Road Ahead For Bengal: Part I

It is good to be heard, and recently, I have been asked to contribute in a symposium on economic development of West Bengal. While I work on my presentation, I have started putting working notes together and thought of sharing this on my blog, in the hope of attracting comments and feedback from all those who care to read.

I care about Bengal. Because, wherever I go, whatever I do, I am Bengali and remain so. I may speak English, but I think in Bengali. When I travel, I can't help compare everything that I come across with things at home, and home is Kolkata. When I see something nasty, I proudly announce that WE do it differently; when I see something good, I wonder why WE can't do it the same way.

I know the statement above is controversial. Am I not supposed to say I am Indian? Isn't that my primary identity? What nation am I, Bengali?

Nations are usually defined by common culture and history, and often a common language. In that sense, I am Bengali; in fact, I can't be anything else even if I pretend. However, I shall argue that one can be an Indian even after being Bengali. Because India is a political idea, an unique configuration with federalism at its core, and acceptance of diversity as its key value. The modern Indian nation was created at a time when the horrors of national primacy was clear for all to see, and hence, while they were proud men and women, the founders of the Indian republic attempted to construct an identity which is at ease with its diversity within and with the community of nations outside it. It was actually the two sides of the same coin: Acceptance of diversity in the world and a commitment to peace and understanding went hand in hand with acceptance of different cultures and identities inside the republic and building a credo of non-discrimination.

However, being Bengali for me means at once being part of the Indian experiment, but also being part of a larger community. I have not fully learnt the sweetness of our language, the stickiness of our food and the warmth of our heart till I travelled outside India - to Bangladesh! That's the time when I discovered pride in my identity, not the feeling superior kind of pride, but the idea of difference and uniqueness. As I travelled around Bangladesh and made friends, I felt at home - despite all the differences and misgivings between our two countries. This is also the experience which taught me about the essentially transitory nature of identities themselves, so deeply misunderstood by the proponents of the theory of clash of civilization.

It is important to keep in mind the context of the greater Bengali identity while we ponder about the road ahead for Bengal. It may seem politically incorrect. But, I am not trying to claim that the development of Bengal can be brought about by Bengalis alone; in fact, I would believe that development in the modern context can only be possible with openness to diversity and tolerance. Politically, West Bengal - which is being referred to as Bengal in the present context - has to put its development agenda in alignment with India, and anything else would be a non-starter. However, I shall argue that any meaningful development effort in Bengal has to start with a rethink of what the people of Bengal stand for to create a sustainable development agenda.

The sorry state of Bengal today is partially attributable to this loss of identity and purpose. There are economic and political issues which may have triggered the decline, but the process of fixing may start at the other end.

In fact, economically, West Bengal has progressed much in the last thirty years, but such progress has not translated into a positive outlook and development momentum experienced by the rest of India. West Bengal's agriculture remains reformed and resilient, and productivity has risen over the years. Farm indebtedness and farmer suicides do not happen in West Bengal. Incomes have risen and poverty levels have fallen, well in line with Indian standards. However, this development has not been matched by progress in urban and industrial sectors. West Bengal's urban infrastructure is tottering, rural electrification is limited, electrical generation and consumption both below national average [not to mention the developed states], and teledensity stuck at pre-liberalization levels. Moreover, West Bengal has experienced precipitous decline in two areas - small scale industry and education - owing primarily to social stagnation, led by politicization of administration and education at all levels [a legacy of an unbearably long period of a single party rule].

Such bottleneck economics and social stagnation have created a dangerous situation in more than one way. The agricultural development and alleviation of poverty has lifted the birth rate and added millions of young people. However, the opportunity to achieve further gains in agricultural productivity is quite limited, given that the land is quite well cultivated and technology-driven productivity gains are ruled out because of the smaller farm sizes consequent to the land reforms. Jobs are hard to come by, and the government's wrong-headed attempts to create jobs by trading off agricultural land to industrialists setting up large scale manufacturing operations have come to nothing; the government seems to be afraid of small entrepreneurs, who create more jobs than big firms but are harder to control, and have done nothing to set things right for smaller enterprises. A similar fear and lack of imagination prompted the government to keep tinkering in the education sector, pushing favoured applicants to key administrative and blocking any attempts of innovation and new opportunity in education. But, by doing so, an enormous squeeze has happened in West Bengal, driving the young population to desperation and hopelessness, fuelling social unrest, criminal activity and ultimately, political instability of the most dangerous kind.

We can talk endlessly about piecemeal solutions about how to fix this. We can talk about responsible polity, as if there is some such thing. We have tried and failed large scale industrialization. We can talk about private investment in education to turn things around, though, we should know by now, privatization does not automatically mean progress. We can talk about better policing, property rights, more cities, and all the other already discredited formulas of development. However, what Bengal is facing today is a crisis of imagination, a deep confusion of identity and purpose, and I would argue we have to start with addressing that problem.

Not that piecemeal solutions do not work. Bengal does not have to look too far. There are impressive turnaround efforts underway all around it. Bihar is making great progress under Nitish Kumar's inspired leadership, and Orissa has turned itself around over last decade or so and decisively joined the march to development with the rest of the country. But, Bengal needs more. The Bihar model may represent a stage of development West Bengal has already surpassed; while Orissa present an interesting model where education liberalization has indeed assisted social mobility, West Bengal's education system may be too broken and outdated to leap into that model straightaway.

Bengal needs more, and needs it urgently, if the demographic dividend has to be taken advantage of, and if we have to arrest the decline into abyss, social unrest, which can eventually affect the whole India. We are at an inflection point where things can go either way, and nothing short of the discovery of a new, wholesome agenda based on the Bengali cultural identity is going to save us.

So, in essence, I am saying - we are broken and we need to fix ourselves. We can talk about economic solutions, how to reduce crime, or social solutions which will increase mobility between villages and cities [and that we need more cities]. But, all of it needs to start with reconnecting back with our identity, in being proud of what we are and connecting back with Bengalis all over the world [including in Bangladesh].

I am quite aware that this is not the kind of suggestion development experts are supposed to talk about or accept as valid. But, then, I am not a development expert. I am not talking from without. I am a Bengali myself, a concerned part of the whole. History tells us that a conscious social turnaround, while it may succeed because of a combination of factors [demographic dividend being one of them], must start with telling of a story, a story that defines a people and rewrites its purpose. We are in desperate need for such an effort.


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