Bengal Today

One Year Later

Quite expectedly the first anniversary of the Trinamul Congress–Congress coalition ministry of West Bengal was celebrated with much fanfare. On this occasion, Miss Mamata Banerjee claimed that she had accomplished five years’ task in one year. It is very interesting that at the same time the state government has been arguing that for every rupee earned by it, 94 paise are spent on repaying the interest and principal of the debt left by the previous left front government and only 6 paise are at the disposal of the present government. If, with such small amounts of money the Chief Minister can accomplish five years’ task in one year, she is the envy of all wizards, past, present and future. There is no reason why such a wizard needs more central assistance for defraying the expenses of her government. Yet an understanding of the hollowness of her empty, boastful claims is not the substitute for a concrete appraisal of her government’s performance as far as the question of expansion of democracy in Bengal’s social and political life is concerned.

Mamata Banerjee’s government has proscribed list of newspapers that are to be kept in government aided libraries. Mamata Banerjee herself has declared that she and her men would dictate which newspapers the public, including those who purchase newspapers, should read and which they should not. Such an event is unprecedented in the history of independent India. Activists operating in trade union movement who, in defiance of the fatwa of the Trinamul Congress, are trying to organize struggles on the just demands of workers are being arrested on fake charges. This has been demonstrated by the arrests of Prafulla Chakrabarty, a Trade Union leader of Kanoria Jute Mills fame, and Babu Datta, leader of Calcutta Leather Tannery Union. The arrest of the young Scientist Parthasarathi Ray who participated in the anti-eviction movement at Nonadanga and the arrest of Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University for e-mailing a cartoon have exposed the draconian face of this government. When the Left Front Government was in power, quite a few teachers of government colleges expressed their opinion against the government in various TV channels and even joined the meetings of the Trinamul Congress. They were not served any show-case notice. But two teachers have recently been served such notices for criticizing this government in TV channels. The attack on APDR activists by the goons of Trinamul Congress is another example of the suppression of democratic rights by the police. In short, all those who would fail to show obsequiousness to the Chief Minister would be suppressed by employing the police, hooligans and other means at the disposal of the government.

It is a known fact that Mamata Banerjee actively supported the democratic struggles of the peasantry in Singur and Nandigram, and used these movements for coming to power. But there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that she has, after forming her cabinet, has taken any measure for the solution of the basic problem of peasants. The Left Front can at least claim that after they had come to power in 1977, they implemented the land reforms programme at least partially through the distribution of vested land and the practice of Operation Barga. The institution of the panchayet expanded democracy in the countryside to some extent. Later on the Left Front Government, however, left the task of land reforms unfinished and began to set up its bureaucratic authority in the panchayets. This government could have promoted formation of cooperatives among the beneficiaries of land reforms and helped them in getting inputs and marketing the produce at fair prices. But the Left Front Government scrupulously refrained from this task. The new government, had it really been pro-peasant, would have really lowered the land ceiling, tried to complete the process of recording of bargadars and ensured the supply of inputs and marketing of produce at fair prices. But paid no attention whatsoever to this task. The production of crops in the last season was good but the price of paddy went down remarkably. Although the government-stipulated procurement price of paddy was Rs 1100 per quintal, farmers were forced to sell at Rs 800 or Rs 900 per quintal. This crisis led more than fifty farmers to commit suicide. But the state government led by Mamata Banerjee did almost nothing and they even went to the extent of denying the hard fact of suicides.

The fundamental reason for the current country-wide crisis in agriculture is the policy of liberalization, which has led to a cessation of public investment in agriculture and paved the way for domestic and foreign big corporate players to enter the field in a big way. The Central Ministry of Agriculture recommended contract farming and although the Left Front government did not give its consent to it, it has started the practice in West Bengal in a limited measure. Contract farming means that companies, domestic and foreign would provide seeds, fertilizer and other expenses, and purchase the produce at stipulated prices, but they won’t accept those goods that would not be upto the standard set by them. The countries that have gone through large-scale contract farming have also experienced massive impoverishment of farmers. Now the Trinamul Congress-led government of West Bengal is going to introduce contract farming in the name of ‘partnership’. This will deepen the crisis of agriculture and endanger food security, because the process introduced by the big partners is sure to lead to soil erosion and rapid depletion of water resources.

The first panchayet election was held in 1978, and at that time the effective power and monetary resources at the hands of the panchayets were very limited. Yet the village level panchayets served as instruments of promotion of democracy, because the masses were in general on the move. The 73rd amendment of the constitution in 1993 led to an enormous expansion of the formal power of the panchayets by conferring on them the right to administer 27 issues. This amendment also recognized the gram samsads as parts of the panchayeti system. But this amendment proved largely ineffective because by this time the earlier mass movement had lost its force and the CPI(M)-led Left Front, in order to remain in power by any means, had built up a bureaucratic structure in the countrywide. The new government was expected to promote democracy, but it has gone back on its promises. In many cases, elected representatives have been forced to resign or to act at the behest of local Trinamul Congress leaders. Besides the power of the village and block-level pancheyets has been curbed, and the BDOs and District Magistrates have been empowered to exercise control over them. Any impartial observer can undertake an enquiry into the functioning of the TMC-led Zilla Parishads and Panchayets Samities to see how they have already become centres of massive corruption.

