(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 20, 2011
West Bengal from 1977 to 2007:
A Journey Against the Current
Amiya Kumar Bagchi
BRIEFLY, from the time India became independent, many major countries of the world adopted policies that benefited the peasants and workers. The world, especially the increasingly hegemonic capitalist world, turned against the poor from the 1970s. From 1973 the USA, in collaboration with the UK and other members of the G7 group, launched a determined assault against the rights of their own workers, and against the legitimate claims of developing countries to gain a less inequitable share of world output and more equitable terms of trade. The rulers of India were also turning against the poor and their democratic rights from the 1970s. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency had as its backdrop the brutal suppression of the strike of the railway workers in 1974, and even more brutal suppression of the democratic rights of the people of West Bengal from 1971. The victory of the Left Front parties in the elections of 1977 demonstrated that the ruling Congress party had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people of West Bengal. With all the rhetoric of self-reliance, Indira Gandhi’s government had begun to formulate better conditions for foreign investors, and the Janata government following it went further in wooing foreign capital.
From the very beginning, the West Bengal government, led by the Left Front, was marked out as an enemy by the rulers at the centre not only because the Front had no place for the unprincipled policies of the ruling parties in New Delhi but also because it represented a threat to the pro-rich, clientelist politics of those parties. When the Left Front came to power, the state was in desperate straits, socially and economically. There had been massive de-industrialisation of the economy, with profits generated by existing private sector companies being directed outside the state from the beginning of independence. This was caused mainly by the massive dislocation of communications, transport and markets due to the carving up of Bengal into two regions in two separate and hostile States. The trend of outflow of capital from West Bengal was aggravated by the policy of equalisation of prices of coal and steel, which robbed the whole eastern region of India of the natural advantages it enjoyed in respect of the basic ingredients of fixed capital formation. Public sector investment up to the beginning of the 1960s made only a weak compensation for the virtual cessation of large-scale industrial investment by the private sector.
THE 60s &70s
The coup de grace to West Bengal’s industrial prospects was given by the deep recession in the economy over the period 1966-69, the period of the plan holiday and a famine-like shortage of food supply in the country. The recession and West Bengal’s plight were aggravated by the drastic fall in public investment, including investment in railways, which was the major customer of West Bengal’s engineering industry. In 1972-73, the year which is taken as the base year for defining the poverty line and making estimates of the number of people below that line, the proportion of persons below poverty line in rural areas was more than 73 per cent, far above the corresponding all-India figure of about 56 per cent. Taking urban and rural areas together, the proportion of persons below poverty line was about 55 per cent for India and 63 per cent for West Bengal. By 1993-94, the proportion of people below poverty line in India and West Bengal had come to very nearly the same figure, with most of the contribution to poverty reduction being made by people in rural areas.
The disastrous material conditions in rural areas down to the 1970s were reflected also in literacy rates and health conditions. As I had written a few years back: “In 1951, West Bengal had a literacy rate of 24 per cent and was second in terms of literacy among the major Indian states, Kerala being the top state with 40.7 per cent... Three states were close behind West Bengal, Gujarat with a rate of 23.7 per cent, Maharashtra with 20.9 per cent and Madras with 20.8 per cent. By 1961, all the three states had overtaken West Bengal. ..[During the decade 1961-1971], for India as a whole, the literacy rate advanced from 24.03 per cent to 29.45 per cent and for West Bengal from 29.8 to 33.20 per cent only. West Bengal has not been able to close its gap with the more advanced states since then..” (‘Studies on the economy of West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, November 21-28, 1998, p. 2973).
In 1961, according to the information provided by the Registrar General of India, the infant mortality rate (IMR), that is, the number of children per thousand births who die before their first birthday was 95 for West Bengal and 115 for India as a whole. By 2005, the IMR for India had come down to 58 but that for West Bengal had come down to 38. The IMR for West Bengal is still unacceptably high, but its rate of decline has been faster during the period 1981-2005, since the IMR for West Bengal was as high as 91 in 1981, according to figures compiled by the State Bureau of Health Intelligence.
