Millennium Post

Way forward for Kolkata

Kolkata experienced a steady economic decline in the decades following India’s Independence due to steep population increases, migration of Hindus as aftermath of partition, a rise in militant trade unionism and introduction of freight equalisation scheme. From the 1960s to the late 1990s, several factories were closed and businesses relocated. The lack of capital and resources added to the depressed state of the economy and gave rise to an unwelcome sobriquet: the ‘dying city’. More problems surfaced from 2000 like Naxal militancy in Jangalmahal and GJM agitation in Darjeeling.

Since May 2011, efforts started towards rejuvenation of the state. Considerable success has already been achieved, including elimination of strikes and poor work culture, extending government support across all sections of the society including women, children and the minority communities. In 2012-2013, Bengal outperformed the national average in key performance indicators. In GDP, agriculture, and allied sectors, industry and services, the state grew faster than India. While India grew by 4.96 per cent, 1.79 per cent, 3.12 per cent, and 6.59 per cent, Bengal clinched 7.6 per cent, 2.56 per cent, 6.24 per cent and 9.48 per cent growth rates in these sectors.

While India’s Index of Industrial Production (IIP) index is 0.05 per cent the state IIP grew by 6.65 per cent. This year’s revenue collection of Rs 32,000 crore was a record 30 per cent higher than 2012. It should reach Rs 40,000 by year end. In spite of continuing cash crunch, development expenditure increased by 1.4 per cent. Fiscal deficit also substantially reduced. This apart:

A. GJM has given up agitation and is supporting state government’s development efforts in Darjeeling.

B. Peace has been restored in Jangalmahal almost two and half years now. Development work is initiated.

C. Services and cleanliness improved in health sector. Fair Price shops on PPP model introduced. Pregnancy and Child death rate substantially reduced.

D. In education, discipline and academic atmosphere restored. New universities (including Alia University), medical colleges, schools and colleges are being set up and expanded. Autonomy of Presidency College enhanced and additional land given for expansion. So also for St. Xaviers.

E. In NREGA (100 days’ work), Bengal is No. 1 in the country in terms of expenditure (107 per cent) vis-a-vis funds received in 2012-2013, Bengal was numero uno in Boro (paddy) cultivation in the country.

F. Introduction of e-governance upto e-payment and administrative calendar are major initiatives in public service. Banning police union is another.

G. Rural and urban road network has been expanded and surfacing improved. Planned city beautification, building flyovers, heritage conservation, traffic improvement, planned development of Rajarhat and faster expansion of metro network and riverine transport, all this is being given priority.

H. Focused thrust on tourism, environment and urban development has given many facilities like Ecopark: Emphasis is on renewable energy devices, rainwater harvesting, recycling waste water, green building, LED street lights, higher floor area ratio, solid waste management system, sewerage network and waste water treatment plant.

I. Support to sports and culture by instituting awards in every field and setting up centres like Rabithirtha, Nazrultirtha, Dhanadhanye Bhavan. Government helped resurrection of Tara TV. But, lot more need to be done. The new government in West Bengal must identify, facilitate and fasttrack several announced projects (if necessary) on PPP model, if manufacturing has to be revived in Bengal. It must capitalise on software and electronic engineering talent available in the state and develop Kolkata as a centre of excellence for IT and other knowledge-based industries.

WB has an opportunity area in East Asia. Having regard to current geo politico economic scenario, the strategic importance of Kolkata is only going to increase with increased sub-regional cooperation in India’s northeastern neighbourhood. The Kunming Initiative, or the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, is a robust effort for economic and cultural cooperation between these four contiguous countries. The goals of the Kunming Initiative are substantially improved regional connectivity for goods and people in the region, through a network of roads, railways and waterways, and establishing the Kunming Mandalay Dhaka Calcutta economic corridor.

Now the fabled Southern Silk Road existed over 2,000 years ago. More recently, the legendary Stilwell Road (named after General Stilwell of the United States Army) was built during World War II to connect Ledo, Assam with Kunming, 1736 kms away, to ferry supplies as part of the Allied war effort. The exigencies of the war also led to the building of a Sino Indian oil pipeline from Kolkata to Kunming and the use of the famous Hump flight route by innumerable Allied military aircraft to transport supplies from India to Southwestern China over the eastern Himalayas. Since 2008, Kunming and Kolkata have been reconnected by air. Business, tourism and educational ties between Bengal and Yunnan have been growing, thanks to the initiative, called the Kolkata to Kunming (K2K) Forum through Myanmar.

New Delhi and Kolkata, therefore must rise to the occasion and ensure that necessary investments come in and India does not get left behind in this concerted push for sub-regional integration. While for taking along China and Myanmar, the PM would provide the push, for persuading Bangladesh, the CM will have a crucial role.

Again, trans-border connectivity and turning Bangladesh into a regional transit hub can, in itself, transform the economies of both Bangladesh and Eastern India with West Bengal as the Gateway. For instance, trans-Bangladesh connectivity will mean that the distance between Kolkata and Guwahati will go down from the current 1,300 km to 587 km and the distance between Agartala and Kolkata will go down from 2,000 km to 350 km. Transit through East Bengal would not be a novel development. Even after Partition, until 1965, there was free movement of goods and people across international borders through the then East Pakistan. The CM must now show her foresight and seize this opportunity.

She also has to persuade Centre to provide a thrust to its Look East policy needing bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation with ASEAN and under initiatives like BAY OF BENGAL BIMSTEC and IORARC OCEAN RIM ASSOCIATION. All of these will benefit WB and Kolkata. In Park Street in earlier days, one recalls an advertisement for an alcohol brand, ‘Let the world wait’. This attitude has to change and the new advert: ‘An ounce of action is worth a ton of theorising’, to replace. Guts and serious intents of both the people and the government are the need of the hour.

The author is a retired banker and a commentator on Economy and Governance
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