The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In an innovative study, results of which appeared in The Telegraph (“The city map”, April 11), Bibek Debroy, director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, and Laveesh Bhandari of Indicus Analytic, charted how 36 Indian cities with more than one million population are doing from the business point of view. A study of this nature was long overdue as census and National Sample Survey data are only available for metros, among cities and district-wise. But cities within these districts need not reflect the business climate of the latter. Hence this study is somewhat pioneering in nature.

Among categories selected for ranking were professional education, communication, private finance and road transport. Since the data related to the end Nineties on a one-off basis, the ranking gives a snapshot or cross-section in time. And though the parameters used are not broad enough to label the study comprehensive or foolproof, the inbuilt errors are such that the ranking would not be affected significantly. In professional education, Calcutta ranked 11th behind the likes of Coimbatore, Nagpur, Jaipur and Lucknow, communication-wise, an outrageous 24th, in private finance, a shocking 13th behind Coimbatore, Vadodara, Ludhiana, Indore and Kochi and in road transport, dead last at 36th! When data from all categories are collated to arrive at the city “you would like to live in, because the quality of life is better”, Calcutta does not figure in the top 10.

When the Left Front took uninterrupted control of the state in 1977, Calcutta was by far the leader in professional education and at least among the top three in road transport, communication and private finance. And herein lies the enigma. How is it that despite its gigantic and clearly visible failure in the fields of employment, health, industry, education and building commercial and industrial infrastructure, the Left Front has managed to retain power for 26 uninterrupted years'

The answer lies in two landmark reforms by the front. Launched in 1978, the panchayati raj brought major social changes in the villages by giving a platform, for the first time, to the majority of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Unlike earlier Congress regimes which gave distinct vibes of being the ruler lording over the ruled, panchayati raj meant that villagers could approach Left Front leaders, who in the early years worked collectively with them to be real masters of their fate. To add to this, these nondescript villagers miraculously found that they could take part in politics not just as voters but as candidates for office in panchayati elections. This was power for real.

The second reform, which took a lot longer to shape up, was land reforms or Operation Barga. It was without doubt long overdue even if the process was tilted towards creating a vote bank. Most of the big land owners had to join the bargadars, the party cadre, largely because only then could they retain a portion of the land under their control. With erstwhile bargadars farming their newly acquired land, albeit with improved irrigation and fertilizers, it resulted in an unprecedented boom in agriculture.

The gloss on these necessary reforms began to fade within a decade. When one adds up the money given to the panchayats over the years, they have very little to show for it. The food-for-work programme certainly gave the villagers a livelihood and largely eradicated abject poverty. But no effort was made to target it towards making the village economy viable or the quality of life better. It is no secret that panchayats, a healthy majority of which was, and is, controlled by Left Front, dole out various kinds of benefits to their own cadre, who in turn show their gratitude by committing themselves to the Left Front cause. Betterment of the villagers can wait.

Not surprisingly, the downturn in the state over the last 15 years is fast and furious. As of 2001, all economic indicators, barring foodgrain production compares abjectly vis-à-vis the seven other “developed” states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana. West Bengal is sixth in net per capita domestic product and last in per capita consumption of electricity. The percentage of electrified villages and households is the lowest. It has the largest number of primary schools because a significant number is located under trees in the villages and do not need a building of any sort. It has the lowest per capita budgeted expenditure on education and thus, not surprisingly the least number of middle and secondary schools, which would need capital expenditure of some sort. It also holds the dubious distinction of having the lowest literacy rate with Punjab and Haryana but by far the most shocking of them all, that after 26 uninterrupted years of being ruled by a supposedly pro-poor party, it has the largest percentage of people living below the poverty line. No prizes for guessing which state has the maximum overdraft from the Reserve Bank of India.

Before you tell yourself things cannot get any worse, the last nail in the state’s industrial coffin has just been hammered in. Hindustan Lever Limited, widely regarded as a benevolent employer, continued running its Garden Reach factory at least a decade after every other significant private sector employer had closed shop in the state. Around 1,153 employees earned an average of Rs 9,500 per month plus benefits. In addition, contractors deployed 230 workers doing non-core jobs like loading and unloading and were paid at par with the regular employees. It, however, committed what is regarded a cardinal sin in this state by asking a contractor to reduce the number of people constituting a “gang” from 13 to 8 to unload chemicals.

Acceptable trade unionism would have required the management being told that the work would take longer. But things work differently here, so HLL was told it is either 13 or zilch! The rest of the story is a sordid repetitive tale of why organized industry has fled the state. Contractors’ labour strikes work, management turns to its own full time permanent employees who refuse, work comes to a standstill and company declares a lockout. But there is a twist to this tale. Kamal Tiwari, the trade union leader who orchestrated the work stoppage, is not attached to any political party. Now the Left Front has a new disease to combat.

Labour militancy has spread like wildfire in the last two or three years into greenfields like private hospitals, hotels and restaurants where workers are demanding a share of the 10 per cent service charge some managements impose on patients or customers. They are demanding free treatment in their hospitals even for casual workers. The Left Front is impervious to changes in the market place in India and across the world where competition is forcing companies to cut costs drastically just to stay afloat. The option for private business has always been a simple one. If a product cannot be made or service not rendered at a competitive price here, they will go where it can be done.

A leisurely drive along Park Street with trade union flags flying and slogans seeking the demise of the management at the entrance of restaurants will drive many capitalists away. And beating up the captain of a golf club by its employees, to redress matters settled elsewhere through dialogue, does not help matters either. Capitalists also look at what the Left Front may consider innocuous — figures like mandays lost due to strikes or lockouts which rose alarmingly from 64.9 lakh in 1995, 82.6 lakh in 1997, 191.7 lakh in 1999 to 199.7 lakh in 2002 — and shy away.

Right now if your entrepreneurial instincts are aroused, look into the health care sector in West Bengal. And here is the loss-proof business plan for free. Locate your clinic or nursing home near a large government hospital. Have any operation theatre and a couple of rundown X-Ray and ECG machines. Install an air-conditioner in a room called intensive care unit, throw in some unemployed doctors and bingo, you are in business, big business! Do not worry about your clientele. That’s the easiest part. Form a nexus with a few people in the government hospital with access to the machines you have and let these have frequent break-downs.

Now, the poor patient has nowhere to go and as a part of the deal with your cohorts, they are directed to your nursing home. Fleece them. Don’t feel guilty about it. The poor patient would be fleeced in any case by the staff in the government hospital where treatment is supposed to be free or highly subsidized. And don’t worry about some upright hospital honcho standing in the way of your livelihood. An integral part of the business plan is that initially the hospital staff will make life difficult for the crusader and if he persists, they will take him out. In all likelihood, the murderers will never be brought to justice and there is no way the murder can be linked to you. Sorry! My conscience has just acted up. I admit my business plan is not original. This model is being followed with great success all across the state.

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