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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 25 New Delhi June 11, 2016

West Bengal: The Sun Rises in the East

Saturday 11 June 2016

by Saumitra Mohan

The just concluded elections to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly were unprecedented in more ways than one. While the popular mood of the electorate was more or less known to everyone as also corroborated by the various opinion and exit polls, but the same was overshadowed by the overpitched performances from all the stakeholders as the polls progressed. These elections saw the apex electoral body in a hyperactive avatar which at times appeared unwarranted to many observers. The elections also witnessed diminishing journalistic standards as a section of the media compromised its pro-fessional ethics by allegedly becoming interested players in the ensuing political game. But one clear winner out of this churning has been our democracy. The loud electoral verdict vindicated Abraham Lincoln who once said: “You can fool some people all the time, all the people some of the time but not all the people all the time.”

What was most surprising is the fact that the major discourse of the elections this time was dripping with negativity. So, while they kept debating certain negative developments and alleged scams, there was hardly any genuine attempt at dispassionate review of the perfor-mance of the reigning dispensation with respect to governance and development to vet and analyse the many developmental initiatives West Bengal saw during the last few years. So, notwithstanding a blinkered judgement about the government’s performance and the conse-quent electoral outcome by a section of media, the same turned out to be hugely at a variance with the ‘General Will’.

Now with eggs all over their face, the same carping Cassandras have acknowledged the developmental coup d’état effected in West Bengal during the last five years. West Bengal experienced administrative initiatives such as creation of newer districts and police commissio-nerates, financial restructuring and rationali-sation by way of decentralisation of DDO administration and introduction of Financial Advisor system, introduction of Right to Service Act and Administrative Calendar to ensure time-bound service delivery and an accountable administration, revisitation of rules and laws including introduction of ‘self-attestation and self-declaration’ to spare the citizens’ running around for court affidavits or attestation by gazetted officers, improved revenue mobilisation and deepening citizen-government interface through creative e-Governance tools led to improved work culture. The same also became possible due to intensified supervision and monitoring at all levels.

West Bengal witnessed, perhaps for the first time, a slew of welfare schemes sponsored and funded solely by the State Government. Many of these initiatives, schemes and programmes turned out to be pioneering and path-breaking, earning kudos from national and international authorities. Be it agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, social welfare or any other sector, there was a customised scheme for any and every segment of the society thereby making West Bengal probably the lone State where the government benefits under-reached almost 100 per cent of the populace.

While the subsidised Rs 2/kg rice through its ‘Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojana’ helped it reach out to the socio-economically weaker sections, scholarship or financial support for the girl child through its ‘Kanyashree’ scheme ensured that we have less and less girls dropping out of the formal education system as reflected in their improved enrolment. Distribution of free cycles, free textbooks and free shoes for the students, 100 per cent availability of girls’ toilet in every school (from 49 per cent in 2011), 100 per cent coverage of MDM (from 65 per cent in 2011), an ITI or a polytechnic in almost every block, more and more primary, upper primary or high schools (six to ten times jump numeri-cally from 2011), establishment of newer colleges, universities, medical/engineering colleges and hospitality institutes are some of the shining examples of the interventions made in the education sector.

Health is another sector which saw massive interventions and infrastructural improvements through such programmes as special niche schemes for the children, for example, ‘Shishu Saathi’, establishment of fair price medicine shops (where costly medicines are made available at almost half their prices), establish-ment of Sick Newborn Care Units or Sick Newborn Stabilising Units in almost every block, a number of super-speciality hospitals, Mother and Child Hubs, Intensive and Critical Care Units, Trauma Centres, free diagnostic and medical services for every segment of the society and overall improvement in all services also resulted in improvement of many health indicators including improved immunisation and institutional delivery (from 68 per cent in 2011 to over 90 per cent in 2016) as well as drastic decline in maternal and infant mortality rates.

The State saw introduction of innovative practices leading to increased agricultural productivity and yield through a well-coordi-nated backward-forward linkage programme. So while specially-trained manpower provided real-time expert advice to the farmers through a scheme of ‘online expertise sharing’ via computer tablets, the government also came out with special schemes to encourage newer agricultural techniques and practices, resulting in an overall optimism among the farmers. The extension of ‘Kisan Credit Cards’ to more than 80 per cent of the farmers was another extra-ordinary feat achieved by the state which made agricultural credit easily available to the needy farmers. Establishment of a number of Krishak Bazars or Farmers’ Markets, water harvesting schemes like ‘Jal Dharo Jal Bharo’, new agricultural colleges or more and more farmers’ schools further helped the sector. Besides, the quick disbursal of crop compensation to the farmers who were distressed due to climatic vagaries also kept the agricultural sector buoyant. Similarly, the sector saw further expansion and extension of irrigation potential in the state.

Distribution of land to hundreds of thousands of landless through its ‘Nijo Griho, Nijo Bhumi’ scheme, welfare schemes for minorities and underprivileged communities including un-skilled and semi-skilled labourers, scholarship programmes such as ‘Yuvashree’ and ‘Shiksha-shree’, a number of pension schemes for various segements, monthly honoraria for folk artists through its ‘Lok Prasar Prakalp’ and many such schemes improved social security of the downtrodden. The State witnessed six times jump in the budgetary allocation for the infrastructural works thereby resulting in huge improvement in connectivity and power scenario of the State. Be it tourism, urban and rural development, animal husbandry, public health engineering, sports or industry, the state has done remarkably better than ever. Humongous amount of hard work has yielded rich dividends by way of greatly improved sanitation status, creation of skilled and unskilled employment for the people and manifold increase in the number of state beneficiaries in the social sector have all got reflected at the hustings.

But the most striking performance has definitely been in the State’s success in changing the face of ‘junglemahal’ or hills where militancy of the Naxals or the Statehood movement has been almost eliminated. Both the regions are not only peaceful but have also witnessed unprecedented development and improvement in all develop-ment indicators. The success of the government on these scores has been acknowledged and lauded by all and sundry. Kolkata, because of the good work done in the last few years, not only escaped the ignominy of inclusion in the negative list of dirtiest cities of India, but has also come to be recognised as a much better and more beautiful metropolis than it ever was.

As a result of improved revenue collection and financial discipline, the State’s capital and agri-rural development expenditure jumped six fold, the plan, physical and social infrastructure expenditure more than trebled thereby making West Bengal clock an economic growth rate of almost 11 per cent, 3.5 per cent more than the national average. It is really surprising to note that financial support to the industrialists and entrepreneurs is termed ‘incentive’, but expen-diture made on social welfare programmes is called ‘populism’ or ‘dole’. Notwithstanding the negativism of the critics, one is sure that West Bengal shall continue to march on the path to development to reclaim its cherished place in the sun.

Dr Saumitra Mohan, IAS is the District Magistrate and Collector, Burdwan. The views expessed here are personal and don’t reflect those of the government.