously portrayed the feudal structure and male chauvinism in Bangladeshi society. But she was impudent enough to release a force which she herself could not control.

INFANT mortality and alleged suicides by farmers notwithstanding, Mamata Banerjee has been able to leave the mark of freshness of mind and honesty of purpose in running the adminis-tration. Her most important decision as the Chief Minister, which is likely to have a salutary effect, is to severely cut down the role of the panchayat bodies and again vest the bureau-cracy, particularly from the BDO to the SDO level, with the power to not only supervise but also decide and control the functioning of the panchayat system. She has understood that the CPM’s downfall was mainly due to corruption of the three-tier local self-government and such a downgrading of the system was long overdue. No wonder murmurs of discontent are being heard as the panchayat system has often been exploited as the milch cow for personal gratifi-cation. [However, such a step has become con-troversial in the sense that even some Trinamul supporters feel it could be construed as an attack on the panchayat system and grassroots democracy which is not the case in reality.]

But the West Bengal Chief Minister has a long way to go before she can really put the State back on rails. She is rolling out statistics to prove that West Bengal’s record is much better than many other States so far as infant mortality is concerned. This is a jigsaw puzzle. From the standpoint of percentage, the mortality rate is lower but in terms of absolute numbers it is still quite high. Hopefully the Chief Minister has rightly identified the two principal causes—early marriage and malnutrition of expecting mothers. The previous Left Front governments had not only failed to do anything in this regard but they had left the hospital system in a state of utter destruction. They had a Cabinet Minister aided by Ministers of State in the Health Department all of whom failed miserably. So it is not correct to say that concentration of power in Mamata’s hand (she is the Health Minister too) is standing in the way of proper functioning of the Ministry. Incidentally Mamata has inducted a Minister of State in the health portfolio recently. It has, however, a very able Secretary called Sanjoy Mitra who has shifted from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Recently Mamata’s relationship with the Congress has nosedived mainly because of the Central Government’s unwillingness to grant special monetary packages for West Bengal which the Chief Minister has been insisting upon to tide over the huge financial debt burden left by the previous government. Insiders say that the Trinamul Congress doubts the role of a Central Minister who was widely believed to be enjoying a cosy relationship with the CPM in the past. Another group of Congress stalwarts point out that their party may be toying with the idea of shaking off its reliance on the Trinamul Congress depending upon the results of the Uttar Pradesh election.

One thing, however, is clear. There will be a renewed debate on Centre-State relations in the days to come as it had happened previously when Ashok Mitra was the State’s Finance Minister. There may be another similarity. Following the footsteps of the Marxists, Mamata may tie up with Nitish Kumar and Navin Patnaik and demand a total reversal of the ongoing trend of centralisation. Already there is information that Mamata and Nitish have established mutual contacts. For the Bihar Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee has suddenly become important. It will be difficult for him to remain in the NDA if the BJP starts projecting Narendra Modi as the conglomerate’s future candidate for the post of Prime Minister.

Apart from health, agriculture and rural development are the two areas where the State administration must clean the Augean stable fast. A good beginning has been made by deciding to pay the farmers by cheques after procurement of paddy from them by the State Government. At a recent meeting of all the Food Ministers, the Central Government has also acknowledged the good work done by the State. There is, however, still paucity of funds which is hampering the speed of procurement. Yet the performance graph of the Trinamul Congress-led government is better till now than the record of the previous Left Front Government. Some farmers have committed suicide. Even if one does not agree with Mamata Banerjee’s version that only one farmer has taken his own life out of indebtedness and non-sale of his paddy, there are reasonable grounds to believe the State Food Minister’s assertion that a good number of deaths have occurred due to indebtedness for other purposes like daughters’ marriage and meeting the demands of bride-grooms. Such deaths frequently took place during the last 34 years of the Left Front rule. It is natural that the CPM, with its back to the wall, will try to capitalise on the issue. But why is the Congress, which did not utter a word on it in the past, now raising a furore? That is a vital query in the minds of the people in the State.

The author is a senior journalist based in Kolkata. He can be contacted at amitava_muk@yahoo. co.in/amukherjeeam@gmail.com

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