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All for a new Bengal

Print edition : Feb 12, 2010 T+T-
A photograph from the 1967-69 period. Jyoti Basu, Deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal, turns around on the arrival of Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai for a conference of Chief Ministers in New Delhi. Desai is being greeted by West Bengal Chief Minister Ajoy Mukherjee. At left is Kerala Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

A photograph from the 1967-69 period. Jyoti Basu, Deputy Chief Minister of West Bengal, turns around on the arrival of Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai for a conference of Chief Ministers in New Delhi. Desai is being greeted by West Bengal Chief Minister Ajoy Mukherjee. At left is Kerala Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

EACH generation has its own dominant image of Jyoti Basu. For an earlier generation than mine this image is of an intrepid fighter in the cause of the working class, an effective and unyielding tribune of the people, in the manner of Auguste Bebel, in the West Bengal legislature of the 1950s and 1960s. For a more recent generation than mine this dominant image is of a highly respected elder statesman, an architect of a broad coalition of forces to save the country from communal fascism and a voice warning the country about the dangers of the imperialist embrace that is euphemistically referred to these days as globalisation. For my generation the overwhelming image of Jyoti Basu is that of the builder of a new Bengal.

All these images of Jyoti Basu have their own validity. And they all share a common perception: that of a remarkably courageous and straightforward person, totally devoid of cant, and capable of seeing things without the blinkers that most people choose to put on. I prefer here, however, to dwell on the image of Jyoti Basu that my generation has, namely, as the builder of a new Bengal, because in my view that is a role that no one else but Jyoti Basu could have played.

Before the Left Front came to power, West Bengal presented the quintessential picture of a State in decline. Once the centre of British power east of Suez, it had witnessed, over the half century before Independence, an absolute decline in agricultural production per capita and an even steeper absolute decline in foodgrain production per capita. Though the post-Independence years witnessed some reversal of these dire trends, it was far from adequate: West Bengal was afflicted by a deep-rooted and long-standing agrarian crisis. Its traditional industries, tea and jute, originally owned by British managing agencies and subsequently taken over by mainly Marwari businessmen, faced inelastic world demand and overall bleak prospects. The engineering industry, which had come up mainly during the War years, received a jolt from the mid-1960s recession from which it never really recovered. The freight equalisation scheme had hurt the State badly.

The social crisis created by pervasive unemployment among the youth, refracted inter alia through the naxalite movement, was captured chillingly in artistic creations of the time, such as Mrinal Sens film Chorus. While a social revolution remained a distant dream, the way forward short of it was not clear. It appeared to be a society incapable as yet of making a leap, but hopelessly lost without such a leap. And this turbulent stasis came increasingly to be sustained through the use of semi-fascist terror by the state.

The remarkable turnaround in this situation, which the Left Front achieved within a few years of assuming office under Jyoti Basus leadership in 1977, would appear unbelievable to anyone who had witnessed the earlier situation. Indeed, the dynamics of that turnaround are still not very clear and require a substantial theoretical endeavour. There is only one thing, however, that one can say about it with certainty, namely, at the core of it was the overcoming of the long-standing agrarian crisis.

Lord Cornwallis Permanent Settlement had left two important legacies in Bengals economy. First, since the revenue accruing to the colonial government was fixed, the rate of return to the government from any investment in irrigation was nil, or at any rate way below the minimum rate of return that the colonial government insisted on earning on all its investments. Hence Bengal saw very little irrigation investment in the colonial period. There was an additional reason for this: following the report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture (1926) a view had gained currency that the problem of Bengal agriculture arose from too much water and not too little. This neglect of irrigation from the colonial period, though slightly reversed after Independence, continued to haunt West Bengals agriculture.

Secondly, as is well known, the Permanent Settlement had spawned a large parasitic class of rent receivers living off a pauperised peasantry. At the very top were the zamindars, but between them and the cultivators there were several layers of parasites, up to 27 in some places, which obviously discouraged any productive investment on land. Post-Independence land reforms had removed the top layer of zamindars but already by the time of Independence, as the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha pointed out in its memorandum to the Floud Commission (1940), a new and powerful class of intermediaries, the jotedars, had emerged, so that zamindari abolition, far from freeing the peasantry from the stranglehold of these parasites, had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the latter. The disincentives to productive investment on land therefore continued, as did the abysmal state of the cultivators, so much so that an influential academic work of the time, which covered both parts of Bengal and the period from 1949 to 1980, was titled The Agrarian Impasse in Bengal.

The Left Front confronted both these constraints head on. Land reform measures, initiated by the short-lived United Front governments earlier, were carried forward through the recording of sharecroppers under Operation Barga, through the conferring on them of rights to land, and through the distribution of ceiling-surplus land. This was followed by the setting up of an alternative institutional mechanism in the countryside, the panchayats, which not only entailed decentralisation of power and decision-making but also provided an alternative to the traditional power structure dominated by the jotedars. The balance of class forces was altered in the countryside in favour of the oppressed peasantry and against the jotedars, which, apart from strengthening democracy, also encouraged productive investment by the peasantry and hence the development of the productive forces. At the same time, there was a substantial step-up in public expenditure on rural development in general and on irrigation in particular.

As a result of these measures, a sea change occurred in the cropping intensity and in the cropping pattern. Areas which for centuries had witnessed only a single crop now started growing three crops. Local-level plans began to be drawn up with the help of the democratically elected representatives of the people serving on the panchayats. And agricultural growth in West Bengal began to pick up.

