IN West Bengal, the recent suicide of Prasenjit Sarkar, a 31-year-old former Dunlop employee and father of two, should not be news. Already, newspapers have given the incident a decent burial. Soon, his leukaemia-affected child will die. There will end the story of the 1,500th suicide/starvation death case resulting from industrial sickness in the state. Until of course the 1,501st death.
Indeed, such suicides have ceased to be news in a state which has 61,000 closed units and an estimated 5.5 million unemployed. The number of suicides has risen from 6,881 in 1982 to 13,668 in 1997. The daily suicide average doubled from 18.85 in 1982 to 37.44 in 1997, making the state the most suicide-prone in the country.
Such figures notwithstanding, the government routinely passes off such cases as malnutrition deaths. Sarkar, who'd received no salary after October 1997, had run up debts of Rs 2 lakh. Where survival was difficult, the financial burden of treating his child's leukaemia no doubt proved the last straw for Sarkar. Admits a government spokesman, "The majority of the victims come from poorer or low middle class families or the jobless." There's more evidence of the vanishing workforce. The organised sector workforce has shrunk rapidly—from 24.72 lakh in 1985 to 22.73 lakh in 1995—hit by redundancy, industrial obsolescence, labour militancy and official apathy, as a tidal wave of deindustrial-isation continues to sweep the state. A survey conducted by NGO Nagarik Mancha reported the death of 75 workers of 22 closed units in '93. A more detailed survey showed that on average, one worker each in 1,560 units had either killed himself or died of starvation.
Ironically, a few days before Sarkar took his life, the governor had just read his annual address in the state assembly, detailing how many closed units had been reopened and at what cost, rehabilitating around 40,000 workers. Information minister Bud-dhadev Bhattacharya described West Bengal as an 'oasis of stability', referring to another 40,000 new jobs resulting from Rs17,000 crore of new investments since 1991.
He fools none, least his ministerial colleagues. "We have asset-stripping, not investment," says labour minister Shanti Ghatak. "In this state, a qualified person rarely gets a job. Naturally, those with higher education are leaving in droves," says engineer Jayanta Roy, who runs a snacks joint in a Calcutta suburb.
Says a Bengal Chamber of Commerce spokesperson: "The massive joblessness can only be tackled through rapid and sustained industrialisation, but there's no sign of that. Wretched roads, traf-fic jams, illegal encroachment on any open space with political support, petty crimes by political goons and hooligans operating as trade unionists—not to mention frequent bandhs and rail rokos—all these factors make the state a wasteland for industry."
Many feel that West Bengal may have already reached an industrial deadend. By end-1998, it had attracted just 3 per cent of total industrial investment, with Maharashtra and Gujarat garnering 12 per cent each with far less effort. Instead of futilely wooing foreign investment, argue industry circles, the state should learn from states like Orissa or Madhya Pradesh on attracting national industry. Why, they ask, should West Bengal have on average 21 routine clearances for new industries, against just three in Andhra Pradesh? Why should an industrialist invited to the Raichak summit be made to wait for two hours by a departmental secretary before being turned away, whereas the same person is provided with a car to and from airport and given all clearances in two hours in Hyderabad?
Shockingly, in this self-proclaimed champion state of workers' rights, only 29 work activities are covered by minimum wage agreements, while most states have assured minimum wage agreements for some 60 types of manual and other work. Now, should one wonder why Sarkar's death makes little news?