It was a pleasant surprise to watch the celebrated thespian, Mithun Chakraborty, anchor a TV show the other evening in which he restricted his guests from the civil society to answer sharply posed questions instead of out-howling each other. Amongst the many issues he brought up, one in particular stood out. He took us back to the Singur imbroglio and asked the government’s critics to explain why they did not insist that the entire 997 acres of land, instead of a mere 400 acres, be returned back to the owners. At the basis of this question lay two distinct issues that he obviously wished to separate out. The first of these involved pure economics. The opponents of the Singur project have argued that the acquired area for the factory was a highly fertile, multi-crop land. Using it up for the development of industry amounted to an economic loss for an agriculturally advanced state. The second of the issues addressed the unwilling farmer problem, one which is fraught with unpleasant socio-political implications. It is an issue indeed that has stirred up intense emotions and is even threatening to dislodge the leftists from Writers’ Building.
Mr. Chakraborty’s question was prompted by the fact that certain members of the civil society had on occasions brought up both arguments in defence of their position. He was drawing the public’s attention to the fact that this amounted to a contradiction of sorts. Indeed, if a loss of aggregate produce was the bone of contention, then it was the interest of the state that mattered, rather than that of the individual owners of the 400 acres. On the other hand, if one was defending the right of the unwilling farmer, then fertility of the acquired land was not the driving force behind the campaign. As far as one could make out, the question went unanswered.
Let us begin with the uglier of the two issues. Except under dire circumstances, such as a foreign invasion, the government is not morally justified to defend a decision to forcefully acquire land from the tillers by appealing to an Act formulated by our imperialist rulers. Worse still, absolutely no argument can absolve a democratically elected government of the misdeed it committed by opening fire on people protesting against what they perceived as authoritarianism. It matters little which individual it was that issued the order to kill. The responsibility lies with the government as a whole. This viewpoint alone is sufficient to justify the questioning of the government’s legitimacy.
To apply a further economic padding to the standpoint amounts to seeking an unrelated second line of offence, and there, as Mr. Chakraborty seemed to imply, lies the rub. To appreciate the point, it requires us to don the pure economist’s cap. The following two graphs, based on data published by the Reserve Bank of India can act as useful starting points for the purpose. The figures compare West Bengal and India on the basis of per capita outputs of agriculture, industry and services. The values of outputs are computed at 1999-00 prices and the data covers the 10 financial years 1999-00 to 2008-09, a period that is particularly relevant for discussing the problem at hand.
During this period, West Bengal’s growth path for per capita agriculture has displayed a trend rate of around 1 per cent as opposed to a rate of 1.3 per cent for India as a whole. However, as the diagrams show, the level of per capita output has been substantially higher for West Bengal. The underlying data reveals that for India, the per capita agricultural output was Rs. 4,092.5 in 1999-00 and rose up to Rs. 4,456 in 2008-09. The corresponding figures for West Bengal were Rs. 5042 and Rs. 5,465 respectively. Not only has West Bengal posted a higher agricultural output per head for the years under review, it continued to outshine even after the acquisition of the prime land in Singur. In other words, as far as agricultural output was concerned, Singur turning into a wasteland made no difference at all to West Bengal’s performance.
What was happening to industry during these years? West Bengal’s per capita industrial produce remained at roughly half the level enjoyed by agriculture, whereas Indian industry managed to overtake agriculture around the year 2004 and remained in that state. In terms of trend growth rates too, West Bengal’s 3.6 per cent was well below India’s 5.2 per cent. And our much acclaimed success in the service sector produced a per capita trend growth rate of 6.8 per cent as opposed to India’s 11.2 per cent.
The last of our graphs reveals a crucial fact. The level of West Bengal’s per capita SDP has consistently remained below India’s per capita GDP throughout our chosen period. Moreover, the gap is increasing since India has displayed a trend rate of growth of 5.7 per cent as opposed to West Bengal’s 5 per cent. If this is not a matter of concern, then there is nothing further to discuss. On the other hand, if we believe that the gap needs to be rectified then an economic policy is called for.
Short of a technological revolution, agricultural growth cannot be substantially increased. Besides, agriculture’s share in the West Bengal SDP already stands at 23.8 per cent. It is unlikely to rise further. As opposed to this, the services sector explains nearly 67 per cent of our SDP, as opposed to India’s 65 per cent. The per capita trend growth rate in this sector though lies way below India’s rate and West Bengal’s economic policy is already giving it a boost. However, the fly in the ointment lies in the fact that a large part of this sector, in particular the information-technology subsector, is skilled labour dependent. The latter being a scarce factor, a hard core industrial drive could well be the only alternative means to catch up with the rest of the country. This is the only sector that has the potential for simultaneous growth in output and employment, the latter on account of the fact that industry can absorb relatively low-skilled workers armed with job specific training.
A crucial factor that needs to be kept in mind in this context is that it will be infeasible for a new factory to offer a job per “displaced” family, irrespective of the government under whose aegis it is constructed. Successful industrialization creates industrial hubs or townships which offer more indirect job opportunities relative to direct ones. The nature of indirect employment could even be painful and demeaning, working as household help being an example correctly offered by one of Mr. Chakraborty’s guests. The government therefore will need to extend a helping hand to protect the economically weaker sections of the labour force absorbed into activities indirectly related to a factory, for that alone will protect the self-respect as well as incomes of the luckless many. However, their lot cannot be improved overnight, neither peacefully nor through bloodshed.
It would appear then that there was no error in the economic part of the government’s industrialization policy, though cruelly inhuman errors accompanied its choice of strategy. On the other hand, as the data demonstrates, the opposition camp’s fear that the government was engaged in acts that would make industry flourish at the expense of agriculture was unfounded. In this connection, the projects under contemplation by the Railway and Shipping Ministries in Haldia and Nandigram should be encouraged, provided the notion of direct plus indirect employment generation finds acceptance. However, wisdom dictates greater private participation in the projects, or else the government’s non-plan expenditure burden will rise over time, thereby worsening the fiscal deficit.
Mr. Chakraborty’s programmes are proving to Bengal’s relief that its civil society is capable of rational as opposed to emotional thinking.