It is true that the attitude of the Left Front government towards the dalits, muslims and OBCs was one of relative neglect and that one section of these communities, disenchanted with the Left Front, played a significant role in the defeat of the Front in the hustings. In its pre-poll campaign, the TMC projected itself as the representative of the dalits, lower castes, adivasis and muslims. But after coming to power, TMC-led government is seriously violating provisions of the circular of 1995, which introduced reservation for the SC/STs in higher education. Recently, the secretary of a dalit organization named the 14 April Committee, went to the Writers’ Building in order to protest against this practice. The secretary, Alok Hazra is an employee of Calcutta Municipal Corporation and for his alleged ‘offence’ his employers served him a show-case notice. This is a poignant pointer to the eagerness of the government to dismantle the dalit organizations.

Another aspect of the dalit problem is the problem of refugees. In the law of 2003 regarding citizenship, lakhs of Bengali refugees have been rendered ‘stateless’. Before the assembly polls in 2011, Mamata Banerjee assured the refugees that she would solve the problem of citizenship. But the government has not so far taken any initiative in this regard.

During the period of Left Front rule, the participation of muslims in government jobs reached as low as 2 percent. After the setback in the Lok Sabha of 2009, the Left Front identified one part of the muslim population as OBCs and decided to allot 10 percent reservation for them. But this decision was not implemented. The new government has talked a lot about the development of religious minorities and has announced allowances for a section of the Imams, which is useless as far as the participation of muslims in all spheres of social life is concerned. And they have not issued even the order of 10 percent reservation. This negligence has naturally raised the question if they are at all sincere in lifting the muslim population out of this backwardness.

One claim of the TMC-led government is that it has solved the problem of the Darjeeling hills. The relative tranquility in the hills and the spurt in the arrival of tourists are claimed to be the criteria of a solution. The Gorkha population of the three sub-divisions has been demanding a separate state for long. The Left Front government, while refusing to accept the demand, wanted to grant one kind of autonomy in the form of Gorkha Hill Council. This move did not carry conviction with the Gorkha people and the movement for Gorkhaland was resumed. Both the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha and the Trinamul Congress wanted to win assembly seats, but it was not possible for the latter to accept the demand for Gorkhaland. Then both sides astutely agreed to formation of a body called Gorkha Territorial Authority. The Janamukti Morcha thus retreated from the original demand, and in order to retain the loyalty of its supporters it demanded the inclusion of 398 moujas of the Terai and Dooars regions in the area of GTA. But composition of the population of these moujas is mixed and they are not contiguous territories in relation to the hills. Hence the recommendation of the Shyamal Sen Committee for the inclusion of only 5 moujas is not unrealistic. But to accept it would be a loss of credibility of the Morcha leaders who have, by using the force of muscle and arms, cornered other Gorkha organizations like the Gorkha League, the CPRM and the GNLF. In fact, the very policy of the Janamukti Morcha has shown that its leaders are not at all sincere to the cause of Gorkhaland. Now the Trinamul Congress is trying to build up its own organization by recruiting some persons, which is certain to lead to conflicts with the Gorkha outfits. Hence the Chief Minister’s claim of resolving the problem of the hills is just hollow.

One of the 22 blocks of Jangalmahal is Gopiballavpur-I. In a gram panchayet of the block, which is the largest and at the same time almost exclusively peopled by the adivasis, there are 24 primary schools. The name of this panchayet is Kendugari. In 4 of these schools, Santali teachers were appointed in 2008-09. After the formation of the new government, 7 more schools have received Santali teachers. But 12 other schools where 90 percent of the pupils are adivasis, no Santali teacher has so far been appointed. In the entire block, there are 131 primary schools, and 60 of them are situated in adivasi-dominated areas. There are also 66 sisu-sikhsa-kendras. Only 20 of the primary schools now have Santali teachers and all of them are para-teachers. There are 12 secondary and Higher Secondary schools in the block, and there is no arrangement for teaching Santali in any of them.

In three colleges of Jangalmahal and in the Panskura College, Santali is taught in the degree course. But each department of Santali is run by one teacher only, and this teacher too is a part-time teacher. The only government college of Jangalmahal is Jhargram Raj College where there is no arrangement for teaching Santali.

It is good that the state government has extended the programme for providing rice to the adivasis at Rs 2 per kilogram. But one of the principal demands of the people of Jangalmahal, particularly the adivasis, is the right to be instructed in the mother tongue. This subject continues to be neglected. And the question of the recognition of the language of the non-scheduled identities such as the Kurmis and Mahatos has not yet come to the agenda of the government.

Another problem of Jangalmahal is that of health and medical treatment. Despite many announcements in this regard, very little has practically been done. In Gopiballavpur-I block, which covers an area of about 100 square kilometers and has a population of 1.15 lakhs, there is only one block primary health centre with four doctors and fifteen beds. There are three other primary centres, each with just one doctor who attends the patients from 9 am to 12 am, and that too not everyday. The conditions of other blocks are not dissimilar. The sub-divisional hospital in Jhargram has been declared the district hospital, but nothing worthwhile has been done beyond that declaration. The problem of admitting adivasi students to medical courses remains unsolved. Without a solution of this problem, improving the state of healthcare in Jangalmahal will remain an unrealizable dream.

The state government could have undertaken another task in Jangalmahal as a priority. It was the grant of individual and community based pattas for forest lands in accordance with the Act of 2007. A small number of people were given pattas individually under the Left Front regime. But this process has not been started after the installation of the new government.

The first important step towards a solution to this problem is to grant self-rule to Jangalmahal. What is the problem in giving a self-rule of the kind that the Gorkhas have received. The demand has already been raised. If the government prefers to wait till a return of the situation of November 2008, it will commit a blunder.

Vol. 45, No. 4, Aug 5-11, 2012