Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Green Shoots or Lotus Bloom in Bengal

[A PTI report says BJP’s membership drive has touched the 10 lakh mark in West Bengal]

In a recent Bengali film “Buno-Haansh”, a young boy from a middle-class home, that had seen better times – gets embroiled with a cross-border counterfeit currency smuggling ring.  In one scene, his Bangladeshi counterpart says:  “Had it not been for corruption on both sides of the border (Bangladesh and West Bengal) ordinary Bengalis like you and me would have starved to death”.  A telling comment on the economic condition of Bengal – lack of industry, employment and income opportunity.

A couple of weeks back I was travelling on the Darjeeling Mail to Siliguri. In the coupe were 2 young BSF (Border Security Force) Officers. One of them received a call from his base-station - reporting a skirmish at the border post the night before that could potentially flare-up. The train was running 5 hours late and he was troubled about not being able to reach the spot early. Even I was feeling holed up and bored. So we got chatting.

The young officers lamented – coming to the Eastern borders for them was like a “punishment” posting. In the Western frontiers the terms of engagement are clear and there is rarely any political interference or fall-out of actions taken in the regular course of duty. But, in the East everything is politically charged and “sensitive”. The high population density, close proximity of the settlements and diffused boundaries add to the complexity.  And, the buck stops with the security forces, which are always at the receiving end from all quarters – whether their administrative bosses in Delhi or local political goons.

In the cross-border transactions  that takes place – the locals are but small pawns. They act as couriers, herdsmen (for cattle) or mere facilitators – but their livelihood depends almost entirely on such illegal activities. The real people behind these operations are big fishes – businessmen and politicians who live many miles away - may be even in other parts of the country. For example, from the breed of the cattle one can easily make out  they are not local and transported from distant  Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in trucks across several inter-state borders – where they could have been easily intercepted – but no one does so  because it’s part of a large inter-state racket. The stakes in the cattle trade itself would be valued in millions of rupees. as imported cattle from India contribute significantly to Bangladesh’ GDP -  in  meat and leather trade both for domestic consumption and exports. Therefore,  any attempts to stop it is going to have huge economic,  political and even diplomatic repercussions and it is unlikely to change irrespective of whichever party is in power.

On illegal immigration – apparently agents have rack rates – from mere ration or election cards (now, probably Aadhar) to Passports. So much so, some ‘think-tanks’ believe it might be a better idea to issue “work-permits” to Bangladeshis to curb illegal immigration. But, either way they put further pressure on the already strained resources of the state – spawning more illicit business and, as some suspect, even terror conduits.

In the backdrop of such dire economic conditions – where there is very little value creation, if a Saradha did not happen it would probably have been invented. With rising cost of living and depleting income – the urban middle class and poor villagers were forced to liquidate inherited property and land.  Chit fund companies dipped into this fund – with the lure of unrealistic returns - duping them of their little remaining savings.

It is hard to believe two Finance Ministers of successive Governments - Ashim Dasgupta of the Left Front and Amit Mitra of Trinamool - both highly qualified Economists - didn’t see these scams taking place under their watch.  Young marketing executives travelling in rural areas were amazed to see army of collection agents employed by these Chit Fund companies to mobilize ‘deposits’.  Sucheta Dalal’s Money Life had carried a series of articles way back in – which was cited even in this humble blog.  (Read here

I agree with Mamata Banerjee on one count – that is, it’s not political parties alone that have benefited from the Saradhas of the world.  These Chit-Fund companies couldn’t have thrived without Media support and they were the main-stay of advertising for many local newspapers and TV channels.  For several years they were major sponsors of Durga Puja and Kali Puja in the state. So much so – they even reached out to the NRI Bengali community in overseas cultural festivals. Many ventured into film production as well.
But, undoubtedly most of the money went into political funding. If there are no Adanis or Ambanis – you needed a Sudipta Sen.  

So where does one go from here? Does the BJPs 10 lakh membership signify a new ray of hope? In ushering in Trinamool people also voted for change. But, after 5 years despondency has set in at least in urban Bengal.

When there is overall decline and decay – it’s difficult to isolate or insulate a few sections of the society from the rot.  Therefore, all institutions are beginning to fail. Once a centre of medical excellence – today a Bengali prefers to travel to Chennai, Vellore or Mumbai for treatment. Calcutta has long lost it pre-eminence in education and special trains are run to Bangalore and Pune in the college admissions season. The population of Bengali white-collar job-seekers has exponentially increased in other cities. One hears much more of Bengali on flights and shopping malls all over the country. Even in art and culture Bengal has long ceased to be in the forefront. The primary market for Bengal artists is also outside the state and abroad.

Calcutta has become a city of senior citizens. Youngsters who are left behind are wallowing in frustration and despair – many sinking into depression. Others either fall prey to nefarious activities like the protagonist in Buno-Haansh or join the gang of “tola-baaz” and local “syndicates” (hafta-collectors).

But, these very young  people when they  visit family members living outside Bengal or travel on vacations -  see how much the rest of India has moved ahead and long for a better life.  It is this sense of aspiration – especially of the younger generation – that Modi and BJP is trying to tap into.  But, whether this too turns out to be a chimera only time can tell.

For 40 years Bengal has chased a mirage. A senior journalist friend says Bengal politics has always been ruled by lumpens.  They only change their team “jerseys” from Red to Green and, which may probably turn to saffron in future.  In the 70s– when the “New Congress (Indira)” was on the ascendant there was a slogan  - “Chilam Naxal Holam, Nabo – Chakri Na Pele Abar Hobo “ (From Naxals – we have turned to Congress. But, if we don’t get the promised jobs – we will go back to our roots again).  So Green may change to Saffron – but only for a while if there is no economic regeneration. But, this time there will not be any more change in colour – the flower will just wither away and Bengal shall become a basket case beyond recovery.

Also read : Vote Bank Politics has come to stay in West Bengal

Article first published in @DailyO_ (click for link)

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