West Bengal, in the eastern corners of India, is in a quandary incarnate. While it continues to relentlessly supply the finest of intellectuals, professionals, artistes, scientists, medics and technocrats to the rest of the world (and India of course), its own position of authority within India that it enjoyed in most of the 19th and 20th century when it led the country from commerce to culture and everything in between, has slipped away over the years.
Today, Bengal and Bengalis, the intelligentsia and the intellectualism associated with them, exist in a sense of placelessness in the world and whilst the region is still breeding top talent, for the past three decades it has been working more as a huge export hub of humans. I am Bengali and I am one of the many professionals who left the state during the decades of stagnation under the communist rule.
The year 2011 provided the first jolt to the status quo of pure decadence that the state had grown comfortably accustomed to.
The old batch of communists, having ruled West Bengal for more than three decades, gave way to a new regime that noone thought was possible, except one woman.
Mamata Banerjee was described as a ‘firebrand’ lady by none other than the Communist Party of India patriarch Jyoti Basu, who ruled the West Bengal state between 1977 and 2001, for her unrelenting determination and resolution that her dogma would indeed one day emerge victorious.
In fact, Banerjee’s campaign against the Orwellian regime for more than 20 years that culminated in a landslide victory in 2011, is worthy of a case study in political science scholarship. It is rather strange that the state, which had spearheaded intellectual movements in India since the 19th century, had until 2011, never had a female political leader.
Justifiably, Banerjee was declared one of the 100 most influential people in 2012 by TIME magazine for challenging the “leviathan of West Bengal’s communists” with her “feisty rabble” of a political party, Trinamool Congress.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will be giving a private briefing to Asia House corporate members on Wednesday
Rising from a “mercurial oddball” and a “shrieking street fighter,” she not only handled national portfolios such as the Railway Minister but eventually emerged as the popular choice to govern the state.
And then she realised that governing a decadent lot wasn’t that easy!
While the regime changed in 2011, the people didn’t; they merely shifted camps resulting in much chaos.
Those who expected a magic bullet of turnaround after more three decades of stagnation, were disappointed. With its huge financial debt to the Central (federal) government and its economy in serious jeopardy, it wasn’t easy to turn the state around. The West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra, a fine, cultivated economist, must have shuddered when he assumed office in 2011 by the quantum of debt his government inherited.
While the new administrators grappled with the immense task of revitalising the state, onlookers were quick to judge and there were some who, influenced by certain local and mainstream media, thought the only solution was in huge capital spending and setting up large industry, without considering the basic structural disadvantages of the state.
West Bengal not only has a high percentage of its land locked into ecologically fragile, protected areas that include forests, a large delta, coastal zones and hill lands, but it also has one of the lowest land areas in the country, namely 88,752 sq km (34,267 sq miles) which is much lower than industrially more productive states such as Maharashtra (307,710 sq km), Gujarat (196,204 sq km) or Karnataka (191,976 sq km). Moreover the population density of West Bengal is one of the highest in the country at 1,029 people per sq km against 308 for Gujarat, 829 for Maharasthtra, 555 for Tamil Nadu and 319 for Karnataka. The national average is 382 people per sq km. West Bengal is India’s fourth most populous state with more than 91 million inhabitants.
The land policy of the West Bengal state government has in recent years under Mamata Banarjee’s leadership come under much criticism for its alleged unwillingness to buy land on behalf of private enterprises and corporations for setting up industry.
However, considering the history of West Bengal’s politics that were always focused on land redistribution to peasants, this is no surprise.
The chief issue the state government faces today is how to balance corporate interests with farmers’ concerns in this predominantly rural state. Agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of West Bengal’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides employment to more than 55 percent of workers in the state.
Without developing West Bengal’s human capital, acquiring agricultural land would merely lead to the eviction of farmers from a productive asset with just a one-time compensation and it would also open up a Pandora’s box on how to rehabilitate and resettle the displaced.
Besides, land is a finite commodity whilst the human population is not. The reality is that Mamata Banerjee inherited the state’s structural problems, its geography, political and social history and economy – and she does not have a magic wand. She is not to be blamed for the state’s quandary.
It would be far more pragmatic and productive to ponder over a different development paradigm for West Bengal – one that is structurally different from the stereotyped and hackneyed growth models that are used on land-based economies.
Models that do not necessary use land as their primary resource or capital to drive development have been tried and tested around the globe. Bengal could also play by its intrinsic and traditional strength to propel its development.
A little background about Bengal and Bengalis here will make my argument clearer. Calcutta (I use that word instead of Kolkata because it was the name of the city until recently when it was changed), the first capital of British India and now that of West Bengal, was the seat of what is popularly known as The Bengal Renaissance in the 19th century fuelled by the finest of intellectuals and thinkers. In fact, the reason behind the relocation of the capital to Delhi in 1911, among others, was a sharp increase in the revolutionary activities and ideas in Bengal that posed a serious challenge to the British Raj. Delhi, in other words, was much more safe and insulated from such sentiments.
Bengal, a hotbed of radical thoughts, bred its language Bangla (or Bengali) that has evolved to be the seventh most spoken language around the world today and has an enviable literary oeuvre spread across different genres, regularly translated into a large number of foreign languages.
