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The Political Calisthenics In Didi’s Bengal Do Not Paint A Rosy Picture

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The tragedy in West Bengal today is that the claims of the government and the reality on the ground are often miles apart. This is especially true when it comes to employment in the state. Mamata Banerjee and the TMC came to power on a strong anti-incumbency wave against the communists and her promises of changing the state, bringing in infrastructure, jobs, and opportunities.

Almost a decade after she came to power, while Didi lauds Bengal’s unemployment rate for being lower than the national average and attributes it to her government’s economic strategies, we hear stories such as the heartwrenching one wherein a daily labourer and his wife sold their two-and-a-half-month daughter for Rs. 3000 to face the financial burdens they faced with joblessness and labourers from the state have to risk their lives and work in far-flung states and union territories like Jammu and Kashmir to earn a living.

Why Is There A Gap Between Didi’s Reality And Reality On Ground?

The reality on the ground is grim when it comes to industries/Representational image.

As per the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI), West Bengal is India’s sixth-largest state in terms of economic size. As per the data compiled using information from Directorate of Economics & Statistics of the State Governments as reported to MOSPI, West Bengal had a Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of Rs. 11.78 trillion in 2018-2019 as of 15 March 2020.

The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) has been developing WBIDC Parks (with such Parks existing in Raghunathpur – Purulia, Vidyasagar Industrial Park – Kharagpur, Poly Park, and Food Park – Sankrail, Kandua, Paridhan Garments Park and Shilpangan Light Engineering Park in Kolkata, Manikanchan Gems and Jewellery Park in Kolkata, Naihati, Kalyani, Haldia Industrial Park, Barjora and Durgapur) and WBIDC Industrial Growth Centres (in Dabgram, Raninagar, Chakchaka, Bhabuk, Bolpur, Haringhata, Bishnupur, Uluberia, Falta, Haldia Growth Centre, and Kharagpur Growth Centre) to encourage medium and large-scale industries.

The primary functional SEZs in the state are Unitech Hi-tech Structures Ltd. Rajarhat in Kolkata – IT/ITES, DLF IT SEZ Rajarhat in Kolkata – IT/ITES, Bengal Gem And Jewellery Park (Salt Lake) in Kolkata – Jewellery manufacturing and studies, WIPRO SEZ (Salt Lake Sector V) in Kolkata – IT/ITES, Falta Special Economic Zone in Falta – Multi-product, Kolkata IT park in Bantala – IT and TCS Gitanjali Park – IT/ITES.

These facts and figures may present a rosy picture, but the reality on the ground is grim when it comes to industries. Much like in the days of communist rule, when right from alley-way Dadas to local satraps with clout, the presence of muscle power was a major cause of concern for citizens, industries and society, the TMC rule has seen cases like when IFB Agro Industries Ltd, a listed company with a national presence and one of India’s biggest distiller and spirit-makers, saw its Noorpur facility in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district vandalized (besides its employees being attacked) by a group of 150 ‘armed’ goons, leading to the closure of the facility.

What Has Dissuaded Prospective Investors In West Bengal?

When Mamata Banerjee talks of unemployment in West Bengal, I must highlight that West Bengal has always been on the upper end of the employment spectrum.

The extortion culture that prevailed in the days of the CPI(M) government in West Bengal continues to this day. When I hear stories about my grandfather – Dhirendranath Guha Majumdar, who was a pioneer in the Durgapur Steel Plant Project and various other engineering projects in the early days of independent India, I wonder – where has that Bengal gone?

Until a few decades ago, West Bengal had a number of industries, including textiles, chemicals, or engineering parts. Over the 80s and 90s, Naxalism, industrial unrest, and the Bandh culture have made major companies such as Shaw Wallace, ICI India, Philips India, Brooke Bond India, and JK Tyres leave the state.

The scourge of Dadagiri, the extortion culture, and violence (West Bengal reported the maximum number of political murders in 2018 as per a report by the National Crime Records Bureau) have dissuaded prospective investors from steering clear from a state where the law and order situation has been dismal.

In such a scenario, it is the informal sector as well as Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that have to accommodate a major section of the unemployed masses in the state, albeit at low wages and with job insecurity.

Not only have the efforts of the West Bengal government not matched the need for more investment into MSMEs, but Mamata Banerjee went on to criticize the central government’s Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme (ECLGS) for MSMEs recently! In 2016, the state government had launched Startup Bengal to encourage the establishment of MSMEs.

