Given its image of a nowhere state, a vision statement for West Bengal is an act of good faith. But McKinsey’s agri-business vision for the state for 2010 seems to be founded on more substantial stuff than facile optimism. It has taken a long and hard look at the state’s farm sector, identified farm areas for business growth and recommended steps to translate the vision into reality. The plan is expected to create 10 lakh jobs and attract investments worth Rs 18,000 crore, thereby changing the face of the state’s economy. McKinsey expects West Bengal to be the “food bowl of India” as well as the Asian powerhouse in some agri-businesses by 2010. It must be many years since such a picture of hope for the state has emerged from anywhere. Just as the report bases its projections on West Bengal’s successes in agriculture, its emphasis on the need for change underscores the yawning gaps. Land reforms may have helped up to a point, but obviously cannot create the conditions needed for a major boost in the rural economy. In fact, the state has recently slipped into a vicious cycle which saw both agricultural growth and returns from agriculture declining. The remedy lies in transforming farming into a profitable business activity. And that cannot happen without the participation of the private sector.
It is impossible to miss the irony that this salvation strategy for the state’s beleaguered Marxist rulers has been drawn up by an American firm. That the communists decided to entrust McKinsey with the job suggests that they are at last moving away from woolly-headed politics to practical economics. The chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, needs to show that his commitment to reforms is not amenable to political expediency. He need not be apologetic about the role of the private sector to sceptics within the government about the road to farm reforms. The manner in which some of these elements raised a din about a proposal for contract farming shows that Mr Bhattacharjee’s team still comprises many unreformed opponents of the private sector. Such was their blind opposition that they failed to see the safeguards which McKinsey had suggested to ensure that the farmers do not lose the right to their land. But there is no shying away from the fact that the private sector has to be the prime mover in the projected growth in farming business. Mr Bhattacharjee has to convince his colleagues that farm reforms would require drastic changes in crop and land-use patterns to attract investors. He cannot afford to lose either time or investors’ confidence by allowing carping colleagues to hold reforms to ransom.