Whither Bengal?

Sudip Bhattacharyya

There has been fairly significant infrastructural development in West Bengal (WB) in terms of road surface, street lighting, traffic, transportation, hospitals and cultural, recreational, eco and tourist facilities. Law and order is restored especially in Darjeeling and Purulia. Kolkata city is much cleaner, better looking and livable. Agriculture and allied sectors are doing well. The Institutional Strengthening of Gram Panchayats to improve infrastructure in villages with the financial assistance of the world bank has succeeded as a model project. Kanyashree, Yubashree and other support programs have been well received. NREGA is a great success. Power supply stable. GDP growth is more than national average and Industry Sector growth is 8.74% as against national 0.4%, in 2013-14. Administrative efficiency increased mainly through computerisation. So far so good.

But all this came to naught with the revelations in the Saradha scam and the Khagragharh explosion. Mamata Banerjee alleges vendetta. She could also argue that in India all political parties, except AAP which is of recent origin have been similarly exploiting such funds/corporate bodies, as is prone under crony—capitalism. But there are not many takers for this since Saradha accused Madan Mitra has not too good a reputation and she should have allowed the law to take its own course instead of vociferously supporting Mitra. Soft stand on the bomb blast is also not liked by public. Therefore, it has seriously dented Mamata's image. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is only deriving benefit out of it particularly because Congress and CPM are considered to be spent forces. However, it is more than a year to the assembly election and Mamata Banerjee can buck the trend if she can make substantial and noticeable contributions to WB's welfare in the meantime. But how?

Currently, there is a sense of stagnation in the state and industry has not revived, rather it is in doldrums. So is the State's finance. The State badly needs a quantum jump in these two areas.

One fillip for such revival can come from North-East Asia. Given the current geo-politico-economic scenario in the region, the strategic importance of WB is only going to increase with increased sub-regional cooperation in India's northeastern neighbourhood. The Kunming Initiative, or the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, is a robust effort for economic and cultural cooperation between these four contiguous countries. The goals of these initiatives are intra-regional cooperation for development. Modi has established good relations with Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. He has made good overtures to Bangladesh. He is keen that ASEAN backed proposed Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam road link is extended to India. India is participating in the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the Pacific initiatives for an Asian Highway Network and the Trans-Asian Railway network. Discussions are also proceeding on reopening the World War-II-era Stilwell Road linking India's Assam state with China's Yunnan province through Myanmar. All this initiatives, if followed up, will give tremendous fillip to growth of WB, which is the gateway to this region. Mamata Banerjee must put in her bit particularly in carrying Bangladesh along and pressurising Modi to expedite.

Another source of investment is Modi's 'Smart City' plan. He has a project to upgrade 100 cities across India to 'Smart City'. Already about Rs 7000 crores of fund allocation has been made. Mamata Banerjee proposes to utilize this project to upgrade 10 cities in WB, including New Town. This is awaiting central govt. approval.

WB needs Central Government (CG) approval/finance for its Sagar Port project, metro-rail projects, global environment facility in Sundarban, WBREDA's solar projects, educational programs under Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan and forestry/tourism proposals. For timely completion of such projects, ‘blessings’ of Modi are required. Even the state legislation to curb the menace of illegal finance companies has been awaiting CG approval for a long time.

Another push-up could come from coal industry, which is to be privatised shortly. This means investment in WB coal mines and also increasing availability of coal. With eco-consciousness, investment in modern technology like liquefied coal would be forthcoming.

Coming to finance, WB needs special support from central government to be able to carry the legacy of over-borrowing. Its current tax revenue meets only about 25% of its current interest obligation. State Govt's request for financial assistance seems to have gone into cold storage.

All these bring to the fore the impending need for utmost co-operation between WB Govt. and CG in a true federal spirit. Modi had earlier made overtures to Mamata Banerjee during election time. He has been meeting the CMs of different states to take development effort forward. Even the CPM CM of Tripura had no qualms in this. The onus, therefore, is on Mamata Banerjee now and this is the least, the people of Bengal can ask of her, when nothing else seems likely to work.

Vol. 47, No. 31, Feb 8 -14, 2015