Desperate situations call for desperate remedies. In proposing to retrench some 12,000 employees, Calcutta’s mayor, Mr Subrata Mukherjee, has prescribed a drastic remedy for the dysfunctional municipal corporation. He is not the first civic administrator to complain that thousands of the municipal employees have no work. Nor is he the first Bengal politician to admit the guilt of his tribe in creating this huge workforce without work. But the malaise goes far deeper than the numbers of such employees. For one thing, the excess manpower makes a mockery of the principles of public finance, as salaries and wages eat up revenue, leaving little for the maintenance or improvement of the services. At a more important level, it is an example of the systemic corruption that forces the taxpayer to sustain this bloated workforce without getting the proper services. It is as though the corporation exists for the benefit, not of the citizens, but of its own staff. Mr Mukherjee’s proposal to use part of a British government loan for the city’s development as severance package for the superfluous staff is not the best way to utilize such aid. He obviously has little choice because the corporation has no money of its own to pay off these employees.
The problem that besets the corporation also plagues the West Bengal government and most of its undertakings. The chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, can make common cause with Mr Mukherjee to restore financial health and efficiency to the government outfits. In fact, the financial crisis of the state government suggests that the chief minister too has few options but to take hard economic decisions. It is no longer enough to state the intent; the longer the structural reforms are delayed, the higher the costs institutions and the public will have to pay. Both leaders should know that there will be stiff hurdles on the way. Himself a trade union leader, Mr Mukherjee may have to struggle on his way against the corporation’s militant trade unions, affiliated to Mr Bhatacharjee’s Communist Party of India (Marxist) as well as his own party, the Trinamool Congress. The chief minister faces similar resistance to his government’s plans to close down perennially loss-making state undertakings. But such obstacles can be no reason for dropping the reforms because there is no alternative. Fortunately, there are hopeful signs of a political consensus emerging in the state on the need for such reforms. Despite political rivalries, the mayor and the chief minister, therefore, have to work on the same economic agenda.