Can Bengal Be Brought Back From The Brink?

Can Bengal Be Brought Back From The Brink?West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (Illustration: Swarajya Magazine)
Snapshot
  • A weak state, with important international border and sizeable population, moving downhill is a threat to the integrity of the nation.

    Can this state be brought back to mainstream political economic narrative? Perhaps, the state election of 2021 will give an answer.

The abject health of the West Bengal economy can be best understood from the per capita expenditure on healthcare by the state government.

A recent analysis on state finances by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) shows that West Bengal spends just Rs 988 per capita on healthcare while the average spend by all states stands at Rs 1,482.

In other words, West Bengal allocates just 67 per cent of what is the average expenditure of the Indian states and Union Territories. The only other state that is worse is the neighbouring state of Bihar, which had spent Rs 781 per capita on healthcare.

In terms of per capita GSDP (gross state domestic product) West Bengal falls below the average per capita GSDP. West Bengal’s per capita GSDP is Rs 119,637 while the national average is Rs 145,491.

In a state, where economic activity is at best dormant, where no new investment has come and where younger generation is forced to seek gainful employment outside the state, the chances of it to recover from the “scissor effect” of Covid-19 pandemic are grim.

Economically, the impact is like a scissor — on one hand revenue falls due to the pandemic and on the other hand expenditure shoots up exponentially to contain the effect of it.

For West Bengal, where healthcare expenses are already very low, this meant a severe jolt to its finances. At the same time, the state faced a natural calamity in the form of Cyclone Amphan in May, which was during the Covid-19 lockdown period. The state’s already sick economy turned even sicker as a result.

The structural malady that West Bengal suffers from, a historical development over the last 50 years, created a condition that needs the lamp of Aladdin to turn around. The intensely politicised state and its political cadre, supported by all sections of administration, police included, now survives on extortion.

There is a price for anything, including for cremating its dead as was famously accepted by the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Without paying the middlemen, who are affiliated to the ruling party, nothing moves in the state.

This part of the economy, called 'Tola Economy”, yields no revenue to the exchequer. The scourge of the extortion racket can be seen in the RBI data on direct benefit transfer (DBT).

In the DBT performance score, as measured nationally, West Bengal was the last in the least with just about a score of 10 in 100 while the states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even Tripura had more than 80 as their respective performance score.

A weak administration naturally breeds a weak economy. The state which was at the top of the newly-independent India now ranks fifteenth in terms of per capita GSDP — lower than the national average and at the bottom of preference for any fresh investment.

That West Bengal is now a labour exporting state could be seen from the flow of migrant workers, who opted to return home during the Covid-19 lockdown phase. The Shramik trains ferried 258,000 migrants to West Bengal from four states of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Since the state had restricted movement of Shramik Special trains into its territory, this number is merely indicative. There are many more who managed to sneak back to their homes in West Bengal otherwise. The failure of the state government to provide succour to its own people illustrates the weak administration patented in West Bengal.

In contrast, Uttar Pradesh which had seen the largest number of migrants moving in had managed the deluge reasonably well, hiccups notwithstanding. This shows that if the administration intends, it can manage the sudden shocks.

In West Bengal, not only the administration had failed but also its civic society by its ostrich-like behaviour encouraged the failed state to carry on unchecked.

The RBI analysis brought to the fore the role of local administration in containing Covid-19 pandemic. Modern, revamped and fiscally sound municipal bodies, or the third tier of government, perform a set of functions such as sanitation facilities, uninterrupted provision of basic utility services, and disinfecting public places to stop the spread of the virus.

During the pandemic, various civic bodies adopted innovative approaches, which include installation of a disinfection tunnel in Rajkot; high clearance boom sprayers in Surat; and use of drones across various cities including Raipur, Guwahati, Bengaluru and Chennai. But there was nothing that RBI analysts could locate in West Bengal.

On the other hand, local bodies remained headless due to postponement of election in 107 municipal bodies.

In terms of corruption, local bodies are always one up the state administration even where the government is relatively efficient.

In West Bengal, the less said about these bodies the better. By postponing municipal body elections, the state government gave a boost to the already prevailing rampant corruption. This worked against managing the Covid-19 pandemic as well as rehabilitation to the migrants, who came back home.

Covid-19 has brought to the fore an interesting changeover in the character of West Bengal economy.

Even in 2011, based on the Census data, in the absence of any effort to keep track of inter-state migration of work force, RBI analysis categorised West Bengal as one of the in-migration states.

This data is at best crude for more reasons than one. An important one is the fact that since 2011 inter-state migration has grown annually by around 9 million — an analysis of the government for the period 2011-16 revealed.

Accounting for this sharp increase and the availability of unskilled and also semi-skilled workforce in major urban conglomerates of Delhi, National Capital Region, Bengaluru, Mumbai and even Kerala, far away from West Bengal, provide unavoidable anecdotal conclusion that migration from West Bengal has increased manifold.

The return of such workforce during Covid-19 time displayed the stark reality of West Bengal to the rest of the nation. Any state administration having inclination to ameliorate the lot of its citizens would have opted to record the number of migrants from the state, taking advantage of the reverse migration during the Covid-19 times.

The fact that West Bengal instead attempted to stall such move, indicates apathy of the political administration of the state.

Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of the state administration as well as its public discourse network. There has never been any serious effort to introspect on how the state can rebuild its economy and create economic opportunities for its residents — at best the discourse keeps wailing of the neglect of West Bengal by the national government.

The state thrives on protest and opposition instead of trying to sail on the favourable window offered by the economic prospects seen in other states of India.

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic this desperate effort to cling on to its isolationist temperament was seen.

The manner of handling the major state festival of Durga Puja is a case in point. The administration did never caution people of the potential problems in case of public gathering during the puja, instead encouraged the festivities even with financial grants to the organisers.

The Chief Minister was seen inaugurating Durga Puja in many large pandals. Also the elaborate preparations in many such puja organisations indicate that there was no intention to rein in the festivity due to the threat of Covid-19.

The state, its people, its government and its intelligentsia live in denial.

Finally, the Kolkata High Court had to come in with its order to check the festivity somewhat though a lot of damage was done by then.

Two factors stand out from the brief outline portrayed here. First is the unchecked downward spiral the state of West Bengal is caught in. Second is the utter nonchalance of the civil society in the state to look at the ailment and seek a possible way out.

For the nation this is a cancer — a weak state, with important international border and sizeable population, moving downhill is a threat to the integrity of the nation. There have been many instances of the state emerging as a safe haven for anti-national forces.

The all-important question is, can this state caught in its sense of isolated fantasy be woken up and brought back to the mainstream political economic narrative. Perhaps, the state election of 2021 will give an answer.

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