Let a hundred flowers bloom
The shoots of new socio-economic reality have emerged over the past decade on the bedrock of theoretically sound Bengal model which offers space for all
Rajiv Gandhi, the erstwhile Prime Minister of India, once declared West Bengal as a 'sinking economy'! As per Socio-Economic and Caste Survey 2011, over 77 per cent population of West Bengal lived in rural sector against the national average of 73 per cent. And, in 82.47 per cent of all rural households, the monthly income of highest earning member was less than Rs 5,000. The corresponding figures for the SC and ST households were 87.47 per cent and 93.13 per cent respectively. During the long phase of left rule, Bengal was trapped in a low-equilibrium condition.
Achievements during last one decade
West Bengal is a land-starved, densely populated state. 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 country's population.
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 to Rs 13.54 lakh crore (at current price) in 2020-21. This has been made possible through sustained increase in government expenditure in: (a) physical infrastructure (by 3.9 times), (b) agriculture and allied sectors (by 6.1 times), (c) social sector (by 5.6 times), (d) state-planned expenditure (by 7.2 times). This has been made possible because of higher revenue collection which increased by 2.9 times during the period. However, the most striking achievement of the Mamata government is the efficient management of public debts. The debt-GSDP ratio of West Bengal has declined from 40.65 per cent in 2010-11 to 34.57 per cent in 2019-20.
The other notable change that has occurred in Bengal is the resurgence of socio-political identity of various jatis, indigenous groups, religious and linguistic communities who had been marginalised for decades by the upper caste urban centric Bhadroloks (gentle folk). For decades, the Kolkata-centric Bhadroloks of Bengal — the English-educated descendants of the Ancestral North Indians (ANI) which was created when Indo-Aryan steppe pastoralists mixed with groups of the Indus Valley periphery living in the northern fringe — have subordinated the ethno-racial and non-Hindu religious groups, namely indigenous people (mostly descendants of the Harappa, ancient Ancestral South Indians, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic people); Dalits (untouchables, sweepers, latrine cleaners), and Muslims. In the name of class struggle, the urban elites of Bengal had suppressed the ethno-racial and religious identities of the non-Hindu and lower-caste citizens of Bengal.
The exit of Left Front government, in 2011, gave a breathing space to the marginalised communities. Moreover, specific programmes and policies targeting the vulnerable communities have encouraged them to assert their ethno-racial identities. For example, Adivasis of Bengal are now demanding for a separate religion code, 'Sarna Adivasi Dharam' for the tribal population, in the upcoming 2021 Census exercise. Followers of 'Sarna' are usually nature worshippers. Kurukh, an endangered tribal language of the Dravidian family, spoken by the Oraon tribal community, has been given official status by the West Bengal government. In addition to this, government has paid special attention to promote, among others, Santhali, Nepali, Urdu, Kamtapuri and Kurmali languages. Six Cultural and Development boards have been set up for Tamang, Sherpa, Bhutia, Limbu, Adibasi and Mayel Lyang Lepcha communities. Additionally, for focused development of specific communities, Development Boards have been set up for Bauri, Namasudra, Matua, Rajbanshi, Kurmi, Kami and Bagdi communities. Dalit Sahitya Academy has also been established. All these initiatives have created a socio-cultural space in West Bengal which is conducive for the revival of long-suppressed identities of the marginalised communities. In the garden of Bengal, a hundred flowers of different colour, shape and scent are blooming now. Probably, for the first time, the all-pervading dominance of urban-centric English-speaking Bengali Bhadrolok is being challenged by the communities who had been pushed to the fringe for decades.
The Salient features of Bengal model
In brief, the Bengal model of development is characterised by its inclusiveness, dominance of micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), rural and women-centric programmes, decentralised governance, reliance on knowledge and skill-based karigar economy.
During the last decade, Bengal has established an inclusive model of development by including all the stakeholders of the society in the development process. Plethora of welfare schemes targeting every section of the community and covering all phases of their life cycle — from birth; education; religion; livelihood; sports; culture; marriage and health care to old age sustenance — have been launched and successfully implemented. Khyadya Sathi,'Swastha Swathi, Kanyasree, Sabuj Sathi, Sikhyashree, Gatidhara, Lokprasar Prakalpa, Sishu Sathi, Anandadhara, Yubasathi, Khelashree, Sabujshree, Samabyathi, Nirmal Bangla, Joy Bangla Pension Scheme, Aikyashree Scholarship, Utkarsha Bangla, Gitanjali Housing Scheme, Rupashree and Hawkar Support Scheme are few such flagship welfare programmes. During Covid pandemic and Amphan super cyclone, the local clubs, who get yearly financial assistance from the government, have played an exemplary role in combating the crises.
