Friday, October 18, 2013

Road to regression

By Swapan Dasgupta
It is inconceivable to imagine a place 100 km from a metropolis but cut off from what is happening in the rest of the country and, indeed, the whole world. Curiously, that was my experience when I spent three days of the Durga Puja celebrations in my mother’s ancestral village.
Actually Guptipara is more of a market town that boasts a railway station, two ATMs, an engineering college and an ASI-protected temple.
In ordinary times the village is served by both newspapers and local cable TV. But last week wasn’t ordinary. First, the outer perimeter of the Cyclone Phailin resulted in incessant rain and strong winds. This ensured that the TV in my cousin’s bedroom was unable to receive signals — not that anyone watches news channels during a grand family reunion.
But what about newspapers, at least the Bengali ones which are avidly read, digested and discussed in rural Bengal? Strange as it may seem, there were no newspapers in West Bengal for four days.
The journalists were willing to work and the workers were ready to keep the printing presses rolling. Unfortunately, the highly unionised newspaper hawkers decided that it was inappropriate to distribute newspapers on the days Ma Durga was coming home.
Most states in India have local holidays when no newspapers are published. But whatever the local variations, the four-day holiday was unique. Yes, that used to be the practice with Bengali newspapers once upon a time.
But the practice had been abandoned during the latter part of Left Front rule when the communists belatedly recognised that for West Bengal to revive, capitalist values — managed by a Marxist party — must stage a comeback. Now, with the reds in full retreat, regression appears to have set in.
Nor is the four-day Durga Puja an aberration. Driving along the Old Delhi Road, parts of which were also the Grand Trunk Road, I was struck by two things. First, that this road had not been re-surfaced for years, so much so that it took nearly two hours to travel the first 45 km towards Kolkata.
Some­time ago a Trinamul Congress legislator suggested that the old Jessore Road should be renamed Uday Shankar Sarani because going through it involved unending body movement. The Old Delhi Road could do with a similar name change.
I read recently that Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, the man with clever answers to questions, had promised Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the necessary funds for the maintenance of roads in West Bengal.
The question then is: Was funding of schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana withdrawn after the Trinamul Congress withdrew support to the UPA-2 government? Alternatively, does West Bengal secure a “developed” state label in the Raghuram Rajan Index? The Centre spends a lot of money on all sorts of things, including underwriting the media with advertisements for Bharat Nirman. Yet, it doesn’t have money to maintain important link roads.
The second feature of the bone-shaking drive along the Old Delhi Road was the cruel sight of acres and acres of land, behind high boundary walls, occupied by factories that had closed down. The term “rust belt” has a particularly resonance in this part of West Bengal that happens to be not too far from Singur where rust set in even before the machines had been fully installed.
That many, if not most, of these industries shut down owing to irresponsible trade unionism by the comrades with red flags is undeniable. That most of these units will never reopen under their existing managements is also an unfortunate reality — some were actually bought over by ponzi schemes to showcase mythical investments.
It is also a fact that a number of erstwhile manufacturing units have been converted into warehouses for cars and chemical fertilisers. But by and large, there is a vast stretch in the heart of West Bengal that has been turned into ghostly relics of a once-grand industrial age.
It is such a colossal waste. The process of re-industrialisation of West Bengal came to a halt on the issue of land acquisition from small and marginal farmers. Ms Banerjee champ­ioned the cause of the marginal peasants, drove out the Tata Nano plant from Singur and created the conditions for the electoral defeat of the well-entrenched Left Front.
The Singur experience frightened industry and reinforced the perception of West Bengal as an inhospitable place. Since Singur there has been no large scale investment in manufac­turing in a state that was till the mid-1960s second only to Maharashtra. West Ben­gal has, in effect, become a trading hub and a permanent branch office.
To turn adversity into opportunity requires more than just inspired political leadership. It also necessitates a disavowal of the mindset of envy and cussedness that bred Bengali Marx­ism. Tragically, there is little evidence of any mental transformation.
Bengalis, it is said, are productive outside their homeland. That may well be a reality rather than a racial stereotype, but is it always destined to be so? In the aftermath of the UPA’s Land Acquisition Act, industry is sullen on account of not merely the costs but the complex process of bureaucracy monitored rehabilitation of the dispossessed.
There are sniggers that far from preventing farmers being short-changed by real estate sharks, the act will promote an underground Land Use Change industry.
The fears are yet to be tested. However, the many thousands of acres earmarked for industry lying non-utlised is a national waste. There is a compelling case for the state compulsorily re-acquiring land occupied by closed industries and auctioning these to investors who are anxious to secure land to establish manufacturing units.
Had the Tatas been given lands occupied by closed industries along the Old Delhi Road, the Singur kerfuffle may never even have happened. Instead, we may have seen a resurfaced road linked to the Durgapur expressway, existing space for smaller ancillaries and, perhaps, even a workforce willing to wipe away a past history of disruption.
It didn’t happen that way. But it doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen.

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