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OFF THE FAST TRACK

Late starters fail on the fast track unless they make a special effort to pick up speed. West Bengal, which joined the race for information technology later than many other states, has stayed behind. A recent study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research presents a grim scenario for the state. It places West Bengal in the unenviable company of states like Uttar Pradesh and Kerala in the development of IT and IT-based industries. The position is far below that of not just the most advanced states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, but also of the “prospective leaders” such as Gujarat, Delhi, Goa and Chandigarh. Little wonder then that foreign or domestic investors pass Calcutta by and flock to the booming IT centres in Hyderabad, Bangalore or Chennai. Yet, West Bengal is believed to have a large enough pool of human resources to develop industries and services based on IT. Since this sector is still relatively undeveloped, young men and women from West Bengal have to look for educational and professional opportunities in other states. It is not just a matter of employment opportunities; the IT revolution has become the engine of growth in the New Economy.

Slow learners as they have been, the ruling Marxists now claim to understand the importance of IT in reviving West Bengal’s economy. In 2000, the state government announced an IT policy and followed it up last year with yet another policy on “IT-enabled services”. After the assembly elections in 2001, the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, marked the IT sector as one of his top economic priorities. The NCAER study suggests that there still is a large gap between policy and performance. Many institutions have sprouted all over the state apparently to offer IT education. But the lack of professional expertise would suggest that most of these are more interested in making money than in offering quality education. This is borne out also by the fact that most undergraduate colleges which have started IT courses in their curriculum have only part-time teachers borrowed from private institutions. Even the Indian Institute of Information Technology at Salt Lake, which promised to herald the new beginning, has not quite turned out to be a centre of excellence. Mr Bhattacharjee may take heart in one or two big IT companies, like Wipro or Infosys, showing an interest in setting up new units in the state. But that, obviously, is not going to change the scenario dramatically. What he needs is an aggressive approach to creating a vast pool of quality IT education which can develop knowledge-based industries and services.

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