The government of West Bengal had realised the importance of MSME sector, and after Ms Mamata Banerjee became the Chief Minister in 2011, her government took a collaborative approach, creating a better and more encouraging business environment for this sector to flourish. As reported by Indiatimes, in 2017, West Bengal had the highest number of MSMEs in the country with 52,69,814 units. Out of these total numbers, around 95 per cent are micro-enterprises. Bengal accounted for 11.62 per cent of micro, small and medium enterprises, the most among the top 10 states of the country. Nearly 1.1 crore (11 million) people are employed in the MSME sector of West Bengal. Many traditional artisans like blacksmiths have become micro/small entrepreneurs in new areas such as manufacturing of surgical instruments, car repairing etc. As per 2018 estimates, West Bengal comprises of 183 manufacturing clusters spread across the 19 districts and consisting of around 12 sectors. Moreover, the government has taken a massive initiative to construct 100 industrial parks in different districts to facilitate MSME sector, reported eisamay.indiatimes.
Since her first year in power, Mamata government has remained focused on rural development. State Plan Expenditure in Agriculture and Allied Services observed a growth of about six times within a span of nine years. It grew from Rs 3,029.39 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 18,603 crore in 2019-20. Due to this focused approach, food grains production in Bengal has increased to 198.65 LMT in 2019-20 compared to 148.1 LMT in 2010-11.West Bengal sustains its leadership in rice production in India. Total rice production has increased to 165.03 LMT in 2019-20 from 133.9 LMT in 2010-11. In order to sustain food security, the farmers of West Bengal have not only seen economic growth but could also raise their household incomes significantly in a sustainable manner.
The most significant feature of Bengal model of development is its women-centric development philosophy. Women play a significant role in Bengal's culture. Goddess worship is common in almost all the religious sects of this region. However, during the post-independent period of Bhadrolok dominance, women got marginalised, to a large extent, in politics and other leadership positions in Bengal. With the marginalisation of Bhadroloks during the last decade, women are getting increasingly empowered in Bengal. Numerous government programmes, like Kanyashree, Swastha Sathi (card issued in the name of woman member of the family), Sabala, Banglashree, Anandadhara, Swabalamban, etc have been implemented to empower women of
Bengal. In addition to their contribution to traditional agricultural activities, women in Bengal have emerged as leaders in entrepreneurial activities. West Bengal now tops the list in employing the most female workers in MSMEs at a staggering 29,01,324 which is 16,16,061 more than runner-up Tamil Nadu. Female MSME owners top their male counterpart in Bengal by almost 12 per cent. The number of women candidates fielded by all the major political parties, in the 2021 Assembly elections have also increased compared to their number a decade earlier.
Decentralised governance is another important feature of Bengal model of development. To break the age-old bureaucratic control of Kolkata-centric Bhadroloks, Mamata Banerjee first shifted the Chief Minister's Office (CMO) from Kolkata to Howrah, situated on the other side of Hoogly River. Till the pandemic started, in every month the CM- travelled to different districts and held open door meetings with all the stakeholders. This facilitated more direct communication with the citizens and helped to monitor various programmes. And, the latest initiative, 'Duare Sarkar and Paray Samadhan' (government at the doorsteps and solution in the locality), has revolutionised the concept of governance and brought it literally to the grassroots level.
The most important feature of the Bengal model is its dependence on local and intermediate technology (simple and practical tools). Karigars, not labourers, are the backbone of Bengal's economy. The capital of these Karigars (craftsperson) is their traditional skills and knowledge accrued through generations. A Karigar not only creates unique products, he/she also produces young Karigars by transferring skills to their disciples. Thus, through propagation of human knowledge capital, the Karigar economy tries to and prospers without depending on financial capital and modern technology. The craft sector of West Bengal provides livelihood to about 5.5 lakh men and women.
Weavers deserve special mention due to their historical contribution to Bengal's economy and fame. As per the census conducted by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India in 2009-2010, in West Bengal, there are 3,07,829 handlooms giving direct and indirect employment to about 6,65,006 persons. The
West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (WBKVIB) has undertaken 65 production clusters. Recently, the famous 'Bengal Muslin' has been revived again. On November 18, 2019, the Chief Executive Officer of West Bengal Khadi and Village Industry Board (WBKVIB) has filed an application to the Government of India for granting GI tag to Bengal Muslin (Application no 676).
