January 25, 2021
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Kolkata Korner

In just about a month's time, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in Bengal will step into its 32nd year. A look at some of its failures this and the next two weeks...

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Kolkata Korner

In just about a month's time, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in Bengal will step into its 32nd year. There will be the usual celebrations and banal statements attributing this inordinately long reign to "people's support". The usual paeans will be sung to the Left Front's 'revolutionary' and 'path-breaking' land reforms. Everything else, starting from the collapse of all institutions and systematic subversion of democracy to the state slipping on most development indices and its dismal financial state, will be overlooked or swept under the carpet. But the CPI(M) ought to temper its imminent anniversary celebrations by a frank and objective assessment of its failure on many major fronts, many of which are being discussed in this space this and the next two weeks:

Let's start with this vital sector that ought to be have provided a strong foundation for Bengal's advancement, but which is largely responsible for the mediocrity that Bengal wallows in today. Soon after assuming power on June 21, 1977, the CPI(M), under its ideologue Pramode Dasgupta, abolished English from the primary school level. This foolish decision set the state back by at least five decades; even though the party 'corrected' this a few years ago, the damage was already done. Even though English has been re-introduced from the primary level, those who teach the language are themselves not proficient in it, thanks to the neglect of the subject during their years in schools and colleges.

The CPI(M) systematically and assiduously infiltrated all educational institutions, right from the primary school to the University level, and politicized education. Even today, only party loyalists are appointed to the posts of teachers in schools, colleges and universities. All important appointments, like that of Vice Chancellors and pro-VCs of state universities, have to be vetted by the party. The managing committees of most schools and colleges in the state have party members sitting in on them and the ones that don't are denied funds and state patronage. The curriculum at the school, college and university levels promote communism and glorify personalities like Stalin, Lenin and Mao at the cost of stalwarts of our own freedom struggle.

But more than all this, the education infrastructure has become a mess. All-India figures reveal that in terms of infrastructure--concrete buildings, teaching implements, access to roads, electricity, water and toilets--Bengal's school are worse off than those of most other states except perhaps Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Many posts of teachers lie vacant and most teachers don't bother to take classes, preferring to engage themselves in 'party work'.

The secondary, higher secondary and college syllabi haven't been modernized and updated for decades and what's taught in classrooms in Bengal is antiquated and obsolete. It is only now that attempts are being made to bring the syllabi at par with that of the central boards and those of other states; but it may well be a case of too little, too late.

The standard of education at the college and university level is dismal and the best and brightest migrate out of Bengal at the first opportunity, mostly at the higher secondary stage. The mediocre that are left behind stifle brilliance and the standard of research in college and university laboratories is worse than second-rate.

The one or two oasis of education that have managed to survive the marauding CPI(M)—Jadavpur University and the West Bengal University of Science and Technology (formerly Shibpur Engineering College)—are always under attack from the CPI(M) that employs various subversive tactics, like appointing party sympathisers in key positions or unleashing the SFI to beat students there into submission, to bring these two institutions under it control.

Bengal is well behind even Bihar in the number of its students who get into the elite civil services, or the IIMs and IITs. Most of all this is due to the CPI(M)'s warped logic that equates brilliance with being elitist and, thus, promotes and celebrates mediocrity. Also, the failure to admit to faults and mistakes that stems from the intellectual arrogance displayed by the CPI(M) and its pet 'intellectuals' prevents and frustrates all attempts to correct things. The education system, thus, fails to produce brilliant young men and women who can lift Bengal out of the morass of poverty, ignorance and backwardness.

Here, too, Bengal is at the bottom of the pile in terms of infrastructure. Most of the primary health centres are little more than concrete shells without even the basic amenities like beds, medical equipment, medicines and manpower. Most don't have full-time doctors and para-medics. The percentage of people in the rural areas who don't have a functioning primary health centre within a radius of 30 kilometres is the highest in Bengal (with only Bihar and some North eastern states for company) among all states of the country. Thus, the number of people who depend on quacks and Godmen for 'treatment' is also the highest in Bengal.

Two young boys injured in a road accident lying outside the state's prime referral hospital (the SSKM) since the hospital couldn't provide beds to them.

Most doctors and para-medics posted in the rural areas or even in the full-fledged civil hospitals in district towns don't bother to attend to their duties; they get away scot-free because the doctors', nurses' and health employees' associations are all affiliated to the CPI(M). Very few health centres and hospitals have come up in the state during the three decades of Left rule and this has led to mushrooming of nursing homes and private hospitals that indulge in exploitative and unethical practices. District hospitals also suffer from an acute shortage of doctors and staff and even equipment like oxygen cylinders; most can't supply medicines to patients and bandages and surgical gloves have to be purchased and supplied to hospitals by relatives of patients who have to undergo surgery.

