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'The people must formulate plans'

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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Interview with Surjya Kanta Mishra.

Dr. Surjya Kanta Mishra holds two key portfolios, Panchayats and Rural Development, and Health and Family Welfare. Dr. Mishra, a chest specialist, left a medical career to become a full-time activist of the CPI(M). He won national recognition during his term as Sabhadipathi (president) of the Midnapur district Zilla Parishad which he made a model in early panchayat administration. He took over the department of Land and Land Reforms and Panchayat Development from Benoy Chowdhury, the legendary figure of the Left movement in Bengal.

The soft-spoken Mishra is something of a model of a people's Minister: "I tell people that I will turn blind and deaf unless I can see through their eyes and hear through their ears."

Excerpts from an interview he gave to Parvathi Menon and Kalyan Chaudhuri:

What is your asessment of the outcome of the elections?

It is the only outcome that could have been expected: a positive verdict in favour of the government and its achievements. The results exposed the bankruptcy of the other parties, which went through a series of opportunist alliances. There is no alternative to the Left Front than a better Left Front.

In what way is this election different from earlier ones?

We need to take forward our experience in certain areas, for example, in land reform and decentralisation. We have also expanded in certain areas without any consolidation, for example, education and health. These weaknesses have to be addressed.

Where does the decentralisation process go from here?

We need more effective, meaningful, decentralisation through implementing the directives of the Second Finance Commission, which was set up last year. It has submitted an interim report, some of whose recommendations we have not been able to implement. For example, 16 per cent of the tax revenues of the State are to be devolved to the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) as untied funds. As of now, more than 50 per cent of the plan budget (that is, over Rs.1,000 crores) is devolved to PRIs. Most of that, however, is in the form of tied allocations. We need a movement that is aimed at changing the devolution of funds, from tied to untied.

Secondly, we must improve the planning process. We have already experimented with a decentralised planning exercise in four blocks at the level of the gram sansad (the electorate of the constituency from which a particular member of the gram sabha has won). The results have been encouraging and we are now expanding it to 100 blocks, and then to the whole State next year. Our definition of people's participation is meaningful participation by the poor, Dalits, and women. There is no point in Writers' Buildings or panchayat centres fomulating programmes and asking the people to participate in them. Our position is that the people must formulate plans and that the government and panchayats must participate in them.

There have been reports of reversals of the achievements of the land reform from different parts of the State.

After liberalisation there has been a continuous attack on the successes of land reform. The process of liberalisation favours the concentration of assets in fewer hands and an increase in social disparity. It poses a constant threat to land relations as they exist in Bengal today. We have been able to defend the gains of land reform with whatever little means we have at our disposal.

This basic position remains unaltered although there have been reversals here and there, for instance by means of informal acts of alienation of land from small and marginal farmers. For almost two years in the Garbeta area, the Trinamul (Congress) tried through terror to turn the correlation of forces against the poor.

There is a serious problem of unemployment, particularly among youth, in the countryside.

In Bengal, the employment elasticity of agricultural output is the highest amongst all States and higher than the all-India average. The growth in off-farm labour has had a positive impact on rural employment. But the problem you have mentioned remains. Youth from rural families, once educated, do not return to agriculture. This is partly because of a defect in our educational system, and we now plan to start professional courses in every block.

Your other portfolio is that of Health and Family Welfare. What are going to be your priorities here?

A section of the media has been critical of the Health Department, attacking it for being non-performing. They say that cats and dogs, and not people, are to be seen in hospitals! The fact is that in Bengal birth rates, death rates and infant mortality rates have come down. Ninety per cent of surgical procedures in the State are done in the public sector, and 70 per cent of outpatient cases are treated in the public sector.

Despite these achievements, there are problems. First, we need to decentralise health. The message that goes out must be that the community's health is safest in community hands. Health must become a movement that must go to the PRIs. It cannot be managed from Writers' Buildings. Secondly, we must give some degree of autonomy to medical colleges and hospitals. The Medical Council needs to be reconstituted and democratised. Thirdly, we must ensure accountability at all levels.

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