As Bengal regains its regional identity under Mamata Banerjee to become the epicentre of the Indian economy; the opposition is going all out to reap the economic, political and strategic benefits
Unprecedented violence during the fourth phase of the election in Bengal and shooting by paramilitary forces at the unarmed electorates in Sitalkuchi (Coochbehar), killing four citizens on the spot, indicates that the Bengal election is no more a 'festival of democracy'. It has been turned into a war. It seems, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, is using all its weapons — money, muscle and state machinery at its command to conquer Bengal at any cost. And its principal opponent, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITUC), under the leadership of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is trying to hold the fort. In this, apparently, 'zero-sum game' the ultimate losers are the hapless citizens who have been exposed to the second wave of the Corona pandemic and rising heat waves amidst an abnormally long period of the election process, lasting for over two months.
The Bengal election has become so significant to the Prime Minister that he lost no opportunity to influence the sizeable Namasudra voters of Bengal during his recent official visit to Bangladesh! Prime Minister's frequent presence in the state to participate in numerous political campaigns for party candidates demonstrates his desperation to win this war to subjugate Bengal. But why is Bengal so important to Modi and his party? The driving forces behind this invasion are: political, strategic, and economic. Let's discuss the economic reasons first.
(i) Since 1820, Bengal has been supplying coal to this subcontinent. Mining started in that year, in Raniganj by an agency house Alexander & Co. In 1835, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore bought over the collieries and Carr, Tagore and Company led the field. For the entire 19th century and a major part of the 20th century, Raniganj coalfields were the major producer of coal in the country. West Bengal is the third-largest contributor of minerals in India accounting for about one-fifth of total mineral production. Coal accounts for 99 per cent of extracted minerals of the state which has 11 per cent of the total national coal reserves. The state's total coal reserves/resources were estimated at 31.43 billion tonnes. The prospects of Coal Bed Methane production potential from the Raniganj coal reserves are estimated at 12 million cubic metres/ day which is a useful source of energy for the future. India's largest coal mine is located in the southwestern part of the Birbhum district. The Deocha-Pachami and Dewanganj-Harinsingha coal blocks, with an indicated reserve of 40.7 billion tonnes, spread over an area of 12.3 square kilometres lie adjacent to one another in the Birbhum district. In 2019, the Centre has entered into an allotment agreement with West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL) for this coal block for the generation of power, reported Indiatimes. To retain control on this huge coal reserve, one has to first grab WBPDCL and this is only possible if BJP forms government in West Bengal. It may also be mentioned that this second-largest coal block of the world offers a viable alternative to Adani Group's Australian coal where the company is facing stiff resistance from environmentalists and policymakers.
(ii) In 2020, West Bengal entered the oil and gas map of India after a gap of over six decades, when Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) opened India's eighth hydrocarbon-producing basin and started oil flow from a well in the Bengal basin. Oil production commenced from the well, Ashokenagar-1, in the 24-Pargana district. The first oil consignment from well Asokenagar-1 was sent to Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) Haldia refinery on November 5. The Bengal basin is spread across nearly 1.22 lakh square kilometres, with nearly two-thirds of it falling under the waters of the Bay of Bengal. A statement of Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan quoted by Indiatimes reads, "Bengal basin looks set to find a place on the oil and gas map of the world. Re-energized by this discovery and eager to script more success stories in the newly awarded Open Acreage Licensing Policy (OALP) acreages in the Bengal basin, ONGC has already set aside a sling of fresh geoscientific activities."
It may be recalled that in December 1951, the Government of India had approved Standard Vacuum Company of USA to carry out a survey in Bengal Basin. Subsequently, an agreement was signed with Standard Vacuum in 1953 for oil prospecting in Bengal Basins. Though the Indo-Stanvac Project hinted at huge oil and gas prospects in the Bengal basins, the project was discontinued for various reasons. With the formation of ONGC, the oil exploration map of India shifted, since the 1960s, from the Bengal Basin and eastern part of India to western India and Cambay. When Reliance Industries Ltd. gauged three discoveries with a combined one tcf of recoverable gas on the Bay of Bengal basin shelf, and South Korean conglomerate Daewoo has made a natural gas discovery in Block D-12 in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, adjacent to Myanmar's Block AD-7 in a basin that is shared between Bangladesh and Myanmar, Bengal Basin has got its due importance. Again in July 2018, India has discovered large, highly enriched accumulations of natural gas hydrates in the Bay of Bengal in collaboration with the US Geological Survey (USGS) Energy Resources Programme coordinator. "Advances like the Bay of Bengal discovery will help unlock the global energy resource potential of gas hydrates as well help define the technology needed to safely produce them," Walter Guidroz, coordinator of the USGS Energy Resources Programme had said at the time. Now Bengal, especially the Bengal Basin, is an attractive destination for oil and gas companies like Reliance which has a very cordial relationship with the BJP government.