Thanks to this lack of infrastructure and staff, and the culture of shirking work and passing on responsibility that's become so endemic in Bengal, even cases of fever are referred by the district hospitals to the four medical college hospitals and one post-graduate teaching hospital in Kolkata. And since there has been no capacity-addition at these five hospitals over the past three decades, cases of patients being turned away and left to die on the streets outside these hospitals are common.

Thanks to a slothful bureaucracy, funds sanctioned by the centre for upgrading health infrastructure and even for specific schemes like rural health mission lie unutilized and lapse. No one has an answer as to why the Left Front government has failed to build new hospitals, health centres or medical colleges all these years. Cases of medical negligence, doctors ignoring their duties in government hospitals to carry on private practice and indulging in other unethical practices are extremely high in Bengal. Over the past few years, new private hospitals have come up, but they're out of reach for the poor and the middle-class.

After coming to power, the Left Front government re-distributed 13 lakh acres of ceiling surplus farmland to the landless. This was a monumental and highly laudable achievement. In one stroke, the Left Front alleviated the status of lakhs of extremely poor people from landless to landowners and also changed their financial standing. But these land reforms were never carried forward and the CPI(M) preferred to bask in this achievement for three decades, probably because without brilliant minds, the CPI(M) didn't even realise or comprehend that land reforms have to be carried forward.

The way to do so would have been to provide irrigation facilities to the farmers, provide them access to new and more productive farming techniques, better, high-yielding and pest-resistant seeds, modern implements and access to institutional credit. None of this happened, with the result that farm productivity has been declining steadily and alarmingly even as holdings have been getting more and more microscopic in size. The state has failed abysmally to provide forward linkages to farmers who are exploited by rapacious middlemen who, in turn, mostly owe their allegiance to the CPI(M).

Farmers get a fraction of the price at which their produce is sold even within the state and lack of adequate number of cold storages (CPI-M's affiliates like the CITU have a say in which farmer gets to store how much of his produce at these storages; this is again another way to keep farmers on a tight leash and ensure their loyalty to the party) results in a large portion of their produce going to waste. More than 40 percent of the agricultural output of Bengal rots away. The state government hasn't done anything to educate farmers on rainwater harvesting and water conservation techniques and there's no watershed management worth the name in Bengal.

The 'we-are-the-best' and 'we-know-everything' attitude of the state's leaders, bureaucrats and technocrats has thwarted the process of learning lessons from even neighbouring states like Orissa where the state watershed mission is doing exemplary and ground-breaking work. Most of Bengal's farmers have to depend on groundwater to irrigate their farms and the over-exploitation of groundwater has caused the groundwater table to sink alarmingly while leading to arsenic contamination of groundwater.

In large swathes of this primarily agrarian state, arsenic has entered the food chain through groundwater used in farmlands. Little has also been done to shield farmers from crop distress, market fluctuations and exploitation by middlemen. As a result, the gains of the land reforms have been largely eroded and the original beneficiaries of the reforms—the landless who got lands—are left with declining incomes. This economic distress in rural Bengal has led to large-scale migration from the rural to urban areas, leading to a breakdown of urban infrastructure and services.

The state administration, all its arms—all levels of the bureaucracy, the police force etc—have been reduced to mere appendages of the CPI(M). The lower and middle-level bureaucracy, organised under the banner of the all-powerful Employees' Coordination Committee that is affiliated to the CPI(M), is highly politicized. As is the state constabulary which is also organised into a CPI(M)-affiliated union. Since the CPI(M) depends on the police force and government employees to 'manage' elections and perpetuate its hold over all structures in the state, it needs to indulge these people. This has led to the administration becoming venal and slothful and the work-culture in Bengal becoming one of the worst in the country.

Work barely ever gets done in government offices and establishments. Efficient, honest and upright officers are forced to compromise and play second fiddle to the party or hounded out. There are barely any brilliant and efficient IAS or IPS officers in the state anymore; those that were in the Bengal cadres have all opted out on deputation to Delhi or other states. The senior bureaucracy is demoralized and disillusioned. The lower and middle-level bureaucracy doesn't want work to get done and have even successfully derailed Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's much-publicised plans to improve Bengal's miserable work culture. Bhattacharjee had to eat humble pie because his attempts to discipline errant employees were thwarted by his party, which would sacrifice governance at the altar of politics.

All attempts to streamline the state administration and cut red tape, bring about transparency and accountability have been successfully defeated. West Bengal is one of the few states where the information commission under the RTI Act is yet to start functioning properly. Computerisation is still a long way off in most state government offices, thanks to stiff resistance from employees. Implementation of welfare schemes is tardy and all Central government-sponsored schemes, like ones on rural employment, village roads, mid-day meals and electrification witness sluggish implementation, if at all, as a result of which funds lapse every year. There is no accountability for implementing schemes and projects and no transparency either. Government employees at the field level have to report to, and are accountable to, the local and zonal-level CPI(M) functionaries and not their seniors at the district and state headquarters. Corruption a the lower levels is very high and the CPI(M) is its direct beneficiary.

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