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Of continuity and change

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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Interview with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee met Frontline at Muzaffar Ahmad Bhavan, the State headquarters of the CPI(M), during the course of a packed Sunday schedule. Bhattacharjee was appointed Information and Cultural Affairs Minister in the first Left Front Government in 1977, Deputy Chief Minister in September 2000 and Chief Minister in February 2001. Born and brought up in North Calcutta, he joined the Left movement as a school pupil. A playwright himself, he continues to be a popular figure in the cultural and literary movement of the Left in the State.

Bhattacharjee has been in the glare of the media for, among other things, his engaging leadership style. He is perplexed by all the fuss. ''I have always been like this," said the 56-year old Chief Minister puffing at his cigarette. And as for the legacy left by his predecessor, Jyoti Basu, he is quite clear about where he stands. "I cannot fit into Jyoti Babu's shoes. They are too big for me!"

Excerpts from his interview with Parvathi Menon and Kalyan Chaudhuri:

How do you assess the election victory ?

We have run this government for 24 years and in that time have done something for the people of this State. In particular, there have been radical changes in agrarian relations. Seventy to 80 per cent of the cultivable land in West Bengal now belongs to the poor, a unique achievement in India. As a result of the land reform programme and various other development programmes and the establishment of the panchayat system, the majority of the rural masses supported the Left Front. We won all but one of the seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe candidates, and 90 per cent of the seats reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. We won virtually all the seats in North Bengal, the seat of the Kamtapuri movement. In urban and semi-urban areas, there was, no doubt, an anti-incumbency factor at work, mainly because of problems such as unemployment and rising prices (which are, in fact, national problems).

Why did people vote the way they did?

First, our slogan was that if you want development, vote for the Left Front. The people have the political consciousness to realise that although there are many things that remain undone, we have done many things for the people. Taking our achievements together, we said: support our policy of development; the alternative is anarchy!

Secondly, it is clear that for the last 24 years, the people have enjoyed individual rights and that political parties and trade unions have functioned freely. On the other side, the Opposition, particularly the Trinamul Congress, encouraged their workers to violence in Medinipur, Bankura, Hugli and elsewhere. Our appeal to the people in this case was: choose between the rule of law and violence. And they voted for us.

Thirdly, we said that the tradition and culture of the people of West Bengal is hostile to a fundamentalist party like the BJP, whose main friends are the RSS and the VHP.

So if you ask me, in the final analysis, the election was a battle between development and anarchy, between the rule of law and lawlessness, and between secularism and communal tension. And the people voted for us.

Do you see these election results having an impact outside the State?

The Left is playing a very important role in forming a Third Front at the national level and I believe that this victory will strengthen the third alternative.

Do you think there will be a basic difference in the priorities of the previous five governments and this one?

As you can see from the five election manifestos of the Left Front, there is continuity with respect to basic policies. At the same time, there may be changes with respect to our priorities. Our success lies in the rural areas of West Bengal and we shall have to consolidate our successes in agriculture and rural development. Our focus now is on creating jobs and on speeding up industrialisation. With respect to the latter, we want to advance in particular areas such as the small and medium sectors. We want a strong Public Distribution System to safeguard the interests of our people. Finally we must sensitise our administration, in order that it is free of corruption, more dynamic and responsive.

What are your plans and priorities in agriculture and the small and medium sectors?

We want to improve our performance in agriculture. In 1977 when we first formed a Left Front government, the area irrigated was only 39 per cent of net sown area. That share is now 62 per cent and our target is to achieve 72 per cent within five years. There are many aspects of agriculture that we must improve, including agricultural research and seed development and production. In the first stage of agrarian reform, we distributed land and established panchayats and enhanced rice production. We must now diversify agricultural production and build agro-industries on that basis.

West Bengal is in a fairly comfortable position in the hosiery industry; we rank second to Tamil Nadu among the States. The same is the case in respect of the production of leather, and the completion of our project in Bantola should strengthen our position in the industry. There are other areas too, such as handloom and sericulture. Information technology is a new and emerging sector, and although a late starter, we were able to export Rs.700 crore worth of software last year.

Could you give examples of how the economic policies of the Central Government affect your policy priorities?

