Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On A 'West Bengal Model of Development'

My particular interest in West Bengal should be obvious: That's home. And, with all my familial and cultural roots firmly embedded, it is unlikely that my quest to be Global makes any difference to this feeling. In fact, the more interconnected my life becomes, I feel more connected to Bengal, even more responsible. It is a chromosome thing, as Amit Chaudhuri may have illustrated, and whatever I do, I can never truly stop caring. This brings me to one of the things I always wanted to do, build a coalition of all the people who care for the place to bring together in a global conversation on what can be, should be done. Indeed, this is not about government and politics - the state's politics remains toxic - but rather a civil society thing. However, as the recent rise of Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi has shown, the civil society's moment in political conversation may have come: 2014 and its momentous election may just be the perfect time for all concerned to engage in the conversation.

West Bengal is perceived to be one of the most backward states in India. This is not true, but the perception stems from lack of development rather than actual backwardness. In many ways, West Bengal has gone backwards than forward since 1970s, and therefore, while states like Punjab, Haryana, Gujrat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh registered economic progress, West Bengal's stalled economy has given the impression of a giant failure. 2014 may be a great moment to start rethinking its prospects.

Indeed, one has to start with many problems that the state still has. Lack of growth and populist administrations have emptied the state coffers and today the state has a huge debt burden, which constrains any policy initiative to stimulate growth. The central government in Delhi has been singularly unhelpful in the past, primarily as West Bengal has mostly been parties in opposition since 1977 (with some brief periods of respite, when the state's governing parties allied with coalitions in Delhi). Besides, the state's internal politics did not help. The Communist rulers indulged in systematic politicization not just of state's bureaucracy but also all public sectors, and filled the positions in Public Hospitals, State Colleges and Universities and other organisations with people politically allied with them. The recent changes in the Government, when the Communists were defeated by a party championing local interests, the incoming government led a purge, but retained the formula. Besides, this is also one of the most elitist states in the country, which is surprising given its long tradition of left activism and unbroken communist party rule for more than 30 years; however, communist rule usually promotes rather than undermine the hold of the elite on power, a strange lesson of history we are beginning to learn.

However, there are some good things, which never gets spoken about. For example, the state has strong agriculture, which was strengthened, one thing that must go to the credit of the communists, with effective land reform. West Bengal's villages do comparatively better than other states of India, though its urbanisation remains problematic. Rupee is still cheaper in West Bengal, it buys more stuff than other places, a competitive advantage West Bengal can't do most of given that India remain a singular unit in monetary and trade terms. West Bengal has a good commodity economy, but again, something that the state can not really leverage because of the control of Delhi. Finally, it has a great diaspora - very successful people in India and abroad - and a close cultural linkage with Bangladesh; it has done very little to leverage those strengths. Its location could be strategic, given that it is closer to South-East Asia, one of the world's most dynamic regions today, and its capital city, Kolkata, is the only Indian megacity with ample supplies of drinking water. 

These and more, it is time to re-imagine West Bengal's future. The political discussions in West Bengal were so far fragmented and interest-driven, but one great thing that Narendra Modi may have done for West Bengal is that he has put economic development squarely in the middle of the political agenda. And, so it should be, though Mr Modi's politics is perhaps the last thing West Bengal needs or wants. However, the national conversation about economic development and ways to achieve it may now kickstart a discussion in West Bengal.

In many ways, West Bengal's economic woes is a result of central policies dictated by Delhi, and it is time for the leadership of the state to assert its demands and try to get its way. For all its faults, the Trinamool Congress of the current Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee may be at the right place to do so: They are not an appendage to a national party, as the Communists were, and can take an unapologetic view about the state's interests. Besides, this election may make her a kingmaker, by giving her the third largest block of members in a divided parliament. This may give her the negotiating position to not just secure debt forgiveness, which will be a minimum to get the economy going again, but also leverage in other areas which the state desperately needs.

For example, West Bengal's economy depends crucially on its relationships with Bangladesh. Ms Banerjee has squandered early opportunities to reach out to Bangladesh and build the relationship on a new platform. This election may give her a second chance. It could be more or less difficult, depending on who gets to power in Delhi: A Narendra Modi led BJP, driven along communal lines, may make the relationship with Bangladesh more difficult. However, a moderate coalition, even if it is led by BJP (but a less triumphalist one, if they don't get their way with Modi) may follow a common sense path of strengthening India's deteriorating relationships with its neighbours. Bengal has maximum to gain with such a strategic pivot. In fact, one of the key agenda for Bengal's development could be the establishment of a free trade area with Bangladesh, with unrestricted movement of goods and even people. This may sound a radical suggestion and the other states may be uncomfortable with the suggestion: However, one may create a special Indian visa for Bangladeshis which allow them to stay in West Bengal legally without restrictions, and vice versa. This will indeed solve the illegal immigrant problem - because no immigrants will be illegal - but on a more serious note, this will accept the inevitable and expand the economies of both sides and reduce the animosity. This will expand the markets for West Bengal's enterprises multi-fold. Indeed, this kind of relationship should also include a fairer sharing of water from the rivers flowing from West Bengal into Bangladesh, and on a reciprocal level, road access to India's north-east through Bangladesh and a possible gas deal solving Bengal's energy problems. 