To some extent, even before the Left Front came to power, the potentials of, and the scope for, multiple cropping had become evident in small pockets in districts such as Bardhaman and Birbhum, where potato and boro rice had been cultivated as a third crop in addition to the traditional aman and aus. But what had remained confined to small pockets now became the common practice over large tracts of the State, so much so that in the decade of the 1980s West Bengal witnessed the highest rate of growth in agricultural production among all the States in the country. In the 1990s, the growth rate came down everywhere, a result inter alia of the neoliberal policies adopted by the Centre, which squeezed the peasantry even as they forced a curtailment of public investment in rural development. Even so, among the States, West Bengal continued to be a high performer.

Rapid agricultural growth, together with increased government expenditure in the countryside, enlarged the rural market in the State, both for foodgrains and for a variety of simple industrial goods. It is interesting that among all the States West Bengal and Kerala were the only two that witnessed a steady increase in per capita cereal consumption by the rural population in the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s. The increased demand for simple industrial goods in the countryside brought about a remarkable industrialisation from below in West Bengal, with substantial employment effects, whose reach and significance have been inadequately appreciated until now. And with rising incomes, the State governments revenues also rose, making possible enhanced social sector expenditures and a general improvement in the peoples quality of life.

Just one set of figures will suffice to establish the point. In 1977-78, the percentage of rural population in West Bengal consuming less than 1,800 calories a person a day, which really defines acute poverty (since the official poverty line is 2,400 calories), was as high as 40 per cent, compared with 25 per cent for India as a whole. By 1993-94 the figure had come down to 17 per cent, compared with 18.5 per cent for India as a whole. True, this figure went up in West Bengal, as also in the rest of the country, towards the end of the 1990s and early this century, because the pursuit of neoliberal policies by the Central government undermined food security in the country as a whole; but even in 1999-2000 the figure for West Bengal was just 22 per cent (though there are statistical problems in comparing 1999-2000 with the earlier years). The overriding objective of any government functioning in a country such as ours must be the amelioration of poverty; by that yardstick the Jyoti Basu governments record remains unparalleled in modern India.

The fact that something remarkable was happening in West Bengal was appreciated, before anyone else in the world outside could discern it properly, by that most insightful observer of the scene, E.M.S. Namboodiripad. It was obvious to any participant at the first International Congress on Kerala Studies, organised through his initiative in 1994 in Thiruvananthapuram, that the question which haunted him was the following: why is it that Kerala with its remarkable record of land reforms and remarkable achievements in the social sector (which had prompted many to talk of a Kerala model of development) continued to witness stagnation in the commodity-producing sectors, while the other progressive State, West Bengal, had such remarkable successes in promoting growth in the major commodity-producing sectors. EMS was not looking for bourgeois solutions, but solutions in keeping with the progressive traditions of his State, which is why he turned to West Bengal as his criterion for comparison. The answer he came up with was the role of panchayats and, accordingly, launched his momentous Peoples Plan Campaign. But what is of significance for us is his implicit tribute to the West Bengal model (if one may call it that).

The travails of the Left Front government from the end of the 1990s have been much discussed. But what is often missed by both critics and even supporters of the Left Front is that underlying these travails is the pursuit of neoliberal policies by the Central government. The hurdles created by the neoliberal environment against the Lefts approach were not immediately obvious. Indeed, it appeared at first, and not without justification, that the scrapping of licensing, which had been used as a tool of discrimination by the Central government against recalcitrant States such as West Bengal, would usher in a new era of growth of modern industry in the State. And the State government, starting from the period when Jyoti Basu was at the helm, had worked tirelessly for it. But there were two basic ways in which neoliberalism impinged adversely on the Left Fronts strategy.

First, as the tax-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio of the Centre declined over the decade of the 1990s (the States, in fact, did much better in this regard), the Centre not only cut back on its own expenditure, especially rural development expenditure, but even passed on the burden of its fiscal crisis to the State governments through reduced transfers to States and exorbitant interest rates (even exceeding the rate of growth of the average Net State Domestic Product) on its loans to States. The States thus became victims of a fiscal squeeze imposed by the Centre, and West Bengal was no exception. The problem of State indebtedness can be traced directly to this squeeze.

Having first imposed this squeeze, the Centre then used it to force the States to fall in line behind its pursuit of a neoliberal agenda. The Eleventh Finance Commission insisted on a set of neoliberal reforms the States had to carry out even to qualify for the resources that were their constitutional due. The Twelfth Finance Commission addressed the issue of State indebtedness by insisting that State governments pass fiscal responsibility legislation to qualify for assistance, which was both constitutionally questionable and uncalled for by the tenets of economic theory and which the West Bengal government rightly refused to do. The origins of West Bengals fiscal problems lay inter alia in these developments.

Secondly, as a fallout of the withdrawal of state support from peasant agriculture under the influence of neoliberalism, the current century has witnessed a virtual stagnation in absolute foodgrain output, at least until 2006-07 (after which procurement prices were raised, in a reversal of neoliberalism, and appear to have had a favourable effect on output). And West Bengal has not been spared the consequences of this stagnation. Many, of course, would find fault with the Left Front government for not coping with the situation better, but the situation itself, which arose from the pursuit of neoliberalism, must never be lost sight of.

It continues to pose severe challenges before the Left even today. The fact that the Left will not have the benefit of Jyoti Basus sagacity in charting out a new course in this complex scenario is a great tragedy. But it can draw genuine pride from the fact that during the two decades and more when Jyoti Basu was at the helm in West Bengal, it achieved something, which, though somewhat unsung, was nonetheless quite outstanding.