Column: Eight directions in eight days

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: May 30 2011, 08:02am hrs
How does one assess Mamata Banerjees eight days in office as West Bengals 11thand first womanchief minister On the face of it, its been a dramatic week, right from the time she was sworn in as CM amid a sea of humanity on May 20, and she chose to walk, along with the people, from Raj Bhavan where she took oath, to Writers Buildings, the secretariat, and now her office.

On day one itself, she held a Cabinet meeting, and even before portfolios could be decided for the 37 MLAs who took oath along with her (only Amit Mitras name was announced as finance minister and loyalist Partha Chattopadhyay as industry minister), Mamatas first announcement was that the government had decided to return 400 acres to farmers who had unwillingly handed over land for the Tata small car project at Singur. True, the Singur issue was the fulcrum on which her ascent to power rested and her party had made the return of land at Singur a campaign promise, but this promise will be particularly difficult to keep, as she soon realised over the next few days.

For one, land once taken for industry and deemed legalthe Calcutta High Court had ruled that the acquisition is legalis almost impossible to return, though the TMC government is looking at the Tamil Nadu precedent, wherein the government introduced a new section48 (B)in the Land Acquisition Act, enabling it to take away land from the lease holder and give it back to the original owner. But at Singur, the disputed land has about 1,500 claimants and its no longer agricultural landthe Tatas had already constructed the outer structure when they had to exit the state. On Wednesday, when she chaired her second Cabinet meeting, she announced that the Tata-Bengal land deal would be made public, but she soon realised that that was easier said than done for the Tatas had got a stay from the high court on making the whole document public.

On the crucial finances front, too, the early signals coming from the TMC government are ominous. Even before Mamata and state finance minister Mitra meet Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee on Sunday to find out the likely contours of a special package for cash-strapped Bengal, the chief minister has announced several populist measures, from waiving water tax to lifting embargo on foodgrain for below the poverty line families, which alone will lead to an outgo of R350 crore and more. She also said that North Bengal Development Council funds will be hiked from R60 crore to R200 crore. The state has run up debt of R2 lakh crore and needs around R2,500 crore a month just to pay salaries and pensions.

The TMC has come to power with a huge mandate, and perhaps she should use it to her advantage by taking some necessary harsh decisions. Expectations are high, but people will understand if she steers clear of populist measures for the long-term benefit of the state. To give the first-time CM her due, she announced at least two great measuresa unified police force for all 141 wards under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (this will save many harried citizens from police red-tapism) and the plan to expand the Kolkata Municipal Corporation limits to include Sector V in Salt Lake, the IT hub of the city, and the IIM campus at Joka to ensure both areas are better administered.

As health ministerMamata is looking after the key portfolios of home, land, power and healththe chief minister has been paying surprise visits to government hospitals. In her usual manner, she has been brusque with inefficiencies, directing hospitals not to turn away patients even as harassed citizens rush to complain to her about gross negligence and lack of beds at top government hospitals. Health has been the Lefts bugbear, and despite its 30 years in office, this is one department where there is gross mismanagement. But the chief minister will have to do a lot more than spot inspection. If the health sector has to succeed, there has to be a bottoms-up approach and the district and village-level hospitals and health centres must be spanked into shape.

Mamata loves to reiterate that she is a peoples person, but being a peoples chief minister also means greater responsibility. In her choice of Cabinet itself theres a storyshe said she would have a small team, but ultimately veered towards a larger one because so many expectations had to be met. These are dangerous signals for a state that has to revive on all fronts, from agriculture to industry, from health to services, to survive.