As we will note soon, three of the top priorities of the West Bengal government since 1977 have been expanding opportunities of gainful employment as a means of raising the purchasing power of ordinary people, and advancing their levels of education and health. In pursuing these objectives, the government has had to struggle against a number of adverse factors. First, there are the usual constraints in a class society. West Bengal, after all, is part of the semi-feudal and semi-capitalist society of India, with vestiges of the colonial ideology pervading the consciousness of many sections of the people and the resurgence of a neo-imperialist and inegalitarian mindset being propagated by an increasingly aggressive array of print and electronic media, penetrating into every locality, if not every home. That ideology has to be fought continuously. The neo-imperialist and neo-liberal propaganda machine also makes use of communalist sentiments and can lead to intense discrimination against the targeted minority leading to riots and pogroms, as has been seen repeatedly in Gujarat and Maharashtra from the 1980s. One of the signal achievements of the Left Front government has been to withstand the repeated assaults of that communalist ideology and prevent any major communal riot since 1977. But there is no room for complacency in this regard. We must recognise that there is a naturalised distrust of ‘the other community’, sleeping even in apparently secular breasts and that distrust can take a demoniac form when insidious whispers penetrate into the chamber of that sleeper.
Secondly, there is a historical legacy of inequality, combined with ascribed religious and ethnic or caste affiliation, in the composition of the population of West Bengal. According to the Census 2001 data, the proportions of Muslims, people belonging to Scheduled Castes and those belonging to Scheduled Tribes formed 25.2 per cent, 23.0 per cent, and 5.5 per cent respectively. For historical reasons, these communities, who together form the majority of the people of West Bengal, were less advanced than the Hindus of upper and so called Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in respect of education and material conditions of living. Facilitating equal access of the underprivileged groups, as indeed of other poor and illiterate people to public health care and public education involves not only spending money on infrastructure but also continuous campaigns to make them aware of their rights and to combat the influence of many retrograde ideas (such as the killing of ‘Witches’), which often masquerade as tradition.
Thirdly, the geo-economic location of West Bengal also is a factor against rapid transformation of people’s lives by arming them with employment with dignity, education and reasonable standard of health. West Bengal is surrounded by regions, in which by and large, the condition of the labouring poor is worse than in West Bengal. So West Bengal attracts migrants from these states, and an overcrowded countryside and towns with squatters’ colonies become even more crowded, with unmet needs of infrastructure and facilities for education and health care. Even though West Bengal has been experiencing a rapid fertility transition, it is largely because of these flows of immigrants that West Bengal has become the most densely populated state in the country and one of the most densely populated regions of the world.
Fourthly, the post-independence history of West Bengal’s economy left it with enormous burdens. Since there had been very little net investment in the older agro-processing industries of West Bengal, the mill areas had derelict infrastructures and obsolete equipment and technology.
Fifthly, under the Indian Constitution, there is a serious imbalance in the division of responsibilities and powers, especially financial powers, of the constituent states and the central government. The major responsibilities for providing education, health care and infrastructure are vested in the states, whereas all the financial powers, such as decisions regarding income and corporation taxes, customs and excise duties, and the regulation of banks, the borrowing of money from the market, the regulation of external payment systems rest with the central government. Usually, in order to defray their expenditures the state governments have to borrow from the central government. But once they are indebted to the central government, the states cannot borrow a single rupee from the banks or the capital market without the permission of the central government. Under the neo-liberal regime of so-called ‘economic reforms’, the financial powers have been further concentrated in the fist of the central government and correspondingly, the state governments have become highly dependent on hand-outs of the central government and the donor agency programmes sanctioned by the central government. Thus the financial powers of the West Bengal government were totally inadequate to tackle the needs of industrial and urban renewal. The attitude of a generally hostile central government totally opposed to the egalitarian, pro-peasant and pro-worker ideology of the Left parties further aggravated the government’s problems. In agriculture, the refusal to legally implement the minimal measures of land reform by earlier governments and the resistance of peasants against the forcible re-possession of the lands they had earlier occupied through militant movements created a huge problem of incentives on both sides. As a result, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the peasants of West Bengal failed to secure the benefits of the Green Revolution and agricultural productivity stagnated. James Boyce wrote a book covering this period and predicted an agricultural impasse for West Bengal.
(To be continued)