The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Nothing succeeds more than a bandh in West Bengal. Inhabitants of this state might be lackadaisical and prevaricating about all other things but come a bandh call, life comes to a standstill with an incredible alacrity. Yesterday’s bandh is an illustration of this. The bandh call was given by the Socialist Unity Centre of India, a party not known for either its mass base or its muscle power. Yet, the predictable official claims notwithstanding, the bandh was successful. The streets were empty, many, if not most, of the shops had their shutters down. Buses, trams and the metro ran but were conspicuous because they were empty. The general ambience, as in all previous bandhs, was that of a public holiday. There was only one thing that was unusual. Normally, in West Bengal, bandhs are tied into a weekend so that the people can enjoy a longish break. This time it was called mid week, may be the SUCI miscalculated the date of Janmashtami. Despite this, there was disruption enough in a state that can ill afford the loss of productive mandays. The state cannot also afford to give out the signal that it is averse to work to potential investors. The bandh call also ignores the injunctions of the Supreme Court against the calling of strikes.

The issues behind the bandh call are not serious ones and are more indicative of the mindset of most political parties than of anything else. They are to do with subsidizing education and some other public services. It has been the assumption in India, since Jawaharlal Nehru introduced his brand of socialism, that the state should subsidize certain sectors. It is nobody’s argument that the poor should not receive any help from the state to meet their essential needs. But in India, all the subsidies have been directed at the middle and the relatively affluent classes. Most people having access to education and to hospitals do not need subsidies. They should be made to pay so that these facilities can be extended to the really poor at a very cheap rate or even free. But a group of people who in their minds have equated subsidies with socialism will be blind to this logic. It is easy, of course, to blame political parties for making bandhs a regular and recurrent item in West Bengal’s political almanac. But it should be underlined that it is the common people, by being tacitly complicit in bandhs — as evident in their refusal to challenge bandhs by going to work — who make bandhs successful. West Bengal loves nothing better than having a paid holiday which is the correct name for a bandh. Shirkers of work are the real basis for the success of bandhs.

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