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At the tipping point?

Economic and electoral data show why West Bengal is a key battleground state

Written by Bibek Debroy |
March 16, 2009 2:07:46 am

West Bengal’s progressive economic decline since the ’60s is known,even though myopic memory means people don’t always remember how bad it has been. The big picture is the growth story. During the Eighth (1992-96) and Ninth (1997-2001) Plans,the state didn’t perform that badly. But there were three problems. First,growth was driven by agriculture,not industry or services. Second,growth failed to take off during the Tenth Plan (2002-06),which is when many states broke into the 9 per cent-plus league. Third,agricultural growth is rain-fed,small-farmer-led and based on low-productivity,and that too began to plateau from around 1995-96.

It is easy to blame population growth,including immigration. However,other populous states have managed population better. Maharashtra is an instance. One figure tells it all. Workers employed in manufacturing is 3.1 million in West Bengal. Gujarat has 1.5 million. The difference is that West Bengal’s manufacturing employment,unlike Gujarat’s,is predominantly rural,own-account and unorganised. Sickness in SSI (small-scale industry) is higher than the all-India average. Whether West Bengal’s land reform and decentralisation strategy brought substantial economic empowerment is debatable. However,it did bring social empowerment. That social empowerment tapered off because a second round of tenants were kept dangling without rights. This was a future carrot used to ensure they continued to vote for the Left Front.

Meanwhile,growth flagged in all three sectors — primary,secondary and tertiary. Among the educated youth (15-29 years),West Bengal’s unemployment rate is the highest in India. The backlog of those registered with employment exchanges is 7.72 million. In 2006,the last year for which we have data,497,000 registered with employment exchanges and 15,100 obtained jobs. There is a problem both with availability of employment and its quality. And there are considerable intra-state disparities. Depending on indicators,districts like Bankura,Birbhum,Dakshin Dinajpur,Jalpaiguri,Koch Behar,Maldah,Medinipur,Purulia and Uttar Dinajpur are worse than India’s perceived badlands. Equity concerns should mean elimination of these disparities. Not only has that failed,there has been an inability to subsidise the poor,such as through BPL (below the poverty line) or AAY (Antyodaya Anna Yojana) cards. 2004-05 the NSS (National Sample Survey) data show 47.3 per cent of West Bengal’s poor have neither of these cards and 43.3 per cent of non-poor have BPL or AAY cards. A facilitating business environment doesn’t exist and this goes beyond man-days lost to industrial disputes,strikes or lockouts. In the World Bank’s sub-national rankings on ease of doing business,Kolkata is behind Jaipur,Bhubaneswar,Lucknow,Patna and Ranchi.

Law and order indicators are bad. In serious cognisable crimes like murder,rape and molestation and kidnapping,West Bengal’s figures are far higher than all-India averages. Equally bad are physical infrastructure indicators,even in instances where there is a 100 per cent Centrally-sponsored scheme like the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). Despite PMGSY,the percentage of West Bengal’s habitations not connected by roads is higher than in Jharkhand. Per capita consumption of electricity is lower than in both Jharkhand and Orissa. Even in much-vaunted social infrastructure,barring some health indicators,West Bengal performs worse than many of India’s perceived backward states. Drop-out rates are higher and completion rates lower than in Orissa. The point to note is that this happens even when there are Central schemes and Central funding,as with PMGSY or SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan). That’s also true of NREGA. And West Bengal and Kerala are the worst implementers of the Right to Information Act. To compound matters,state finances are in a mess. Between 2003-04 and 2005-06,states had average surplus of 0.4 per cent,as share of GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product). West Bengal had a fiscal deficit of 5.4 per cent and revenue deficit of 4.0 per cent.

In Delhi-6,Vijay Raaz (police inspector) slaps Abhishek Bachchan when the latter refers to the former as a public servant. That’s symptomatic of many of India’s problems,since citizen interface is often with administrative machinery,not hallowed organs of the state described constitutionally. Every year,“Foreign Policy” and “The Fund for Peace” rank countries in a Failed States Index and India,while not a failed state,is surrounded by them. Lant Pritchett has coined the expression,Flailing State,for India,since while the head of institutions exists,the limb of implementation flails about. Such ranking aren’t done for India’s states. Were they to be done,West Bengal would be both a failed and flailing state.

Invariably,people castigate the Left for obstructing reforms. While that’s true,West Bengal’s problem isn’t one of misguided policies alone. Even more importantly,it is a problem of flailing implementation,a collapse of administrative machinery,since all governance functions have been abdicated to the party. Consequently,nomenklatura has taken over. Historically,the Left was perceived to be relatively clean and honest. In West Bengal,that image has taken a beating,and there are several visible and high-profile instances of corruption. Why then does the Left continue and why isn’t it voted out?

The answer isn’t rigging. While that exists,it is unlikely to be quantitatively significant. Part of the answer lies in organised party machinery,required to mobilise and ensure supporters turn up to vote,especially important for migrant labour. But an even more important answer is TINA (there is no alternative). The opposition has neither been united,nor credible and votes have been split. For instance,let’s look at West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats after delimitation and add up votes cast in the 2008 panchayat elections,to deduce whether Trinamool plus Congress vote shares exceed those of the Left. There are several ifs and buts in this exercise. With those caveats,the only “safe” Left seats are Joynagar,Arambagh,Ghatal,Jhargram,Bankura,Bishnupur,Purba-Burdhaman and Burdhaman-Durgapur. With a united opposition,all but these eight are assailable,and Purba-Burdhaman and Burdhaman-Durgapur can also be under threat if BJP votes switch. With the Trinamool-Congress tie-up,the opposition is largely united,though credibility can be questioned. The Nandigram and Bishnupur (West) by-elections also demonstrate the east may not be entirely red,a fact Jyoti Basu also acknowledges. The Left’s governance record doesn’t warrant its being voted back in and some years in opposition may be good for the Left too. For the moment,after several decades,West Bengal’s voters have a genuine choice.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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