Posted on 20-11-2011
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Bengali intellectuals are still happy to remember Gopal Krishna Gokhale, pioneer of Indian National Movement, saying, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” Upper society Kolkatans calling themselves buddhijibi (perhaps “Intel Kolkata” is a better description) relish this, and measure people’s intellectual caliber by checking their deep admiration for the genius of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Both undoubtedly had genius quality, but the problem is that in any creative and philosophical angle everyone is always compared with them. Although 70-80% Bengalis doesn’t understand Tagore and Ray, the Intel Kolkata elite that represent Bengal, irrespective of political affiliations, are driven by this school. But being a Bengali, its difficult stomach such arrogance. I feel hurt when I visit Bengal’s villages beyond Kolkata for my work and see uncertainty of life among my fellow Bengalis. I always think that I could have been in the same position today because that’s where I come from.

What was Bengal before the British took it over in 1757? The Mughals had no interest in this fertile farming land of Adivasis. If Bengal were so advanced, how were the British able to plunder Bengal (detailed in my article ) to start England’s Industrial Revolution? It’s possible an affluent few collaborated with them, becoming Anglophone in education, culture and snobbery. This was the departure of Bengali intellectuals. Happy to get this small number of Bengali British, the British Raj nevertheless found Delhi more important politically so shifted their capital from Kolkata to Delhi while the Bengali British looked on.

Where were Bengali intellectuals when the British gifted India with Independence 1947? In 1905 when Bengal was divided, it sparked off such opposition that the British government was compelled to undo the decision. Yet in 1947, Bengal succumbed, and its idea of nation underwent a change from Tagore’s Swadesh to Swadhinata. Bengal got divided; my family had to flee Dhaka at midnight, leaving behind everything to become street beggars in a remote West Bengal refugee colony where I was subsequently born. A Bengali leader joined the Axis Army to save India from the British, but failed. After partition, Bengali politicians could not manage to get funds like Punjab did for refugee development. Bengal’s Anglo-influenced society later drove politics of every hue that the masses never understood, and vice versa.

Bhumi sanskar” (land gifted to the poor) seemed a noble idea, but was it devoid of political gain? Poor farmers have no entrepreneurial capability, so with 2-acre land plots they barely manage the revenue required for farming. They spend Rs 30,000 on input purchase for average revenues of Rs 50,000 per year. It’s possible to make Rs 120,000/annum from 2 acres, but without knowhow, they remain in poverty. Just imagine if industry had been encouraged here, how Bengal’s economy would have been transformed today! The poor could have earned at least Rs 10,000 per month working in industries and not come to overcrowd city slums.

Land has become an emotional game with political parties and the masses. Property as asset rises in valuation through industrial evolution that activates the economy. If asset doesn’t translate to goodwill what use is 2-acres of stagnant, non-usable, non-goodwill creating asset to uneducated Bengali farmers? Their children are running away from villages to earn more. For Intel Kolkata politicians, the land is emotional blackmail in lieu of teaching farmers how to take care of their future. They could have used Bengal’s incredible strategic geographical position with industrial flourish to become a fantastic gateway link in the Bay of Bengal. But instead of bringing in industrial development, the Government did nothing to retain the industries that were vacating Bengal.

A recent survey shows Bangalore is losing its IT dominance to Gurgaon and Noida due to huge traffic, frequent power outages, erratic water supply and poor sanitation. In the $1000+ billion global IT market, Indian exports amount to ~$60 billion. Bengal has the educated manpower to grab at least $50 billion of this spend over the next 5 years. Since I left for Europe 37 years ago, and travelled on work across India in the last decade, I can see how I had to radically and consciously change my personal attitude. In Bengali culture, sudden bursts of emotion in the family, among friends and the workplace go beyond limits, elders have to be obeyed irrespective of their being right or wrong. Being critical for the sheer joy of it is widespread, while working hard to maximize knowledge and expertise is at a discount. If somebody in the same domain does well, spontaneous appreciation may be difficult. Lack of daringness or entrepreneurial spirit is a concern, but following best practices may not happen as "I know better” is the preferred phrase. It’s time for Bengal to change, to turn itself into an Asian business and industrial hub which the state definitely has the potential to become. Of course Bengal has to wriggle out of mass politicization and avoid being over-emotional.

If Bengali political thinking were so much in advance, how did the state historically fall into big disasters? Political parties are gambling on satisfying both farmers and industrialists, but there’s status quo. What should the tradeoff be? Will industrialists seeking God’s help with a 9-day religious mahayagya mitigate the dilemma? Have you seen, anywhere in the world, industrial development happening through God’s intervention? This way of looking at industry is again over-emotional and not allowing Bengal to go forward. In the last 100 years Americans had proved that industry brings prosperity. Also, by outsourcing manufacturing and services, increasing dependence on “virtual financing” with lack of corporate governance, among other issues in the last 20 years resulted in the real estate bubble leading to a recessionary situation where some Americans have become street-beggars too. The only route to change, as per advice of their economists, is to get manufacturing industries back. Overcoming over-emotion and complacency, will Bengal also take this cue of setting up manufacturing industries to become a major South Asian industrial hub?

To download above article in PDF Over-emotion cannot prosper a state

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