`We will protect farmers' interests'

Published : Jun 16, 2006 00:00 IST

Interview with West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.


FRESH from the resounding victory of the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the Assembly elections and into his second term as Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee speaks on the major areas of development identified by his government.

Responding to the huge victory of the Left Front, you said that you were not expecting such a massive mandate. How do you feel now?

We did not expect such a huge mandate. Our conservative estimate was that we should cross the 200 mark [out of 294 seats], and if we did well, then we should get 210. But even the party did not expect a three-fourths majority [235 seats]. I feel our responsibility has increased. The expectations of the people are so high that we will have to improve our performance even further. We must give due respect to the hope the people have placed on us through the verdict.

What are your thrust areas for development?

Our first priority is to improve the quality of life of those people living below the poverty line and for this purpose we have identified poverty pockets in every part of the State, particularly in the villages. There are around 38,000 villages in the State. We have identified 4,600 of them as being the poorest of the poor. Most of these villages are in the districts of Purulia and Bankura, Jhargram subdivision and the Sunderbans area. Recently at a conference, I made it clear that our officials must physically reach these villages. I am personally monitoring the activities. We are formulating various schemes for these regions, primarily for providing irrigation facilities. This is crucial for the poor peasants.

In places like Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram, where farmers depend on rain for cultivation, we are going for rainwater harvesting. A large number of people in these areas are also dependent on forest produce. Through LAMPS [Large Area Multipurpose Societies - tribal cooperatives] we are trying to organise the work there. We are giving subsidies on forest produce such as kendu and shaal leaves and babui grass. We are also providing them storage facilities. You must be aware that recently naxalites destroyed a kendu leaves godown in Bankura; and they claim to be friends of the poor.

Our second thrust area is to consolidate our success in agriculture. This year the State's production target for foodgrains is 17 million tonnes. First, food security must be guaranteed. Secondly, we will have to expand from agriculture to agro-business. There are two main benefits from this - the farmers will be able to earn more, and the food processing industry will be able to provide employment. Horticulture production is on the rise. We will have to create a market mechanism for it and set up cold storages. Some major investments in agro-business are also coming into the State.

Mukesh Ambani will be setting up a massive food retail business in the State. They [Reliance] will hold demonstration farming, produce good quality seeds and give inputs to farmers. The produce will be sold to Reliance's retail outlets. Dabur has already set up a pineapple-processing unit in north Bengal, and by next year they will expand their activities to tomatoes and mangoes.

Our third area of importance is to maintain this momentum of investments - both domestic and foreign - flowing into the State. We have to create a situation where more and more investments in both manufacturing and knowledge-based industries come in. There are certain areas in which we have not managed to reach our targets. That will have to be remedied.

Recently, Tata Motors' executives faced protests from farmers when they went to Singur in Hoogly district to inspect a piece of land for a factory to manufacture the company's Rs.1-lakh car. The incident shows that taking over double-crop agricultural land for industries is still a sensitive issue. Is there a need to reconcile the conflicting interests of farmers and industry?

Yes, the Singur incident has been a sensitive issue, and as I have already told you, we cannot ignore agriculture, particularly foodgrain production; but at the same time we also need land for the industries. Therefore, we have to take a very balanced view. As far as possible we should try to avoid [allotting] fertile agricultural land for industrial purposes. In Singur also, we are trying to see if we can avoid giving double-cropped land for Tata Motors. But, if there is no other alternative and we have to use some fertile land, then the interest of the farmers must be protected. But let me repeat, our policy is not to ignore agriculture. As for reconciling conflicting interests of agriculture and industry, our strategy is simple. In a particular place we calculate the value and mandays created by agriculture and then we convert the same to see it from industry perspective. We go for whichever is higher. Our policy is very clear and transparent. We will protect the interests of farmers, and at the same time, in a balanced way go forward with industrialisation. You see, the general trend of economic development and human civilisation has always been a movement from agriculture to industry, from the village to the city. But in a country like ours, where more than 65 per cent of the people are connected with agriculture, we must take very cautious steps.

The new Cabinet saw a revamp of the Education Department. Do you have any specific programme in mind?

At first I have to say that the spread of education in our State over the last 15 years has been very good, particularly after the Sarvashiksha Abhijan programme was started, and now we are going for 100 per cent literacy for children. We have practically achieved that - I think about two lakh children are still left [to be covered], and they belong to the poorest of the poor section. There are 68,000 primary schools under the Education and Panchayat Departments. Apart from paying salaries to teachers, the State government is also giving out free textbooks and has been successful in providing midday meals for schoolchildren. These are some good steps we have taken, and should be taken into account. At the same time I have to admit that the quality of teaching in these schools leaves a lot to be desired. This is a major cause for concern, and I have spoken to the Ministers and officials of the Education Departments on this issue. At the same time, you should also take into consideration that 68,000 schools is no mean figure, and many of these schools are understaffed. We are trying to give these teachers training while in service.