Strategies adopted by Mamata government
The socio-economic turnaround achieved by Mamata Banerjee in about nine years deserves serious study by social scientists and business schools. An analysis of her government's approach during last ten years indicates about the possible influences of the following three strategies:
v Strategic intent: Elaborating the concept of strategic intent, Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad (2005) say, "Strategic intent implies a sizable stretch for an organisation. Current capabilities and resources will not suffice. This forces the organisation to be more inventive, to make the most out of limited resources. Whereas the traditional view of strategy focuses on the degree of fit between existing resources and current opportunities, strategic intent creates an extreme misfit between resources and ambitions. Top management then challenges the organisation to close the gap by systematically building new advantages." It seems, willy-nilly, Bengal Chief Minister has also followed the same approach to achieve the larger vision she created for her team to achieve. She was aware of the limited resources and various other constraints but she never lost her focus. Gigantic programmes like Kanyashree, Sabujsathi, Swastha Swathi, those were initiated with modest resources, are cases in point.
The developing countries face two broad policy options to attract investment. i) Offering low/nil tax and hefty incentives to potential investors. Thus, states compete among themselves in a 'race to the bottom' by offering competitive tax incentives on investments where investing firms end up appropriating all the benefits associated with their investment. Apart from the potential loss of revenue, tax incentives distort the attraction of resources. The ex-CM of Bengal, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee followed this approach to attract Tata Motors at Singur. (ii) An alternative to this subsidy and tax incentive strategy is the 'beauty contest' approach of attracting investment. This means, making the country more attractive by educating its labour force, improving the quality of infrastructure and institutions. It is argued that education level of labour force may determine the type of investment a country receives. A highly educated country will attract quality investment in high-end sectors where knowledge spillover would be higher. It seems the present CM of Bengal has opted for this second approach. She wanted to make Bengal more beautiful by investing in education, infrastructure, health services etc. Now investors are getting attracted to Bengal.
The Bengal government has followed the 'Trickle up' and not the 'trickle down' approach for poverty reduction, social equity and inclusive development. Trickle down approach, as followed by most of the industrial states of India, has ended up in jobless growth. But Bengal which had 1.85 crore people living below the poverty line in 2012 has uplifted 35 lakh people to reduce BPL population to five per cent in 2020, from 20 per cent in 2011. Between 2005 and 2012, the year-on-year rate of decline in poverty was seven per cent, adjusted for population growth, through inclusive growth and comprehensive schemes on social safety net. It is argued that if job creation is undertaken in such a manner that it enhances the skill of the workforce, then job creation can be productive. In this case, the benefits of job creation trickle up as GDP grows. This has actually happened in Bengal.
Theoretical construct of the model
Academics discard any model unless a theoretical construct is proposed. Does Bengal model follow any similar development model? We found two!
Schumacher (1973), in his book, 'Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered' talked about the technology of mass production (an outcome of industrial revolution) which is inherently violent, economically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources and stultifying for human person. Contrary to this, the technology of production by the masses, making use of best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralisation, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person, instead of making them the servant of machines. Schumacher also advocated for the adoption of appropriate technology in less industrialised nations as a strategy that was consistent with economic growth and development. Schumacher believed that capital-intensive investments in such societies were often wasteful and did not advance the economic prospects of poor nations. The Karigar economy and MSME sector of Bengal follow this production philosophy.
Interestingly, 'The Great Leap Forward' was an extraordinarily creative intervention in Chinese economic development in the mid-fifties of the last century. Gabriel (1998), argues that the theoretical underpinnings of the Great Leap Forward are similar, in many ways, to the arguments of the Schumacher who argued in favour of a strategy of development based on "intermediate" or "appropriate" technologies, rather than the most technologically advanced and capital-intensive technologies that are often considered most desirable or the more "primitive" technologies that were often in use in less industrialised countries. Like Schumacher, Chairman Mao also wanted Chinese direct producers, particularly farmers, to use more advanced technologies than the relatively crude implements that were available but he argued against a continuation of the Stalinist approach (the First Five Year Plan) because it relied on capital-intensive investments. The Maoist (and Schumacherian) dynamics of technological accumulation, as practiced in the Great Leap Forward, focused on improving the productivity of all Chinese workers, whether in the rural or urban enterprises, by investing in human development and labor-intensive technology, even at the cost of slowing down the pace of investment in heavy industry. Mao did not believe that economic growth and development would be sacrificed by this shift from heavy industry to appropriate or intermediate technology. Mao believed that China's labor advantage could be exploited in this strategy such that China would surpass the Great Britain in economic clout by the end of the 20th century. Has Mamata also followed the same philosophy?
During last one decade, West Bengal has become more beautiful. Hundreds of flowers are blooming now. The suppressed widentities of marginalised communities have flourished. Now it is high time to unite these distinct ethno-racial identities into a sub-regional Bengal identity. BJP has grabbed this opportunity and promised to create a 'Sonar Bangla' if voted to power. Didi may counter this with a more appropriate slogan which would assertively reflect the sub-regional identity of the state.
Views expressed are personal