Resources underutilised, diverted
Few can dispute the fact that the eastern states such as West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, and Assam are among the country’s most mineral rich parts. Yet, they have been among the most neglected states in Independent India, thanks to the policies of the national government since the days of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was the author of the first major national economic policy that made the prices of steel, the mother metal, and coal, the country’s primary energy, produced mostly by eastern states, equal all over the country through a railway freight equalisation scheme.
This partisan policy denuded the producer states of their industrial advantage of local raw materials in terms of prices and proximity. There was no freight equalisation for other industrial raw materials that were sourced in other parts of the country. A single policy stroke by Nehru ensured a lasting pan-India political support for the Congress party for three decades. But, by then, the mineral-rich eastern states, still accounting for almost 75 percent of the country’s steel and coal production, turned sick creating big political discontent among local people and Maoist movements. It also led to a massive flight of capital from the region to other parts. The policy changed after years, but not before enough damage was done to West Bengal and the eastern region.
Bharatiya Janata Party’s stalwarts, led by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, might have provided thumbs-up to Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal at the state’s global business summit, 2016, last week, but such political statements and gestures alone are not going to rush substantially large investments in West Bengal as also in the adjoining states run by the ruling national party’s regional political rivals. The powerful national political rulers, be they from Congress or from BJP, rarely followed a national economic policy that benefitted opposition regional party-ruled states with the singular exception of Tamil Nadu, where two rival regional parties, DMK and AIADMK, have nearly finished the political existence of Congress while they never allowed BJP to have any worthy local presence.
For several decades, Tamil Nadu is ruled by either DMK or AIADMK. Whichever of the two occupied the state, political power chose to align with the national government in Delhi on its own terms. Both the parties were focused on the development of Tamil Nadu. The Marans of DMK – the late Murasali and his son Dayanidhi, once key Central Ministers -- got most of the major overseas automobile companies and telecom biggies set up their bases in Tamil Nadu without any intervention from their majority ally in the national government The two Dravidian parties rarely opposed each other on the issue of external investment in the state. The same can’t be said about other regional party ruled states.
There is no way that the present Trinamool Congress can follow AIADMK to have a working tie-up with the rival central political leadership without losing its huge support base in Bengal under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Therefore, Jaitley’s observation at the Bengal business summit that “the centre will work hand in hand with Bengal to ensure that investment comes to the state and the eastern region grows at a faster clip and a stronger Bengal means a stronger India” may be taken with a pinch of salt. Ironically, the Union Finance Minister has also warned that “if you are not in a position to attract investment, you will be destined to a course that happened in Bengal for a three-an-a-half decade”, meaning under the CPI(M)-led Left Front rule. This sounded like a threat to TMC, which was unnecessary, if not undesirable as well. Interestingly, Jaitley later directly invited entrepreneurs to invest in politically-allied Andhra Pradesh.
The government of India, no matter which political party is in power, will do the biggest mistake if it turns a blind eye on or becomes hostile to states such as Bengal with enormous economic and intellectual potential just because they are ruled by a rival political party. It would be sad if the economic interest of the country becomes subservient to political rivalries between the centre and states. There is nothing wrong if the mountain has to move to the Mohammed for a bigger cause. Only a month ago, the bosses of the world’s biggest oil cartel, OPEC, moved to India for the first time in its half-a-century-old existence for India’s support to sell oil in the face of a lasting US-sponsored price recession. By recognising Bengal’s strategic economic advantage, the Union government, irrespective of its political affiliation, would do well to work together with the state in the national interest.
Mineral and agricultural-rich Bengal can contribute substantially not only to the national GDP but also to the country’s quest for reaching out to the East. Endowed with massive natural resources, West Bengal is the only Indian state that connects the Himalayan range in the north and the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in the south through the Bay of Bengal. It is the gateway to seven north-eastern states as also to China, Bhutan, Indo-China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Its strategic location influenced the British government to zero in on Calcutta (now Kolkata) to make it India’s capital for over a century.
The Rs. 2.50 lakh crore worth investment proposals that poured in at the Bengal business summit recognises Bengal’s very inherent economic strength, strategic location, its strong political leadership and the personal commitment from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to investors. The centre on its part must ensure that there is no departmental intervention to delay these projects or make their implementation difficult. West Bengal’s economic growth will automatically benefit the entire eastern and north-eastern region. Bengal’s economic and social contact with the people of the region, irrespective of their language and religion, serves as the best example of national unity. The national government should work in the greater interest of the whole country and resist the political temptation to exploit Bengal and adjoining natural resources-rich states by underutilising their resources or deliberately diverting them to other parts.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)