Epitome of inclusivity
Banking on the growth of MSMEs and local ‘karigars’, and laced with a multitude of last-mile welfare schemes, the West Bengal government is on an exemplary trail of implementing a low-cost development model which also helps it tread the tightrope of fiscal discipline
West Bengal is a land-starved, densely populated state with a share of less than 2.7 per cent of India’s land. But the state contributes over 6 per cent to the nation’s GDP and houses more than 7.5 per cent of the country’s population. Under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, a massive socio-economic turnaround has taken place in Bengal between 2010-11 and 2022-23. In this period, the state’s GSDP has increased by over three times. The GSDP of West Bengal for 2023-24 (at current prices) is projected to be Rs 17.19 lakh crore, amounting to a growth of 10.6 per cent over 2022-23. While the Indian economy is expected to grow at 6.95 per cent in the current financial year, i.e., 2022-23 (1st AE), the West Bengal economy is expected to grow at a higher rate of 8.41 per cent during the same period. Though the all-India Index of Industrial Production (manufacturing) growth during 2022-23 (April to November) was 5.0 per cent, West Bengal’s growth was 7.8 per cent during the same period.
This has been made possible through a sustained increase in government expenditure in: (a) physical infrastructure, (b) agriculture and allied sectors, (c) social sector, (d) state-planned expenditure. Credit to the increased economic activities during this phase, the state also earned higher revenue which increased by over three times.
During the nearly 34-year-long Left Front rule (1977-2011), the truncated state of West Bengal, which got divided in 1947, was trapped in a low-equilibrium condition. As per the Socio-Economic and Caste Survey 2011, over 77 per cent of the population of West Bengal lived in rural areas, against the national average of 73 per cent. In 82.47 per cent of all rural households (87.47 per cent scheduled castes and 93.13 per cent scheduled tribes), the monthly income of the highest earning member was less than Rs 5,000, reported Millennium Post in March 2021.
The Bengal development model
The term ‘Bengal development model’ was used by this author in a piece titled ‘Let hundred flowers bloom’, on March 27, 2021, in this newspaper. Then in the Tripura election manifesto, released in February 2023, the All-India Trinamool Congress promised to follow the ‘Bengal model of development’, if voted to power, to the electorate.
The Bengal development model, followed by the West Bengal government, has a few unique features which demand a detailed discussion.
(i) The Bengal model has established an inclusive model of development by incorporating all stakeholders of society in the development process. A plethora of welfare schemes targeting every section of 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. As much as 60 per cent of the Budget allocations (2023-24) have been proposed for social development, reports Times of India.
(ii) Dominance of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs): The TMC government, from day one, opposed the government acquisition of land for private, industrial projects and setting up special economic zones. Its focus was on micro, small, and medium enterprises, and reviving the rural economy. In 2013, two years after it came to power, the Mamata Banerjee government finalised its industrial policy, textile policy, and MSME policy, all in one go, saying that public-private-partnership was welcome but a blindfold incentive scheme for setting up industries in the state would not be allowed, reports The Hindu. The policy has not changed to date. The Bengal government has facilitated the setting up of 90 lakh MSME units in West Bengal — a record of sorts, employing a large number of people. Deployment of credit in the MSME segment has grown to Rs 1.02 lakh crore in the financial year 2021-22 from Rs 7,236 crore in the financial year 2010-11 — an impressive 14 times increase. And in the financial year 2022-23, the disbursement of fresh credit to MSME is expected to reach Rs 1.15 lakh crore.
(iii) Rural and women-centric programmes: Economic empowerment of women has been a priority for the Bengal government since the financial year 2010-11. While in 2010-11, the total number of functional credit-linked SHGs in the state merely stood at 93,425, in 2022-23, Bengal boasted of 6.77 lakh credit-linked SHGs — the maximum number of credit-linked SHGs in the country. Credit to SHGs has risen remarkably from a mere Rs 553 crore in 2011-12 to Rs 13,660 crore in 2022-23, thereby recording a 25 times increase in providing credit to SHGs during this period. In addition to this, there are numerous girl and women-centric programmes — Kanyasree, Sabuj Sathee, Lakhir Bhandar, etc., run by the state government.
(iv) Decentralised governance or ‘Duare Sarkar’ (government at the doorsteps): It has revolutionised the concept of governance and brought it literally to the grassroots level. After the five rounds of ‘Duare Sarkar’, held in 3.71 lakh camps till February 2023, more than 9.06 crore people have visited the camps. This decentralised governance programme has already got the recognition of the President of India who has awarded the state with the Digital India Platinum Award.
(v) Reliance on knowledge and skill-based Karigar economy.: Karigars, not labourers, are the backbone of Bengal’s economy. The working capital of these Karigars (craftspeople) is their traditional skills and knowledge accrued through generations. A Karigar not only creates unique products but he/she also produces young Karigars by transferring skills to their disciples. Thus, through the propagation of human knowledge capital, the Karigar economy prospers without depending on financial capital and modern technology. The craft sector of West Bengal provides livelihood to lakhs of men and women.
To train and upgrade the skills required for MSMEs, the West Bengal government launched the ‘Utkarsh Bangla’ project in 2016. It aims to create a pool of skilled candidates who are industry-ready. The project has won the prestigious World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Award of the United Nations. WSIS Prizes is an international contest to create an effective mechanism to evaluate and recognise individuals, governments and private bodies for outstanding success in implementing development-oriented strategies.
