All that ails West Bengal

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Dec 31 2009, 05:58am hrs
When lights went off for 23 minutes during the India-Sri Lanka one-day international at Eden Gardens last Thursday, it was like a chronicle of an event foretold. For, leading up to the match, we had been warned that lights may go on the blink during playastonishing that if anyone had a forewarning to such an eventuality, nothing was done to prevent it. But the Eden Gardens fiascoand what followed after the lights went out: blame game and a committee to probe why it happenedis in a sense a metaphor to all that is ailing Bengal, particularly through a tumultuous 2009.

When the state secretariat, Writers Buildings, asked employees to report for work on time, incredible excuses came up, from fish market duties to traffic snarl-ups. Bengal will also have only itself to blame if investors are scared away; if tea gardens are abandoned; if tourists strike Darjeeling off a must-see hill station list; if those growing up in Bengal prefer to work elsewhere, like they already dostate IT minister told us that half of Bangalores IT workforce is from Bengal. Whatever the statisticand its amazing how you never get updated numbers in the state; every figure, well a majority, dates back to at least three years ago the reality is that the state is in the throes of an unprecedented social and political crisis, which came to a head in 2009.

The Lok Sabha elections in Maywhere the Left Front, ruling the state for 32 years suffered a jolt, winning just 15 of 42 seats should have shaken the parties out of their stupor. But it appears to have done just the opposite. Barring a few noises that the party should reconnect with its rural base, which had dumped it for the Opposition Trinamool Congress and its catchy Ma, Mati, Manush slogan, the Left top brass seems resigned to the fact that its time to go. In that sense, Bengals attempt to enter the national limelight after decades of isolation, with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjees gallant pro-industry push in 2006, has fizzled out in three years.

The thrust for industry came without thinking through land issues. Some say it started with the Nandigram and Singur uprising, especially the latter that led to the exit of the Tatas and their small car factory from the state on October 7, 2008. Since then, there has been little headway at Singur, which prompts the question: is the state government or even the Opposition leader Mamata Banerjee really serious about getting a new investor for Singur

Soon after the elections, Mamata announced that she wanted to set up a rail coach factory there, but till now theres been no clarity on how the matter should proceed. Letters are flying to and from the Railway Board and the state government on Singurof the 1,000-odd acres leased to the Tatas, 400 acres are disputed. The railways want the government to return 400 acres to unwilling farmers, but thats easier said than done. First, the land has to be got back from the Tatas, who have already spent Rs 1,500 crore on the aborted project and are not averse to returning the plot if compensated. So, the rail coach factory plan hangs in the air, like many other projects.

The investment climate is anything but conducive, whatever the official stand. Delays are commonplace and the work ethic non-existent, with the bandh culture carved deep in Bengals DNA. In rural Bengal, as in the citys government hospitals, there is no healthcare to speak of; and education is still struggling to shake off the impact of a generation growing up without learning English in school. Any investor planning to set up shop in Bengal faces a talent crunch, besides the daily chaos of everyday lives.

Theres crisis in the north as cries for Gorkhaland grow louder, and in the southwest, where a Maoist base has been allowed to expand, and a law and order breakdown in the entire state. Even though paramilitary forces were sent to Lalgarh, at the heart of the Maoist agitation, the daily dose of killings makes it clear that Maoists still hold sway over the region. Even on this, the ruling Left Front and the Opposition Trinamool have traded charges against each others Maoist leanings, but done little to confront the issue.

In the face of such adversities nature too played havoc, with Aila damaging two cash crops, rice and potato, and a botched-up relief operationthere were few silver linings in 2009. Three must be mentioned. When an IT township, where IT giants Infosys and Wipro were promised 90 acres each, was scrapped over land grab allegations, the state government stepped in quickly to find alternative land for the software companies. By the end of the year, the state offered 50 acres to Wipro at Rs 1.5 crore per acre and is in touch with Infosys, which has slowed down expansion plans due to the meltdown. Then again, railway minister Mamata Banerjee, with one eye on 2012 assembly polls, announced a big rail project at Dankuni, with job offers of a lakh, directly and indirectly.

These are exaggerated claims perhaps, but they still hold out hope in a state where unemployment is high. The JSW steel plant at Salboni, in the heart of Naxal country, is also on track, though slightly delayed. Bengal will clutch these straws, thank you.