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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 18, April 20, 2013

West Bengal’s Creditable Record

Monday 22 April 2013, by Barun Das Gupta

The report card on the creditable performance of her governent in several respects that the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, presented to the Planning Commission during her discussions about the Plan allocation for West Bengal for 2013-14 has been totally ignored by the media for reasons best known to it.

Even Rajiv Shukla, the Union Minister of State for Planning, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, were appreciative of the performance. West Bengal’s achievement was, in some respects, better than the national average. The gross State domestic product (GSDP) rose from 6.29 per cent in 2005-06 (when the Left Front was in power) to 7.67 per cent in 2012-13, as against the all-India growth rate of 4.96 per cent. During the same period, (2005-06 to 2012-13) the per capita net State domestic product (NSDP) rose from Rs 22,649 to Rs 36,505.

What was much more remarkable was the success achieved in the field of industrial growth. Industrial growth was 6.24 per cent which was double the national growth rate of 3.12 per cent. The figure gives the lie to the propaganda that under Mamata’s leadership, the industrial scenario has become dark and dismal. The growth registered in agriculture and allied sectors in 2012-13 was 2.56 per cent against the national growth rate of 1.79 per cent. The revenue growth rate was no less remarkable. Despite heavy odds and industrial backwardness, the State’s revenue rose by 30 per cent in 2012-13, without imposing any back-breaking tax burden on the people. Reforms introduced in the tax administration did the trick.

Another field which was neglected by the Left Front Government was food procurement. During the kharif season this year, West Bengal made a record procurement of 20.5 lakh tonnes of rice. The State Government is intensifying its efforts at increasing foodgrains procurement and build up a sizeable food stock. With this end in view the storage capacity is being enhanced from the present 48,000 tonnes to a huge 7.68 lakh tonnes. The State is also building up 35 super-specialty hospitals in eleven backward districts.

The decision to build godowns for food storage and the super-specialty hospitals has had an immediate beneficial impact on some of the sick State sector engineering PSUs. In the first phase, the State Government has decided to build thirtyfive godowns for storage of foodgrains. The construction work has been distributed between four State engineering firms. Of the 35, Westinghouse, Saxby and Firmer will build 11, Hindustan Steel Works six, Britannia Engineering Ltd 12 and Mackintosh Burn six. The decision not to farm out the construction job to private contractors has been welcomed by the people.

Mamata has said that the thrust of the 12th Plan is faster, more inclusive and sustainable growth. So the social service sector has been allocated the highest outlays. Special area programme for quick development of tbe economically backward regions of the State has been drawn up with a view to removing regional disparties. These disparities will be eliminated through targeted development of Jangalmahal, the Sunderbans, North Bengal and other backward districts. The State Plan envisages the development of capital, light and labour intensive industries like food-processing, tanning and leather goods manufacturing, textiles, etc.

Mamata’s decision to open 33 fair price medicine shops in government hospitals has come as a huge relief to the suffering people and been widely welcomed not only by the poor and middle-class people but also by the well-to-do and affluent. The price difference of medicines sold in these shops and the ordinary retail outlets is very big. Every day there is a huge rush of patients or their relatives to buy medicines from these shops. Mamata is also insisting that government doctors prescribe only generic medicines, not branded ones. This will give an option to the patients to buy cheaper variants of the same drug.

Mamata’s emphasis on rice procurement and building up additional storage capacities will serve two objectives. First, it will ensure that the growers get a fair price if the wholesale market is down and secondly by building up food stocks, unscrupulous hoarders fleecing people in times of scarcity can be effectively prevented.

But the basic problem bedevelling the State’s economy remains unresolved. It is the huge debt burden of over Rs 2 lakh crores left by the Left Front Government because of its anarchic spending, observing no financial norms. The State has to pay around Rs 25,000 crores to the Centre by way of debt-servicing. As Finance Minister Amit Mitra explained in his Budget speech on March 11,

“But the tragedy remains that as Rs 32,000 crores of revenue come into our Treasury, Rs 25,000 crores will exit the Treasury, simply cut off by the RBI to service the massive debt of over Rs 2 lakh crores thrust upon us by the Left Front Government. The people of West Bengal today are having to bear the cross of fiscal anarchism and profligacy of the CPI-M and its associates. This is the gruesome picture of a ‘debt trap’ that generates a crushing vicious circle. Another tragic chapter in this saga is the unfortunate role of the Central Government which, in effect, aided the process of accumulation of this massive debt overhang.”

Mamata has said time and again that she is not asking for any ‘special package’ for West Bengal. All she is seeking is a moratorium on debt repayment for three years so that the State gets the much needed breather for building up the resources to break out of the impasse. The Congress-run Centre, that allowed the CPI-M to play ducks and drakes with the State’s meagre resources without stirring a little finger, now turns a deaf ear to the State’s pleadings for a waiver.

Viewed in this background, what the Trinamul Congress Government has been able to achieve in the short span of two years is praiseworthy. But the debt-burden has created a condition in which the more revenue you mop up, the greater becomes the ‘exit’ from the treasury to repay the debt. The State has no choice. The Reserve Bank will remorselessly hive off the biggest slice of the revenue cake year after year, leaving the State to grovel and groan at the door of an unsympathetic Centre.

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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