(iii) The battle for Nandigram should also be analyzed from the perspective of converting Nandigram-Nayachar-Haldia into a chemical hub which the left from had initiated by serving notice to acquire over a thousand acres of land from the peasants. The peasants, fishermen, environmentalists, political parties, and a section of intellectuals had resisted the move and the global chemical and petrochemical lobby retracted. The Nandigram movement had brought up debates around development, displacement, and human rights. Together with the movements in Singur in West Bengal's Hooghly district and Kalinganagar in Odisha, the anti-displacement movement in Nandigram played a significant role behind the scrapping of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 in 2013. The discovery of oil and gas in Bengal has rekindled that deadly 'chemical hub' dream among the crony corporates. Repeated visits of Central Petroleum Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, to campaign for the BJP candidate in Nandigram is a case in point. With a deep seaport under construction in Tezpur (adjacent to Nandigram) and a cable landing station in Digha being set up by Reliance Jio at an investment of Rs 1,000 crore, East Medinipur, a coastal district of Bengal, is undoubtedly an attractive destination for the global and Indian chemical and infrastructure companies.
(iv) In November 2006, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, had gone on record saying, "The state needs a nuclear power plant and will certainly get it." Accordingly, the Government of West Bengal decided to acquire 1,013 acres of prime agricultural land, in and around Haripur, including the fish processing centre at Junput, for setting up the nuclear power project. Haripur is situated on the Bay of Bengal coast in Contai Sub Division of East Midnapur District. On August 19, 2007, the Bengali vernacular Ananda Bazar Patrika carried news stating that a nuclear power plant would come up at Haripur. Earlier there was unconfirmed news that Egra in East Midnapur had been chosen as the probable site. In Haripur, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) had planned to set up a nuclear park with six units of 1,000 MW each. The first phase of the project was scheduled to have two units of 1,000 MW each. In the 12th Plan period, six Russian-made nuclear reactors were expected to be set up — two at Haripur in West Bengal and four at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.
Local farmers and fishermen, supported by a number of non-government organisations (NGOs), had launched an agitation against the project fearing eviction and loss of livelihood. TMC, then in opposition, also supported people's movement against the proposed nuclear plant. When Mamata Banerjee became the Chief Minister her government decided to scrap the plan. In August 2011, replying to a question in the legislative assembly on this issue, the State Power Minister, Manish Gupta, confirmed the government's decision to scrap the proposal for the project. "The present government has no plans to set up nuclear power plants in any other parts of the state," businessline.com quoted the minister.
The Central government has not yet lost hope to establish a nuclear power plant in Haripur, After the Fukushima nuclear plant accident (2011) in Japan resistance against nuclear plants, in advanced countries, has increased. The global nuclear industry is in crisis now. They are trying to dump their reactors to developing countries of Asia and Africa. In July 2018, the Central Government said that it had revived the proposal to set up a nuclear power plant in Haripur of West Bengal, which was put on hold due to opposition from the state government and the local farmers of the area. Answering a question in the Lok Sabha, Union minister of state Jitendra Singh informed that the Centre had given in-principle approval for the setting up of a nuclear project in Haripur. He also said that it was being set up in collaboration with Russia. When the TMC MP Sougata Roy tried to point out that the state government neither gave the go-ahead for the controversial project nor had the land been allotted for the project, the minister replied, "I am putting on record that it is a project with Russian collaboration and in-principle approval has been given, and it is moving ahead", reported MillenniumPost. It explains why East Medinipur district is so important to the BJP government at the Center and to the global nuclear power companies.
(v) It is a fact that a massive socio-economic turnaround has taken place in Bengal between 2010-11 and 2019-20. In this period, the state's GSDP has increased by 2.7 times and has reached Rs 13.54 lakh crore (at current price) in 2020-21. With a share of less than 2.7 per cent of India's land, Bengal contributes over six per cent to the nation's GDP and houses more than 7.5 per cent of the country's population. This has been made possible only because of the huge human skill and knowledge that Bengal still possesses. Bengal provides erudite craftsmen, skilled workers, and thousands of knowledge workers to other states of India who contribute immensely to the growth of GSDP of the respective states. Bengal still boasts of high-quality educational institutions at the secondary, graduate, and postgraduate levels. It has a huge repository of traditional knowledge with the local farmers and craft communities. Corporate India wants to control the vast human resources of Bengal and transform the existing traditional knowledge into a structured knowledge system conducive to the production process.
