This newspaper recently hosted its annual debate on whether a resurgent Bengal was an impossible dream. Not surprisingly, the verdict of the 600-odd listeners went against the motion. This has as much to do with tangible societal gains as with an enveloping sense of crisis which embeds enormous opportunities. The glorious past of Bengal needs no persuasion. It was integrated with the rest of the world through trade and interchange of knowledge. Ironically, much of Bengal’s glory dimmed post-Independence, and for a good three decades the state remained in the shadows, for reasons complex and mostly man-made.
The current low-level equilibrium emanates from a combination of failed policies and promises, the inability to attract talent and capital, together with a growing sense of despondency. The restlessness for change to a new economic and political order has gripped the psyche of West Bengalis. The growing disconnect between the urban and the rural and rising inequality add to the unease and to the quest for rapid change. However, an objective assessment must be cognizant of multiple spheres.
First, the problems of Bengal are generally not atypical of the problems of India: primarily about how to create employment, improve efficacy and the quality of the public delivery system, minimize corruption, create an environment which fosters innovation and enable the realization of demographic dividends. To overcome the vested lobbies, it is necessary to redo our rules and regulations, particularly regarding labour and manufacturing, in creating high growth, high employment and a more egalitarian social order. And to change mindsets in tune with contemporary challenges. A lot of issues that are being argued against Bengal are equally true of India, be it issues of human development, governance or corruption. Bengal mirrors India’s problems as India mirrors Bengal’s problems.
Second, the other issue that needs specific mention is that life is bigger than mere gross domestic product numbers. Growth and outcome cannot be measured merely by changes in the GDP numbers. The expensive costumes of Carla Bruni, the wife of President Nicolas Sarkozy, or what Paris Hilton secures from the exclusive designers, Louis Vuitton or Chanel, may have added to the GDP numbers of France but has not contributed to the index of French happiness.
That is why President Sarkozy appointed a commission comprising two Nobel laureates, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, who, in their report, pointed out that the outcome of growth cannot be measured by quantifiable numbers alone but through a broader index of happiness. This inter alia implies a cohesiveness of society, levels of tolerance, communal harmony and the social mobility of the population. No one can make the accusation that the societal evolution of Bengal has been based on narrow, regional chauvinistic lines. These are not variables that can be quantified and captured by GDP numbers.
Third, on growth rates, from 1970 to 1980, Bengal grew at 3.2 per cent compared to the Indian average of 3.1 per cent; between 1980 and 1991, Bengal grew at 4.2 per cent compared to India at 5.6 per cent, a notch lower. But, then, consider the next 20 years — from 1990 to 2001, West Bengal grew over 6.7 per cent, whereas India lagged behind at 5.7 per cent. Similarly, between 1993-94 and 2004-05, Bengal’s growth at 8.55 per cent was well over India’s average growth of 6.8 per cent. True, it is only in the post-2004 period that growth rates in Bengal have been somewhat slower than India’s growth rates, which shot up exponentially during this period. On other parameters, for instance, health and education, it has made significant progress. On education, the state ranked second and seventh in the categories of construction of classrooms and appointment of teachers under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Similarly, in the percentage of children between Class III-V who can read, it ranks eighth among the states, while in arithmetic it ranked second. Regarding health, Bengal, with its infant mortality rate of 37 per cent, is well below the national average of 55 per cent; in child mortality rates, 12.2 per cent against the Indian average of 18.4 per cent, and in mortality under five, at 59.6 per cent compared to the all-India average of 74 per cent.
In land reforms, it has made important strides,being the only state which distributes land to landless peasants more than it acquires. On decentralization and the panchayati raj, it is a trailblazer, having initiated action on devolution to local institutions many years prior to the constitutional amendment that empowered the rest of India.
Fourth, the word ‘resurgent’ implies ‘to rise again’. The ingredients for such a rise in Bengal are available, provided we can build on these ingredients in the demographic differential of the population of the state and the geographic contours of its territory. Growth in India has largely been an urban coastal story. Although Bengal’s population is largely rural, it is urbanizing faster than the rest of India. We all know the geography of Bengal, and that in addition to coastlines it has rich inland waterways which can help not only in transport but also in faster integration with peripheral economies.
If Bengal is able to overcome the current disputes in land reforms and find rural consensus in alternative land use, it can regain its position as the most industrialized state that it was in the Sixties and even up to the 1980s, when it produced more than 10 per cent of the country’s industrial output. It is true that the backbone of industrialization lies not so much in large industries, but in thousands of medium- and small-scale ones. These can become a manufacturing hub providing meaningful employment to the young, and also alternative economic activity to those currently occupied in agriculture. Indeed, this would require a new set of laws relating to labour, manufacturing, urbanization and, above all, a vastly improved rural connectivity. But the problem is the potential of Bengal to become the manufacturing hub of India and to provide its economy with what economists call India’s missing middle. Having achieved success in education and considering its past reputation as a knowledge and culture centre, it can emerge as a new knowledge hub, and by providing greater autonomy to institutions for higher learning it can attract the best and brightest across India for learning, research and teaching. No one needs to be persuaded that Calcutta and Bengal have an awesome history in knowledge leadership, and can transcend others in becoming once again a global centre of excellence in education. These can be trigger-points and catalysts for re-igniting the growth momentum.
Fifth, the ingredients for a renaissance movement may not still be in sight, but resurgence in the etymology of the word was repeatedly used from 1768 onwards “to imply one who rises again”. And Tucker, for the first time, mentioned “we who are alive shall be caught in the clouds together with the resurgence”. Resurgence is to repeat and to do what has been achieved. For the reasons cited above, the stage is set for Bengal to be resurgent once again. Consider a January 2009 report of the World Bank entitled, “The Investment Climate in 16 Indian States”, which ranks West Bengal as a decent sixth among the major states of India in terms of business climate. Equally impressive is the fact that Bengal ranks higher than some of the hitherto leading states like Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Maharashtra in having a better investment climate. According to the report, the variables that impact business climate in which Bengal is above the national average are infrastructure, institutions, cost of power, tax administration, availability of technology, proximity to customers, transparency, trade financing and availability of inputs. This goes to show that, notwithstanding the recent controversies on land acquisition, Bengal still offers better investment opportunities compared to many other states, and one can see the bright spots.
Yes, one has to accept that we all perceive a sense of crisis. The ongoing violence in rural areas, the conflict between Maoists and cadre- based Leftist parties, failed industrialization, broken promises by the Videocon Group, the walkout by the Tatas, rising unemployment, increasing anarchy — are clear signs of crisis. There is no denying the fact that Bengal is at a crossroads. This is because, on the one hand, economic opportunities are enormous if the transition is successful and orderly. The price of failure, on the other hand, is inordinately high. And yet, because there is change in the air and because the foundation has already been laid, the prospect of a resurgence is much brighter than at any time in the past. The present crisis embeds in itself the opportunity of change. India cannot prosper without a prosperous Bengal. And a prosperous Bengal will make for a prosperous India.