To break the low-level equilibrium trap in which the Bengal economy had fallen during the Left Front rule, the Mamata government relied on various welfare schemes to boost economic activities. To achieve this objective, the state government relied on Direct Benefit Transfer, introduced in January 2013 by the Manmohan Singh government. Here we discuss four flagship programmes of the Bengal government.
Kanyashree Prakalpa (KP): Launched by the Government of West Bengal in 2013, it is a conditional cash transfer (CCT) scheme aimed at simultaneously reducing underage marriage and adolescent dropout among girls. Launched by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for families with an annual income of Rs 1.2 lakh in 2013, its objective was to address twin challenges — high child marriages and school dropout among adolescent girls in socially and economically weaker sections. Successful applicants got Rs 1,000 a year scholarship from 13 to 18 years and a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 for remaining unmarried till 18 years. In 2018, it was made a universal programme. It has come as a much-needed intervention at a time when the percentage of underage marriage among girls in West Bengal is the highest in India (Census 2011), and the mean years of schooling for women is lower than the national average according to the District Level Household Survey (DLHS) 2012-13. According to the Census 2011, 7.8 per cent of the females in West Bengal were married before 18 compared to the all-India average of 3.7 per cent. The Kanyashree scheme has led to an increase in enrolment of girls between the age of 13 and 18 years by 10 percentage points between 2014 and 2016, according to an evaluation study by the Pratichi Institute. The improvement in the rural areas was higher than that in the urban areas. This scheme has received widespread recognition at both national and international levels, including the first award in the Asia-Pacific group for the category “reaching the poorest and most vulnerable through inclusive services and participation” by the United Nations in the Netherlands in July 2017. It has also received the WSIS award from the United Nations.
The Sabooj Sathi scheme: The West Bengal Finance Minister, in his Budget Speech of 2015-2016, announced a scheme for the distribution of bicycles to an estimated 40 lakh students studying in classes IX to XII in government and government-aided schools and madrasas of the state. He announced that around 25 lakh students would be covered in 2015-16 and the remaining 15 lakh in the next fiscal. The Chief Minister coined the name, Sabooj Sathi. The cost of implementation of the Sabooj Sathi Scheme is borne by the departments of Backward Classes Welfare for SC & OBC students, Tribal Development for ST students, School Education for General category students & Minority Affairs & Madrasah Education for Minority category students. Through the policy of bringing all high school-going students into the fold of the programme, SaboojSathi found its root in the principles of equity – creating equal opportunities for all students irrespective of their class, caste, gender, linguistic, or other backgrounds. From 2015-16 to 2021-22, a total of 1,04,26,876 students received bicycles under this scheme. The United Nations has awarded Sabooj Sathi with the WSIS award.
Apart from its immediate goal of ensuring accessibility to high schools, the scheme has had a huge societal impact by enhancing the general mobility of the population, girls in particular. The bicycles distributed among the students are not only used for schooling but also for several other purposes, such as going to the market, health centres, cinema or local fairs, and so on. The bicycle, literally, is breaking many boundaries, as observed in the Pratichi study.
Swasthya Sathi: The scheme was officially launched by the chief minister on December 30, 2016. It offers basic health cover for secondary and tertiary care up to Rs 5 lakh per annum per family. There is no cap on the family size, and parents from both spouses are included. All dependent, physically challenged persons in the family are also covered. All pre-existing diseases are covered. The entire premium is borne by the state government, and there is no contribution from the beneficiary. When launched in December 2016, the Swasthya Sathi healthcare scheme was meant to benefit those in the state who were below the poverty line. Four years later, in December 2020, however, the benefits of the scheme were extended to cover every household in West Bengal. In March 2022, the government claimed that around 24.85 lakh beneficiaries have availed the Swasthya Sathi scheme since its inception in 2016. With 2.2 crore families enrolled under this health scheme, the state government claimed it had spent Rs 3,212.72 crore on it.
Laxmi Bhandar Prakalp scheme: Under the scheme, the state government provides financial support to women head of families living in both urban and rural areas of the state. The general households receive monthly assistance of Rs 500 (i.e., 6,000 per year) and the SC/ST women get Rs 1,000 per month (i.e., 12,000 on an annual basis). The estimated yearly budget outlay of the scheme is Rs 12,900 crore. The transfer of funds started on September 1, 2021. A woman who is a resident of the state, not a government employee, and is aged between 25-60 years, is eligible for the scheme. In addition to empowering women, this scheme has helped poor families to cope with the post-COVID economic hardship. Around 1.6 crore beneficiaries have been part of the scheme.
The government of West Bengal has followed a low-profile, low-cost development model relying on the MSMEs and local skilled karigars (craftsmen). Simultaneously, the government has also initiated various welfare schemes to bring qualitative changes in society through empowering girls and women.
The most noteworthy achievement of the government has been the maintenance of its fiscal discipline while implementing this challenging development model. It is observed that in 2022-23, West Bengal has a BE of debt to GSDP (gross state domestic product) ratio of 34.2 per cent, down from 37.1 per cent in 2020-21, reports MoneyControl. The figure is lower than the debt to GSDP ratio of 2010-11, which stood at its peak at 41.9 per cent, as reported by Newslaundry. With a rising GSDP and revenue collection, this debt-to-GSDP ratio is expected to decline further.
Views expressed are personal