To take one example, practically all the important engineering industries in the State are being closed. The Centre has already closed eight big public sector units, including the Cycle Corporation of India, and the Mine and Allied Machinery Corporation (MAMC) in Durgapur. Now they plan to close 56 coal mines!

I remember the MAMC factory in Durgapur very well. I attended my first public meeting there as a student on May Day, 1966. This was the peak period in the life of the factory, when there were 14,000 workers producing modern mining equipment in collaboration with the Soviet Union. It was a very big township, with housing for workers, schools, and hospitals. When I went there last month, it was like a desert! Although 90 per cent of the workers have left, a group of factory workers was still there, people sitting with their families in front of the factory. What could I tell them in consolation? Now that the mines are being closed, there is no demand for mining equipment.

In the coal mines, the number of regular and casual workers who will be thrown out of jobs is half a million! Such unemployment will affect the whole economy of the area; shops, bazaars - everything - will be closed.

Such is globalisation. They want to buy coal from Australia and close the mines. They want to buy railway engines from Canada and close down Chittaranjan Locomotives. Today's papers tell us that three big Central government undertakings, Braithwaite and Company Ltd, Burn Standard Company Ltd and Jessop and Company Ltd, have stopped getting orders.

After the removal of trade restrictions to conform to the requirements of the WTO, the price of rice has fallen sharply. In Kerala the prices of coconut, cashew and coir have fallen. West Bengal produces the finest quality teas from Darjeeling. Now tea is being imported from China at Rs.30 per kilogram. I can give similar examples with regard to leather goods and silk, which is grown in Murshidabad and Malda.

The policies of liberalisation and globalisation will certainly create problems for all States. We have to fight this uneven war, and in this chaotic situation, we have to try to work at finding an alternative model.

What is your policy on foreign investment? In which areas will you invite such investment?

We published a policy statement in 1994 in which we stated categorically that we want foreign investment in certain areas where we do not have the technology available locally. When we invite foreign investment it is to be in our mutual interest. After the establishment of Haldia Petrochemicals, Mitsubishi has set up a chemical industry in Haldia, the first time the Japanese have invested in West Bengal. In the IT sector, we have been able to attract two or three foreign companies. One is the Anglo-French company Sema, and the other is IBM, which has set up distance learning centres in the State. IBM has also proposed that it establish computer training in 1,000 schools. We are inviting foreign financial agencies such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank to invest in infrastructure such as roads. We need modern expertise to help in connecting our rural areas. My first job as Chief Minister last week was to finalise a document dealing with a Rs.1,500-crore project to be funded by the ADB for a north-south corridor linking Calcutta and Siliguri.

Where we have the manpower, technology and engineering - for instance in the power industry, or in respect of water supply and urban development - we do not invite foreign investment. We do not want to privatise basic civic amenities; we just cannot take that risk.

You have spoken on several occasions during the election campaign about the weaknesses and faults of your government.

Let me give you some examples. One is our policy for free and universal education. Primary education has now spread to the rural and urban areas, and the number of students in the primary school system has improved greatly. Our problem is that the quality of teaching is very poor.

Another area is that of health. More than 70 per cent of the health care provided in West Bengal is provided by the public health care system. But the conditions in hospitals - the atmosphere and services - are very poor. The service is poor, floors are not cleaned, patients are not served food at proper times, the quality of food is bad, and so on. I am trying now with my Health Minister to improve conditions in hospitals.

Thirdly, I must mention police stations. The people want to see the police as their friends, and I am trying my best to motivate my police force in that direction. When a poor person from a Scheduled Tribe goes to a police station, nobody bothers to talk to him, but when a "suited-booted" person arrives in a car the police invite him in for a cup of tea! This cannot be tolerated. This is a free country now and we have to get rid of the colonial past. To take another example, the roads in our State are in very bad shape. The condition of our roads cannot be compared with those in Maharashtra, Karnataka, even Orissa.

I have to tell the real truth here, and examine specifically where we have failed. To investors coming from outside, I say that I am here to work on these problems as early as possible.

There has been quite a bit of writing in the media on your style and the way you engage with people...

This has become a problem now! Kalyanda here (refers to Kalyan Chaudhuri) knows me from my college days. I have always wanted to meet people directly, from the time I was in the youth movement.

What are you reading at present?

A collection of short stories in Bengali by Ritwik Ghatak, and Blindness by Jose Saramago.

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