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SLOW TO CHANGE

It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that people want change and yet resist it. The reformer must therefore anticipate the resistance to reforms and create the climate of opinion to overcome it. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should prove that he is not a fake reformer who would buckle under the first signs of resistance. He led the Left Front to victory in last year’s assembly elections on a brave new promise of change. More than a year later, his first steps have been tentative and slow. One reason for this tardy progress is obviously the fear of a populist resistance. The outcry over the West Bengal chief minister’s latest proposals to raise court fees and charges of medical education is a test of his skill and determination to push his reform agenda. There have been other tests as well, such as the ones over increasing hospital charges, closing down sick industrial units and cutting down wasteful government expenditure. Some good beginnings notwithstanding, Mr Bhattacharjee’s government still seems to be the slow coach its predecessors had been.

No government worth its salt can justify a drain on the public exchequer to meet popular — and unreasonable — expectations. No economic argument can justify the training of a doctor for which the would-be medico pays Rs 1,500 a year and the public pays Rs 1.5 lakh as subsidy. It is patently unfair that public money should be spent to subsidize court fees so that lawyers and their clients can benefit from it. It is the same lopsided logic that would justify the running of ailing industries and paying wages to their workers with the taxpayers’ money. The other primary argument for basic economic reforms is that one has to pay to buy a service, be it in education, healthcare or consumer goods. It is only the weak and the unenterprising who would perennially ask for subsidies to protect and support the services they need. And a government that keeps on giving such subsidies not only acts against all logic but also perpetuates a system and a mindset that cripple all human enterprise. It is not just bad economics, but also bad, and immoral, governance . The mayor of Calcutta, Mr Subrata Mukherjee, hit the reform idea on the head when he recently said that even slum-dwellers must pay for the water supply to their homes. The idea is to impress upon people at all levels that the government does not exist to provide them free or heavily subsidized services.

Raising fees for court cases or medical education can bring Mr Bhattacharjee’s cash-strapped government some relief. But that can hardly be the real goal of economic reforms. After all, the increased revenue may come to nought unless the government also implements financial and administrative reforms. The important thing is to ensure that the people pay at reasonable rates for the services they buy. And it is unfair for one group of people to buy a service cheap and make all taxpayers pay for it. That is also why Mr Bhattacharjee’s government has no business to interfere with the move by some minority school authorities to raise their fees. The chief minister must withstand resistance to his own reform proposals and not stand in the way of other reformers.

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