However, between 1 January 2016 and 30 April 2018, the state government had provided financial incentives to only 15 start-ups. The state government seems to be so aloof of the severity of the problem in various sectors that even during times of crisis, such as during the COVID lockdown, there have been violations of the directive by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment to companies around wage cuts and job terminations, in banks, jute mills and tea gardens in West Bengal.

When Mamata Banerjee talks of unemployment in West Bengal being among the lowest in the country and job employment among the highest, I must highlight that West Bengal has always been on the upper end of the employment spectrum in recent decades. The World Bank highlighted that this had been the case since 2005 before the CPI(M) was ousted from power. While the state has been doing well in job growth (thanks to manufacturing and construction), the state has only one in five workers in a salaried job. Moreover, female labour participation in the state is very low.

The government in West Bengal has attracted scrutiny from the enforcement directorate lately and sounded hypocritical when criticizing the central government for the privatization of PSUs. At the same time, it goes about undertaking questionable disinvestment pursuits, such as in the Metro Dairy sale, where the ED summoned 4 top IAS officers of the Mamata government.

Corruption and bribery make matters worse for the government in the state, with about 46% of people in West Bengal admitting to having given bribes to get their work done in a nationwide survey last year. In the year, several TMC Panchayat members and workers were held responsible for the misappropriation of cyclone Amphan relief-funds in Nandigram in East Midnapore district.

An exciting tidbit here is that the violence in Nandigram in 2007 was a critical development that sounded the death-knell of the CPI(M) government in the state and led to the rise of the TMC. Will this new incident of corruption in Nandigram sound the death-knell for the TMC in the country? This is not the first time the TMC has found itself under intense scrutiny for corruption allegations.

Previously, Mathew Samuel bravely came out as the whistleblower in the Narada News sting operation. Members of the ruling party in the state were recorded accepting bribes in exchange for favours to a fictitious company. In the Rose Valley Group and Saradha Group Ponzi schemes, around Rs, 17,500 crores are estimated to have been duped from investors. In both cases, the TMC has been accused of inaction.

Moreover, the directors of both the money-pooling companies have ties to the Trinamool Congress. The erstwhile CEO of the group’s media wing, Mr. Kunal Ghosh, was himself a Rajya Sabha TMC Member of Parliament. However, the most serious matter of concern is that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself feigned ignorance about Saradha being a chit fund company even after the then-Union Minister of Company Affairs Sachin Pilot had placed a list of 73 companies from West Bengal.

They were running Ponzi schemes on the house’s floor in the Lok Sabha, earlier in the year, in March 2013. These Ponzi schemes may, however, be only the tip of the iceberg. Data collated by the All-India Small Depositors’ Association (AISDA) from agents of 27 money pooling companies has shown that these companies collectively raised close to Rs 40,000 crore in the last four years West Bengal. The depositors in such funds included small-time depositors from rural and semi-urban areas. Self-help groups (SHGs) formed to secure microcredit from rural banks were also being used to spread such Ponzi schemes among the group members.

This is particularly worrying due to the limited purchasing power of citizens in rural and semi-urban pockets across the state today. As of 2017, West Bengal had 1.5 crores, unorganized-sector workers, mainly in construction areas. With the housing market in Kolkata on the downslide and new state-based real-estate regulations (the West Bengal government bypassed the central government’s Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act – RERA with its own Housing Industry Regulation Act – HIRA), the workers employed as daily wage labourers are finding it tough to earn a living. Without trade unions to intercede for such workers, to put pressure on the government to revise wage rates based on Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Wholesale Price Index (WPI) movements, the government does not bother to look more closely at ways to resolve this looming problem.

As a result, thousands employed in the unorganized sector (as well as the organized sector) are at the mercy of the market. There is a communication gap between the state government and various industrial units, as seen all too clearly in the non-payment of wages in the Jute industry. An interesting point here is that one of the most common reasons given by mainstream media for the industrial downslide in West Bengal is labour militancy.

This is, however, no longer true. As per the Statistical Appendix of the Economic Review 2011-12 (Government of West Bengal), while in 1980, the total number of industrial disputes involving strikes was 78, the total number of such disputes decreased to 15 in 2010. However, factors like low labour productivity in West Bengal, with respect to labour productivity in the rest of India, maybe greater driving factors on this front.

Regardless, the efforts to survive without any meaningful direction to do so has historically resulted in some workers establishing contact with syndicates within cities. These syndicates are usually run by local strongmen who have connections with the ruling party, and keep a check on the supply of government contracts and construction-related work.