The state has given India three of its five Nobel laureates – Ravindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen and Mother Teresa, and had undeniable connections with the fourth one too. Physicist Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (C.V. Raman) moved to Calcutta in 1917 and his eureka moment was in the laboratory of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta, in 1928.
There are many other luminaries to emerge from the state. Indian Bengali physicist Satyendra Nath Bose is renowned for developing the concept of a Bose gas, governed by Bose–Einstein statistics, an idea adopted and extended by Albert Einstein in collaboration with Bose. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he was awarded India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1954 by the Government of India. The ‘god particle’ or Boson was also named after him by Paul Dirac, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to honour Bose’s contribution, alongside that of Einstein, to developing Bose-Einstein statistics, which define the general properties of all bosons.
Calcutta was also the home of Satyajit Ray, the only Oscar-winning film director from India whose The Apu Trilogy was counted among TIME magazine’s all-time 100 best movies list in 2005. Then there is the genius of the late Ritwik Ghatak, who Harvard Film Archive describe as “one of the greatest figures in post-war Indian cinema, for his brilliant and abrasive films, which certainly rank among the most revolutionary achievements in contemporary Indian art.”
The state has also produced some of the most eminent musicians in India such as Ravi Shankar and his dancer brother Uday Shankar who, much like Martha Graham, revolutionised performing arts.
Bengal also produced India’s first true entrepreneur in Dwarakanath Tagore, the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore. The list goes on.
No grooming or education was ever complete in 19th and 20th century India without educating, studying or excelling in the state of Bengal, which prompted social reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who played a key role in the Indian Independence movement, to make his famous statement: ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”’
Historically, knowledge was the capital that the people of Bengal possessed in abundance and not land. That knowledge capital might have eroded a little over time but among ‘Bongs’ – as Bengalis are affectionately called by their fellow countrymen – there is no dearth of intellectual prowess even today, potent enough to form the basis of a different kind of economic system – a knowledge economy – that today makes up a large share of all economic activity in developed countries.
Literature, arts, science and politics – the tools of social and knowledge reform – have all witnessed their heydays in Bengal and there is no reason why we should not reconsider how to develop the state economy beyond the old cliché of manufacturing coupled with service industries. Even the latter does not necessarily have to be confined to information technology or IT support. The service industry of Bengal could include everything from research and development, to knowledge networking, sharing and even the creative industries.
South Korea recently instituted the Ministry of Future Creative Science and Indonesia recently created its Ministry for Tourism and Creative Economy acknowledging the importance of creativity for economic growth.
In 2014, the Asian Development Bank declared the knowledge-based economy (KBE) as the next policy agenda for Asia. According to the KBE, knowledge is a vital commodity in modern economic structures, not limited or bound by any sense of place and space but is based on the production, distribution and use of knowledge and information.
West Bengal has a distinct advantage over its competitors in its talented human capital and the state has a culture of cultivating knowledge for over 150 years which can easily compensate the paucity of land or physical space. That urge for knowledge, that once sparked a social and political reform across India in the 19th and 20th century that shaped the country’s freedom struggle, its movements towards gender equality (the first women’s schools and colleges were started in Calcutta), a literary awakening and its scientific endeavours, is capable of driving an economic turnaround in Bengal today as well.
The Bengali diaspora already enjoys eminence in the knowledge economy in societies across developed countries. Investment in the creation and dissemination of that knowledge would reap rich dividends for investors. The East and North-East of India, as well as neigbouring Bangladesh (which shares the same language and a common socio-cultural heritage), as well as countries in South East Asia, all offer a huge market that could be conveniently and strategically accessed through West Bengal.
A knowledge-based economy would also insulate the state from risks and uncertainties such as global warming and climatic changes, which could cause unprecedented environment shifts making development more capital intensive and potentially hamper the possibility of exploiting natural resources and reserves.
Sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a focus of the United Nations (UN) for the next two decades or so and ‘developing responsibly’ is the new mantra of the UN in the face of the growing fragility of the environment. In this climate of uncertainty, West Bengal could emerge once again as a pioneer in India by spearheading a KBE state. Just as it stirred and rejuvenated the country in the mid 19th century with its academic and scholastic vitality, revivalism and cultural flamboyancy, West Bengal could triumph yet again.
Aditya Ghosh has been an editor, journalist, researcher, adjunct faculty and project manager in internationally reputable institutions across Germany, India, UK and Tanzania. He works currently as a Research Associate at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg . He has won prestigious awards such as the DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service), the Chevening Scholarship, the Asian Environment Journalism Award and has been part of award-winning teams in Reuters AlertNet. His research is focused on developing an alternative development paradigm that internalises environmental conflicts and shifts caused by climate change and global warming. Apart from writing for for Reuters AlertNet, he previously worked for Hindustan Times, The Times of India and the Centre for Science and Environment, India’s premier think tank. He has attended the Universities of Heidelberg in Germany, Sussex and Lincoln in the UK and Kolkata and Mumbai in India.
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West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee briefed Asia House corporate members on West Bengal’s economic prospects and the steps the government of West Bengal is taking to make the state a more attractive investment destination on Wednesday 29 July. To read about the briefing and what she said click here.