(i) Post-independent India had primarily followed 'Look West Policy' till Manmohan Singh made a major policy shift to 'Look East'. As the epicentre of India's business activities had also shifted from East to West after the partition of Bengal, the importance of the east coast of India, especially the Bengal coast, declined over the years. Due to various geopolitical reasons, Indian business and political leaders have realized that over-dependence on the west coast might be suicidal in the long run. China has already made inroads into The Arabian Sea via Pakistan. Moreover, as reported by www.ndiatvnews.com, after a prolonged negotiation since 2016, on 27 March 2021, Iran and China have signed an overarching 25-year deal in which China has promised to invest USD 400 billion in Iran, in return, China will receive an uninterrupted and discounted supply of oil to bolster its economy. The multi-hundred-billion dollar deal has also raised concerns in India if the deal will alter the India-Iran ties and affect India's role in the development of the Chabahar port? Chabahar is India's gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Political uncertainties in the Middle East and an increasing presence of China in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal (through Myanmar) have compelled Indian policymakers to focus on the east coast of India. Narendra Modi and his allies must have thought that in the ongoing assembly election it would be prudent to concentrate on West Bengal, the home of Hindu Mahasabha, than on Tamil Nadu, the other east coast state where the election is being held now.
(ii) It seems Indian leaders have realised that the partition of Bengal was a great mistake. It has harmed India more than its leaders anticipated. Bangladesh shares 4,094 kilometres of land border with India on three sides, the fourth side being open to the Bay of Bengal. Five Indian states, namely, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, share a border with Bangladesh. The partition of Bengal and the subsequent emergence of an independent country in Bangladesh have practically isolated the Northeastern states from the rest of India. The division of Bengal had turned Northeast into a land-locked region surrounded by five countries. The umbilical cord is the 'chicken neck' corridor at Siliguri (West Bengal).
India and Bangladesh have 54 transboundary rivers between them, all of which are part of the drainage system of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin. The Padma (the Ganga), the Jamuna (the Brahmaputra) and the Meghna (the Barak) and their tributaries are integral in maintaining food and water security in the region. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin is a transboundary river basin with a total area of just over 1.7 million sq. km, distributed between India (64 per cent), China (18 per cent), Nepal (9 per cent), Bangladesh (7 per cent) and Bhutan (3 per cent). Partition of Bengal has not only disrupted the eastern economy by disconnecting its time-tested shared ecosystem, it has also deprived northern India of its only direct access to the Bay of Bengal via river Ganga-Padma. After the construction of Farakka Barrage in the early 1970s, this historical trade route of northern India also got destroyed.
The common ecosystem that India and Bangladesh had enjoyed for thousands of years, which got disrupted after the partition in 1947, could be the basis of the future cooperation of these two neighbours. Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin Cooperation (GBMBC) in line with the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) may be initiated to optimize the potential of the North-Eastern Region (NER). It is likely to be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders, including Nepal and Bhutan, who are part of this ecosystem.
A recent World Bank study has revealed that seamless transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh has the potential to increase national income by as much as 17 per cent in Bangladesh and eight per cent in India. BJP and its allies want to control this strategic transition by capturing political power in West Bengal and North-Eastern Region.
(i) As the epicentre of the global economy has shifted to East Asia and India's 'Act East Policy' cannot be implemented bypassing West Bengal, winning the Bengal election is crucial for Modi and his sponsors. If he loses this war then his grip on his own party will be lost.
(ii) Over the last decade, Mamata Banerjee has developed an alternative sustainable development model which offers space for all. This theoretically sound self-sufficient model, based on the philosophy of 'small is beautiful' and 'trickle up' approach' has challenged the Western (and Stalinists) development models mostly followed by developing countries like us. The present BJP government, which is very dear to the crony capitalists of India has to destabilize this development process in Bengal to remain in power.
After a long gap of over eight decades, Bengal is again at the centre of Indian political discourse. This is a great achievement for Mamata Banerjee who has rekindled the long-suppressed sub-regional Bengal identity.
Views expressed are personal