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The heart of the matter: Deeper asymmetries to be cured

By: Procyon Mukherjee

20th May 2009

The recent debacle of the Left, particularly in West Bengal, should never be looked at
from a political stand point and judged by the underpinnings of strategy against available
options that were orchestrated from the center of the organization; that could be just a
small part of the many reasons that could be tabled for scrutiny. Not much effort has been
put in so far, apart from an etiolated attempt to defend moral positions, to question the
very root cause of the shift of support base in the deep roads of rural Bengal, where three
decades ago a process was initiated that provided the seeds for the emboldening of a
polity that almost made elections a matter of a foregone conclusion, until it all changed in
the recent case. The ubiquitous nature of the defeat cannot be left to the vagaries of high
level analysis that some have put forth, most of which is directed to the fringes of the
puzzle, not the root, as defenses have shirked to define the puzzle itself.

The puzzle as I define is: Did the rural poor feel at the end of three decades that land
reforms, which provided a deep restraint to the continuity of poverty, make a lasting
contribution to the continuity of employment creation and wealth in turn, for the masses
of rural Bengal?

If the answer to this puzzling question is that the reform process, although providing a
discontinuity to poverty, had actually hit a wall at the end of three decades as neither
more land is being made available to the rising numbers in the rural heartland, and being
done with semblance of judicious equity as before, nor is there a transparent process
created for the polity to deal with the issue of industrialization where arable surplus
would need to be deployed for gainful employment for industry, then we hit the right
chord to set the debate in motion. The pace of reforms slowed on one hand and the
limited benefits of livelihood sustained by the process was inadequate to temper the
effects of involuntary unemployment in the rural poor.

The deeper endemic nature of the problem leads one to look at the iniquitous nature of
land dealings for the sake of industrialization, the issue of preferential access to land
creating an asymmetry on both sides in terms of gains to be shared; the gains of the
Industry participant far dwarfed the gains of the landless and this inequity pervaded all
through the series of deals that eclipsed in Nandigram and finally in Singur. The meek
response of the party to settle the disputes leaves a lot to be desired and the failure to
create a polity that would be able to deal with the crisis in good time points to the
inability of the leadership to create alliances that go beyond the needs of politics.

Land reforms by itself is never an end in itself to quench the needs of poverty alleviation,
the process is just a beginning, a very unavoidable beginning, but never an end in itself.
With distribution of land, the landless labor starts to breathe but that is never sufficient
unless the programs that are needed to sustain the process of generating surplus value
from land can be made effective. It was put in place and it served the needs for almost
two decades, but in absence of parallel diversification of agriculture and creating
conditions of industrialization of agriculture that balances the need of creating
productivity growth in agriculture, the process had its own short-comings. The world had
learnt to move expeditiously to the process of industrialization after agriculture provided
the natural fillip to the issue of degenerative employment in pre-reform era in agriculture.

In simple terms by distributing land, the land remained to be far less for an individual to
get access to credit that would have improved the productivity of the produce and thus
provide a surplus value. On the contrary, the Panchayats, that were created to provide the
support to these activities, turned out to be ‘reform centers of distribution of the little
surplus’ that the reforms created and not the centers of initiation of programs that could
build the case for productivity growth, without which it is impossible to generate any
surplus after discounting all costs.

I have not seen efforts to either reduce transaction costs, or distribution costs, or efforts to
diversify to move up the value chain in a systematic manner through planned
investments. In absence of these three processes, reforms is bound to hit a wall and the
growing need of employment generation to be quenched outside of the prospects of land
became quite imminent towards the end of the late eighties. The period of the late
eighties to the late nineties was the lost decade of opportunities where almost every state
made rapid strides towards industrialization as the liberalization process was set in the
early nineties and the process of globalization was also concurrent.

The ‘resurgence’ story, although it began in the early part of the current decade, lacked
any ammunition as the work culture in the bulk of the government offices kept on
declining. The government therefore lacked credibility apart from the verbal prowess of
some of the self chosen advertisers for the cause; it never touched the fancy of the
industrialists, both domestic and foreign. There is otherwise little reason how Chennai
became the centre of auto ancillary industry and auto industry, Hyderabad and Bangalore
the center for knowledge industry and the whole of Gujarat the chemical hub for India, to
name a few. Foreign direct investment in India although meager, never touched the
shores of Bengal.

Do we remember the names of any of our Bengal Industry ministers before the current
one? Did they venture outside their turfs to scout for opportunity to bring in investments
into the state? Did they create alliances with the industrialists of the state? This was
entirely left to the Chief Minister, and he perhaps missed to apply the much needed
perspicacity to this duty entrusted on him.

The land reforms programs and its success put too much on display than what it deserved
and the shift in focus needed was only too late and when it happened it was orchestrated
as a divisive agenda than a concerted one. The denouements of land acquisition for
industrialization and the process of redressing of the disputes needed a far more
disciplined approach than that what was meted out with a customary mix of ineptness that
varied between arrogance and ignorance.
In fact the center of gravity had already shifted. The rising prospects of land acquisition
for the booming housing market provided other more lucrative opportunities for the many
in the ranks of power and were never lost sight of. This shift of focus from rural to urban
land and prospects of wealth creation in the short-term is a reflection of the new face of
the party, which no one wanted to confront. This was the greatest remiss and this
provided the most crushing defeat to all lofty ideals that the two successive generations
fought to create and stand for. The political strategies would undergo changes, but the
basics have now changed. The power center had now shifted to the urban quasi-elite, who
have little moral difference in their dealings with day to day problems with the more
rightists in the state. This is not the Left that people have known them for. The
masquerading charlatans were exposed, rightfully so. The people punished them for the
time being till they understood the need for resurrection. Let us hope they do.

20th May ‘09