These syndicates today are widespread from real-estate to Durga Pujas, and resort to arm-twisting if a customer does not acquiesce to their demands. Unlike cartels, these syndicates operate brazenly in the open and often with the local administration’s collusion. A recent expose by India today showed how everyone, from a TMC counsellor to the chairman of a Municipality, was embroiled in the tangle of syndicates.

If the scourge of syndicates was not enough, the investment proposals shared by the government that never get fructified make matters worse for a population struggling with unemployment. West Bengal apparently managed to garner investment proposals of Rs 2.84 lakh crore, with proposed plans and projects announced by major corporations such as Reliance, JSW Group, ITC, Flipkart, and Coca Cola, during 2019.

Mamta’s Government Is A Government Of Contradictions

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also shared the plans for her ‘Silicon Valley’ in New Town, with companies such as Reliance Jio and TCS already having taken up land in the proposed hub. At the end of each edition of the annual Bengal Global Business Summit (from 2015 to 2018), announcements of the scale of investment proposals and expressions of interest were announced: Rs 2.43 lakh crore in 2015, Rs 2.5 lakh crore in 2016, Rs 2.35 lakh crore in 2017 and 2.19 lakh crore in 2018.

But, the latest conference in December 2019 did not see such an announcement. This is not surprising since, between 2015 and 2018 several proposals, investment intentions, expressions of interests and specific announcements have been in the news, with a net amount of Rs 9.47 lakh crore being highlighted, albeit the state government’s response on how much of this amount and investment has fructified is not forthcoming.

I believe this is true because the state does not have much to report, with a shortage of foundation-laying or expansion-cum-diversification events. The last major investment project in the state was of over Rs 16,000 crore in the modernization and expansion of the integrated steel plant of Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) in Burnpur, between 2006 and 2015.

Some industrial bigwigs highlight how Mamata’s confused approach to land acquisition (understandably so, since her preceding Chief Minister lost his seat primarily due to forced land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram) may be playing a role in dissuading investors from walking the talk. Not only has she failed in bringing new investments and projects but has also not succeeded in reopening labour-intensive units of Jessop, Hindustan Motors, and Dunlop, among others, which have been lying closed for a number of years now.

Not only has the TMC government proven to be inept in doing much on the economic front, but they have also horrendously miscalculated on what I see as appeasement-based politics on the ground. Be it her over-the-top reactions on ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants in May 2019, the rise of radical figures like the ‘Fatwa Man of Bengal’ Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati who famously promised to pay anyone who blackened PM Modi’s face and has graced Trinamool Congress rallies in the past, the state government curtailing the time traditionally permitted for the immersion of Durga idols to allow a break for Eid in 2016 and subsequently restricting idol immersion on Dashami day beyond 6 PM in 2017, militant outfits like Harkat-ul-Jehadi Islami (HUJI) spreading their tentacles deep into the countryside, frivolous tactics like the West Bengal Council of Higher Education (WBCHE) replacing the Bengali word for rainbow – Ramdhenu (Ram’s Bow) with Rongdhenu (bow of colours) and the persecution of patriotic citizens like Padma Shri Kazi Masum Akhtar by fundamentalists in the state when he asked his students to sing the national anthem, all point to a worrying descent of the state into a pit of appeasement-based politics, communalism and intolerance.

The extent of appeasement was visible when even an assertive Muslim leader like Asaduddin Owaisi said, “[…] she is looking down to Muslims of the state as human indicators of Muslims are very low in the state. Please stop appeasing Muslims for the vote”, and when Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar accused Didi of “explicit appeasement” of the minority community.

Mamata Banerjee’s has been a government of contradictions: she speaks of federalism but does not want to share COVID data with the Union government; she speaks of secularism, but her pandering to Muslim orthodoxy has even made Muslim women turn away from the TMC; she used to speak against a ‘culture of violence’ propagated by CPI(M) in the state and yet her party is using the same tricks of the trade that the communists did before them.

As mentioned earlier and realities in West Bengal, the occurrences make me feel that Didi may just have lost the plot when it comes to administering the state. It may be time for Didi and TMC to pass the baton, for meaningful Poriborton (পরিবর্তন) – change, to initiate a new chapter in the journey of my Shonar Bangla (সোনার বাংলা) – my golden Bengal!

Header Image: Richter Frank-Jurgen | CC BY 2.0

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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