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Whither cooperative federalism?

Whither cooperative federalism?
On the issue of port development in West Bengal in general and the development of the proposed Tajpur port in particular, the Union government has been showing a stance that reveals its antipathy to the development of infrastructure, communication and economy of this Bengali homeland. When the BJP-led NDA government took over the Indian Union in 2014, what they proposed was "co-operative federalism". Narendra Modi touted this as the ushering in of a 'new era' of Centre-State relations based on cooperation.

That slogan now stands exposed, as an extremely naked form of centralisation has taken shape. This spans from tremendous powers enjoyed by extra-constitutional entities like Niti Ayog to blackmailing States on UDAY, and APMC acts, as well as various other despicable ruses to disempower States – economically, administratively and politically. In short, Delhi is running an unprecedented political conspiracy against the federal structure of the Indian Union, all under the public relation exercise called "cooperative federalism". Now, in the case of West Bengal, it has gone one step further by threatening to renege on a port project promise and becoming an active inhibitor in the economic development of West Bengal. It is a matter of utter shamelessness and victimisation of a state that is on its way to economic recovery.

After destroying the Calcutta port through systematic abuse and denial of funds, the Union government in the Bengal Global Business Summit last year announced with much publicity its plan to develop a port in Sagar, West Bengal. It announced the amount of investment and also stated that rail linkages of the port to the main railway system would be built which would help the port supply chain and everyday people in the area alike. After having systematically denied funds to West Bengal for ages in every field and continually deindustrialising West Bengal for decades by freight equalisation policy, this announcement was indeed some happy news for the people of a state.

One must remember that it is a state, which contributes hugely to the Union exchequer through its coal, jute, tea, and income tax but gets some pitifully small amount of funds in return. In short, it's a one-sided loot orchestrated on a debt-ridden state. West Bengal is not alone. It is the case with many states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. So, these so-called "central funds" are funds generated in the state itself – received via Delhi, which keeps its cut.

However, business has been booming in the seas of West Bengal. Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) had its highest ever container throughput of over 6 lakh TEUs at Kolkata Dock System (KDS) in the current financial year 2016-17, compared to the previous highest of 5,77,749 TEUs handled in 2015-16. Given this increase in demand, the West Bengal government also planned its own separate port at Tajpur, backed up by private investments. In the flawed federal system of the Indian Union that doesn't allow a state government to chart its path of economic development, even in the permission for setting up a forward-looking initiative like the Tajpur port, the Union government has tried its best to spread thorns in its path. At first, the Union government just resorted to blackmail saying that if Tajpur port was set up, Delhi would pull out of its Sagar port plan. Gone are the great assurances made publicly. Gone are the concerns for railway connectivity that were promised.

Union government probably views the people of this area not as its own citizens but beings whose mobility and development can be used as a bargaining chip against the initiatives of the Government of West Bengal. It also shows that notwithstanding its tall claims of "Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas", it's finally the state government that has a single-minded responsibility and concern for the welfare of the people of West Bengal. The Union government is just interested in grabbing a share of the lucrative resource. Thus, it wanted 75 per cent stake at the Tajpur port! In its magnanimity, the West Bengal government offered a compromise and 25 per cent stake. But for the imperious government in New Delhi, that is not enough, and since then it has done all in its might to create roadblock after roadblock in the creation of the ports at Tajpur and Sagar, raising specious concerns about viability. That is quite rich from a government that runs an airline with tens of thousands of crores in a subsidy plan. The Union government is thus becoming an obstacle to the economic development of West Bengal which otherwise has a bright future potential in the port infrastructure business and logistics field as evidenced by multiple reports by reputable international agencies.

This situation would probably not have arisen if the West Bengal government had promised to hand over the Tajpur port development project to a particular Gujarat-based corporate group, a hot favourite of the Union government which bags massive projects and near monopoly rights for an array of money-minting businesses, all approved by the government. It is probably not accidental that the current Prime Minister had been seen using private plane facilities belonging to this same corporate group, which also is among the top ten loan defaulters in the Indian Union. With such defaulting crooks being among Delhi's hot favourites, who needs Pakistan printed fake notes to destroy the economy?

West Bengal is the only state in the Indian Union's eastern coast without a deep sea port which is reckoned to be crucial in the economic development. It shows the amount of neglect and loot that West Bengal has been subjected to since Partition. What is interesting is that no questions of viability are being raised about the proposed Tajpur port vis-à-vis the private Subarnarekha port in Odisha that is quite near to Tajpur. Thus, it is a question of stake and not the red herring of viability that is the core issue. The Union government wants to control most of the revenue of this area since it knows its lucrative and does not want the West Bengal government to benefit financially from autonomous port development on home soil. A financially secure West Bengal government flush with revenue is bad news for the Union government as it reduces avenues for blackmail.

One of West Bengal's leading media houses has been shamelessly pushing the Union government's case in its pages. This is what happens when Delhi only grabs funds from West Bengal, and even media houses dance to the tune of distant masters and their chosen corporate backers. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industries, the industry body that has its roots in West Bengal and has stakes in the development of West Bengal, has supported Tajpur port. The only nay-sayers are Union government's port officials and shipping ministry. The Union government is all set to take back the Rs 515 crore grant released for Sagar port. The people of West Bengal should be aware of this Delhi conspiracy against the development of the coastline of Bengal. In fact, in the crucial GST negotiations, the Union government has tried to snatch away from States their long established rights over the tax on high sea sales.

The long-term game plan of the Union government is clear. It wants to starve the States from all autonomous, lucrative, viable and elastic sources of revenue so that the States become completely dependent economically on Delhi. New Delhi then can arm-twist States to fall in line with its policies as rich people treat beggars. States that have stable financial independence are tougher to enslave. The present government of West Bengal understands this nefarious game plan very well and thus has been one of the strongest votaries for federalism. When a state or a region has greater control over its affairs, it can work wonders. Its resources are utilised for its development. Its economic plans are tied to its own reality.

Thus, East Bengal, in its present form as the People's Republic of Bangladesh, has charted a remarkable growth path. These are the same people as West Bengal, except that at Partition, West Bengal was miles ahead in all economic matters. Now it is almost the reverse, and this reversal primarily boils down to one fact. East Bengal plans its own economic future while Delhi largely plans West Bengal's economic future as an after-thought in its centralised list of priorities. If the Union government at Delhi has the spine, to be honest, every year at the budget, it should also publish a white paper that would show state-wise break-up in revenue and resources earned in each revenue category and also the state-wise money given back in every form, including salaries and infrastructure investment.

Then it will be clear who Delhi takes from and who Delhi gives. If there is a huge difference in giving and taking from a particular state, that is a situation that needs to be rectified. The Constitution of India has provisions for such rectification. This would entail a large scale transfer of subjects including revenue sources from the Union and Concurrent list to the State list. In fact, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already demanded so, saying that nothing beyond Defence, Foreign Affairs, Railways and Monetary policy should be in the Union government's hands. It is thus not surprising that Delhi tries to use every trick in the book to destabilise her government and her party. For her success will threaten the uninterrupted era of loot of States by New Delhi. In a diverse polity like the Indian Union, federalism means economic and political justice. The Tajpur impasse, in its microcosm, shows how ugly the centralising animal can be.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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