Another important issue is teaching English. We made a mistake in the past by removing English from the primary level and now we are trying to repair that damage. For this we have approached the British Council for help. But, overall, the quality of teaching at the primary level in the State is still unsatisfactory and a lot of work needs to be done here.

As for higher education, we need more centres for excellence. The performance of some institutions like Calcutta University, Jadavpur University and the Institute of Juridical Sciences is really good. We have identified two colleges - St Xavier's and Presidency - for granting autonomy. We have amended the law and St Xavier's has already been given autonomy. An expert committee has been set up to look into Presidency's case. The essential reason for granting autonomy to these two colleges is that they themselves become centres for excellence.

Health has been an area of public concern. There have been certain recent changes, little noticed in the media, such as allowing medical teachers to undertake private practice. What are the main problems and how do you intend to tackle them?

It is not just public concern it is public criticism [smiles]. Which is very good, and something we just cannot ignore. There are three major problems in the health sector; the first and the most serious of them is the lack of commitment from all sections, including doctors, nurses and paramedical staff. For that, our main task is to motivate them. Allowing medical teachers to practise is a practical decision we took. The second serious problem in this sector is the matter of discipline. For this we have already taken certain administrative decisions - for example, we found that the duties of the principal and the superintendent of medical colleges were overlapping and we had to bring about certain changes there; then for accountability, we have set up some advisory committees at various levels in the hospitals to enforce discipline. I have seen that in certain primary health centres, the doctors come just once or twice a week. The panchayats should demand an explanation for this from them. I believe that there should be a body in different communities to whom the respective doctors should be accountable. We are slowly trying to bring it within the frame of law.

The government is going to take stern steps in cases where there is total defiance of the administrative policies. For example, it was brought to my notice just a few days ago that a particular doctor of a government hospital - I don't wish to mention the names - insists while writing out his prescription that the medicines be bought from a particular chemist. The reason for that, it has been discovered, is that he has set up a chamber in that drugstore to pursue private practice. I have ordered that the errant doctor be asked to show cause immediately. I am not willing to hear any excuses.

The third major problem is that of cleanliness. We are looking into that and if necessary may outsource the work to keep the hospitals and health units spic and span.

What about more private medical colleges?

We need at least three more private medical colleges. The idea is that the best students after clearing the Joint Entrance Exams should not have to go outside the State to pursue their studies. As far as engineering is concerned, good students don't really need to go outside the State for further studies. Unfortunately, that is not the case with medical education.

Information Technology-enabled services sector has done well. But it is not labour-intensive and requires highly educated manpower. What is the solution for the 70 lakh semi-skilled and semi-educated unemployed?

That is correct, they are not labour-intensive industries. As I have mentioned before, what we need is both manufacturing and knowledge-based industries. Our top priority here is growth of manufacturing industries, particularly SMEs [small and medium enterprises]. It is the SMEs that are labour-intensive, and West Bengal has a tradition of such enterprises - handloom, sericulture, leather, plastics, foundries and rubber - which we are trying to revive.

Unemployment is there in the State, but the 70-lakh figure is a myth. There is no basis for this figure, for there is no system of eliminating names of those who have registered and later got employment. I have asked the Indian Statistical Institute to do a survey on this; their report should be available soon. I believe this figure to be much less. But still, it is undoubtedly a serious problem, but it is a national problem, and the State by itself cannot solve it. You see, the main purpose behind all our activities and efforts - agricultural and industrial - is how to reduce and eradicate unemployment.

Apart from what is happening in the organised sector, the State government, for the first time has created a separate department for self-employment and self-help groups. We have around 3.5 lakh self-help groups working in the districts, and most important, around 35 lakh women are involved in these projects, and they are becoming a major force for change and development.

What do you propose to do about the modernisation of the Kolkata airport?

I want modernisation of the Kolkata airport, let that be understood. With the increase in passengers, cargo, and trade, particularly with East and South-East Asia, we have no alternative but to modernise our airport. The best option is for the Airports Authority of India to take up the project; if they cannot, then I will have to make a decision. We have also decided, after prolonged discussions, to go for a feasibility study to set up a Greenfield airport in South 24 Paraganas, between Sagar and Kulpi port.The Consultant of Engineering Service has conducted the preliminary study for this project.

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