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Kolkata Korner

Part II of the review of 31 years of the Left Front. The focus this week is on its utter inability, born out of sheer incompetence, to achieve any progress on the industry and infrastructure sectors

Kolkata Korner
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The Left Front government's failure on the education, health, agriculture and governance fronts is perhaps overshadowed by its utter inability, born out of sheer incompetence, to achieve any progress on the industry and infrastructure sectors that's being dwelt on this week:

Industry

The rise to power of the CPI(M) coincided with Bengal's industrial decline. Some factors for this, like the downslide of the jute industry, were beyond the control of the CPI(M), but it definitely hastened the demise of hundreds of industrial units, including those in the thriving steel, industrial tools and chemicals sectors, by promoting irresponsible and militant trade unionism. The subsequent and resultant flight of capital from the state ensured that Bengal slid down to become one of the poorest states in the country. 

That being so, the mindset and culture promoted by the Left not only did little to lift the state out of the morass, it actually promoted celebration of poverty and romanticized Bengal's indigence. Movies made and plays scripted by Left-leaning directors and playwrights demonized factory owners, portrayed them as villains and the 'exploited' workers as paragons of virtue, and extolled penury in the guise of 'simple living, high thinking'. 

The political culture that prevailed in the state till a little less than a decade ago was inimical to industrial rejuvenation; a culture that bred suspicion of private capital and encouraged vilification of and attacks on the moneyed didn't exactly inspire confidence among investors. The politics of opposition (to everything New Delhi proposed, said or did) practiced by the Left also resulted in the union government not even taking Bengal into consideration in its scheme of things. 

It was only a decade ago that the Left realised—a tad too late, perhaps—that industries are important for a state's growth and to provide jobs to an exploding population. It's a different matter that after years of pursuing suicidal anti-industries policies, the Left woke up to the need for industries. Why the Left never realised something that was so obvious while it hastened closure of industrial units and remained unconcerned over the flight of capital from Bengal is something it has to answer for, but that's another matter altogether. 

Anyway, Jyoti Basu framed the state industrial policy that extended a lot of sops and concessions, including tax holidays, to new industrial units. But investments remained barely a trickle during his tenure, probably because he and his ministers were too closely identified with the anti-industry culture. Only when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee became the Chief Minister and started making the right noises to woo private capital did investors from other parts of the country and some parts of the world start to show interest in Bengal. A few MoUs were signed, but most didn't translate into actual investments for the simple reason that, having bred a culture of procrastination, inefficiency and sloth, the Left Front government—Buddhadeb notwithstanding—just couldn't goad the multiple-window structure to start working and grant clearances within a reasonable timeframe to potential investors, thus reinforcing the state's image as one with a poor work culture and, hence, unworthy of investment. 

And soon, Singur and Nandigram came along, thereby scaring away many potential investors and, after the just-concluded panchayat polls, forcing the state government to go slow on acquiring land that'll be required for industries. As is well-known by now, the protests and violence in Singur and Nandigram occurred due to the CPI(M)'s and the state government's dismal failure in rolling out a fair compensation and rehabilitation/resettlement package for land-losers, and because of the high-handed manner in which land was acquired or sought to be acquired. 

Also, the CPI(M)-led Left Front, despite its proclamations, has done little to project Bengal as a prime investment destination and highlight the advantages of setting up units here. The power-point presentations made to potential investors and chambers of commerce (I have copies) are tired, clichéd and lack imagination, beside being very boring and colourless. It's sheer foolishness on the part of Bengal's ruling politicians and bureaucrats to assume that investors would be impressed by their pitch and insipid presentations. As a result, while other states, even neighbouring Orissa, have stolen a huge lead over Bengal, our Marxists continue to mislead us with make-believe stories of investors falling over each other to set up units here. Bengal continues to be a laggard in this field.

Infrastructure

For three decades, the aspiration levels of the people in the rural areas of Bengal was suppressed by the Left Front government, which also openly ignored urban development on the plea that rural development was its priority. Coupled with the 'simple living high thinking' credo the Marxists professed as a mask to hide their criminal neglect of all developmental activities, Bengal was reduced to a showpiece of backwardness. 

In thirty years of Left Front rule, just a couple of hundred kilometres of roads was built, and most of that wasn't even black topped. Two major bridges and a couple of dozen small bridges and culverts are all that the Left Front can claim credit for. Seven flyovers, two underpasses, six pedestrian over-bridges and a Metro Rail (most projects, by the way, funded largely by the union government) is nearly all that happened in 30 years. 

Till even the turn of the century, the state capital's roads were largely non-motorable. There were few flyovers and with less than five percent roadspace, interminable traffic jams made traveling within the city a time-consuming and frustrating experience. Road conditions were, and still are, much worse in the rural areas save for the national highways that have been four-laned under the Golden Quadrilateral project. State highways are a picture of utter neglect. In some parts of the state, British-era wooden bridges still exist while some, which had been washed away by the 2001 floods, are yet to be rebuilt.

A major flaw in the planning process in Bengal has been the state's failure to promote urban centres in other parts of the state. As a result, Kolkata has had to bear the brunt of all migration from rural areas. And given the avowed policy of neglect of urban areas followed by the Left till very recently, Kolkata sank further into the muddle of despair, dilapidation and destitution. 

Over the last thirty years, colonies and townships have mushroomed around Kolkata in an extremely haphazard manner and, quite often, without any planning or even the mandatory clearances and permission. What is now called Greater Kolkata is dotted with illegal constructions and colonies, most constructed by filling up waterbodies. The new townships that have come up over the past few decades—and which are now an integral part of Kolkata—lack proper drainage, sanitation, roads, water supply and other amenities. They're overcrowded, with narrow roads and overflowing drains, and are nothing but concrete jungles. 

And consequently, vital works like widening roads, constructing sewers or building flyovers, are stalled because there's just no space in these overcrowded areas for such projects. And, hence, large parts of this city can never witness development; given the strong opposition to acquisition of farmlands, one can easily guess the sort of resistance the government would come up against acquiring land in densely populated areas.

There are just two airports in the state and none are even remotely close to being of international standard. Modernisation of these airports—used by the elites, according to Marxists, and hence deserving of neglect—has never been a priority. That remains the case even now. But at the same time, even rail stations and the rail network in the state have not been upgraded significantly. Successive rail ministers have not done anything much for Bengal and the state government, on its part, has never pursued any rail project with any degree of earnestness with Rail Bhawan. 

Government buses don't reach most of the remote areas of the state and are, anyway, a huge drain on the state's poor exchequer. Overall, infrastructure is in a sorry mess and there's little chance of things improving dramatically, as they sorely need to, given the lack of imagination, intelligence and foresightedness on the part of the government. Add to that the huge cost and time overruns—most of the projects under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission have run into delays and since funds given by New Delhi haven't been utilized fully, the state won't be eligible for further grants. That'll stall many future and ambitious projects.

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