Now, all of this seems politically impossible, but this is an example how politics, and nothing else, is actually the reason of West Bengal's poverty. Integrating Bangladesh and West Bengal's economies will bring enormous benefits to both sides. The usual objections - that some people will lose out - are just excuses: Won't some people lose out if one starts building factories or roads (or, on the other hand, starts building a solely agricultural economy)? The process of development has winners and losers, and it is the state's responsibility to provide the social insurance for those who lose out. All the other objections, that poor people from Bangladesh will overrun all the land, is equally idiotic: People don't leave their land unless they are desperate, and when they are desperate, they come anyway. If anyone is thinking that the Indian Border Security force has erected a Chinese Wall around India's borders to keep the aliens out, they should go and visit the place themselves: They will soon know the charges that people smugglers on both sides levy. And, if this is a Hindu versus Muslim narrative, we should start growing up a bit.

Financial Restructuring and Open Doors with Bangladesh can create a new climate of development in the whole region, but those by itself will not be enough. There needs to be what the Development experts will call 'Capacity Building', because the developmental capacity of the state, its infrastructure, its institutions are in a very poor shape. There are some very specific areas of improvement one can see the government of the state can make.

First, they can reach out to the West Bengal's diaspora. This is a rich and successful diaspora, one that has a very strong sense of cultural identity. The new government, after they replaced the Communists, did make some attempts to reach out. But those efforts were mostly directed to the pandering of the rich and the powerful living in the West, following Narendra Modi's formula of developing a Non-Resident patron base, and completely overlooked the significant disapora spread over in other Indian cities, from the software engineers in Chennai and Bangalore, Bankers in Mumbai and Media men in Delhi. These are people with deep connections and ability to change things much faster than the American Doctors and British accountants: And, often, American Doctors and British Accountants come from the family of Bengali Civil Servant resident in Delhi. Also, while this business of reaching out to diaspora in other Indian states were mostly a parochial affair, West Bengal should approach this more like Deng, to learn, to engage and perhaps with an open mind. West Bengal's diaspora is not just Bengali: Kolkata was a cosmopolitan city, and the brilliant Punjabi scholar at the LSE that I got to know, but whose family home is in South Kolkata, is as much a part of West Bengal's diaspora as anyone else.

Second, the government, can, must, start rebuilding the health and education system. West Bengal has lately caught up with the private school, college and university model, popularly used in other state's to ramp up their education capacity. Ditto for health. However, the failure of sole reliance on private capital is abundantly clear and it will be foolish for Bengal to repeat the mistakes. It should, instead, learn from the experiences, and build a carefully balanced public-private model, assuming that the Fiscal crisis could be resolved. But the state may need to take a role, in making sure that the developments are dispersed all across the state and not clustered around the South-East.

Third, there needs to be a serious plan for urbanisation. One of the state's big problem is its over-reliance on one big city, which is falling apart. The efforts to build other cities, such as Durgapur, Siliguri, Asansol and Haldia were stunted, given the poor infrastructure and lack of capital investment from the state to create conditions for sustainable development. Again, possibly a public-private model is the answer, opening up new places for city development but doing so in a strategic manner. This will not only mean rebuilding these stunted cities (and re-energising Kolkata's infrastructure), but also building new cities. Indeed, one could also do more in getting private investment by building special infrastructure: An Academic City around Bolpur, a Medical City around Raigunj (if the AIIMS finally happens there), hubs of commodity marketing around Asansol, are all ideas worth considering. There is indeed a certain sensitivity towards land acquisition for industrial development in Bengal, particularly because the land is often highly fertile and also, ironically, because of the success of land reform. But, because of the relative success of agriculture, Bengal's next logical step is urbanisation: If this is done in a sensitive and fair way (and not in the arrogant and corrupt way the last Communist government wanted to push through these) and if there are clear benefits for those who would lose their land, one could indeed pull these projects through.

All of the above needs leadership, a change of political culture and indeed, eradication of corruption. Most observers watching Bengal has quite a bleak outlook on this regard. However, one thing that counts in Bengal's favour is that it still has a publicly minded middle class: Often, the overriding concern of Bengali middle class workers, usually expressed in idling discussions affectionately called 'Adda', is the state of the world around them rather than the state of the house prices and stock market indices. While one could argue that such idling and anti-materialism make Bengalis poor, it equal makes them capable of political action and effective change. This is why one could still keep faith on the eventual emergence of a 'Bengal model' of development. It is perhaps the right time for such discussions to start.   

2 comments:

Subhorup Dasgupta said...

Bounced back to this from your Liberal Folly post. Quite agree with both your Bangladesh relationship and Bengali diaspora views. I hope these ideas are being listened to, since the state is close to a point of no return. The focus on claiming and retaining power is so strong that areas like developing roads and hub-and-spoke urban centers are far from anybody's strategy. Of course, the desperate nature of alliance politics of today has a lot to do with it. If you are moving from one political crisis to another, it is very unlikely that you will be thinking either of the people or of long term solutions.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Yes, and as with the Liberal Folly thing, I wrote this out of despair. I am hoping that this election and its aftermath will shake up things, in a bad way first, and then in a good way. But then I am an optimist.

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