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Development Myths and the Future West Bengal Panchayat Election 2023 – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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Development Myths and the Future West Bengal Panchayat Election 2023 - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Sunil Ray

I am writing this piece based on my discussions with several people from different wakes of life while visiting several rural areas of Bengal recently. While it was an opportunity for me to explore the political pulse of the people of rural Bengal on the eve of the forthcoming panchayat election, I intend to reflect here mainly on the ‘development delusions’ being created by the ruling party against the backdrop of firstly on freebies that are being doled out, particularly by the ruling party, secondly growing ecosystem of alleged corruption indulged mainly by the ruling party members and thirdly unleashing terror politics, a form of fascism, at the behest of the same ruling party.

What’s more, is communalisation of politics being a potentially strong source for delusions to deepen. This is the first time after Independence that the cultural entity of Bengal is under threat due to the onset of communal politics.

The situation is full of complexities and chaos that force the people of rural Bengal to believe that socio-economic transformation is achievable only if they fall in line with the parameters of change as outlined by the ruling party. Central to these parameters is subjugation of the people without which no development or change however insignificant it is, is conceived. Subjugation of the vulnerable in particular and people at large in general, by the ruling party, is an unwritten manifesto of the latter, being practiced throughout the state without exception. The purpose is to stay in power unchallenged. 

In the absence of any political philosophy or ideology, the only weapon at the hands of the ruling party to achieve the latter is institutionalization of both terror politics and corrupt practices. Freebies are doled out to mask the latter that are anti-thetical to democracy.

 It is a classic example that suggests how hegemonic control of the ruling party are fructified through unification of three forces that are exercised under democratic veil. These are, one, to build up image as the true transformative agent by doling out freebies, two, practicing appeasement politics for religious minorities, coercion, creating rift between the people and instilling retaliatory politics either by means of stopping of doling out of freebies or any short term financial benefit to those who deserve.

It is done against them for they oppose ruling party. And, three, terrorizing people by all means including filing false police case if opposed. Unification of all these evil processes through their synergetic dances is now all out to crumble cultural ‘entity’ of Bengal that was built over centuries from the days of Renaissance to the days of freedom struggle. 

The richness of Bengali cultural heritage, central to which is humanism is ridiculed every passing day. Its ugliest manifestation is compounded by the entry of communal politics that gives breathing space to the Bharatya Janata party. The ideological debate and discussion that were once lifeline of intellectual advancement of Bengal is now replaced by the politics of retaliation. No matter even if the latter chooses the route to violence.

Dystopian Politics

One wonders why Bengal is now witnessing, never before it did, emergence of ‘dystopian politics’. Is it an outcome of misplaced development agenda of the ruling party? First of all, there is no development agenda. What all that appears to be development agenda are essentially components of strategic governance of the ruling party.

While the agenda of sustainable development of the poor is now substituted by freebies both in the state and the center issues related to governance differ from each other between them. For instance, governance issue of the central government center on building Hindu —Rasthra primarily based on Hindu- Muslim binary in terms of religion, practicing fake nationalism, promoting mystical values in the name of cultural development, etc. 

However, governance issues of the state revolve around corruption, retaliatory politics associated with violence, coercion, spreading terror politics or creating an atmosphere of fear as a strategy to hijack democratic rights, etc. What is common in both cases is to take peoples’ attention away from the real challenges of living conditions .

The real challenges that are hitting people hard and making living difficult such as declining agricultural income, rising cost of cultivation, severe unemployment problem, uninterrupted rise of the prices of essential goods and services, rising school dropouts, disguised poverty, erosion of social cohesion etc. are all ceased to be development agenda.

A new form of underdevelopment has set in motion to push back rural Bengal culturally, politically, economically and socially. Trouble begins when the overarching consideration of the values of dystopian politics is rationalized in all possible means by the ruling party.

These values are safeguarded well to see that the delusionary development strategy through doling out of freebies is never exposed. It is not the freebies alone so to say. The mountain of alleged corruption in the system of delivery of the freebies associated with it bears social cost and hence the rise of social tension to an unprecedented extent.

Such a practice in the name of development received full sanctity from the ruling party that cling to it and shameless hold to its chest to insure its perpetual stay in power. Countless freebies from birth to marriage to death are laid out by the state government to be provided free of cost to the vulnerable or the disadvantaged. 

But, nobody knows how many of the deserving people are actually covered under each scheme and for how long although most of the schemes are fraught with several limitations. However, its electoral strategic importance in projecting the ruling party as a messiah of development for the poor (no matter even if less than one —fourth of the deserving persons is covered) can hardly be discounted.

 Right from the stage of selection of beneficiaries till the execution of the schemes alleged corruption, massive in its magnitude in all possible ways including favoritism, siphoning off a sizable portion of the money earmarked for the beneficiaries has left an indelible scar on the culture of rural Bengal.

Exclusion of the largest majority of the poor who are not beneficiaries is its worst manifestation. It has led the poor community to lose its cohesiveness and face its wrath in the form of rising social conflict that weaken them further. It is a conflict between the losers who are in majority and gainers who are in minority in the game of accessing political patronage of the ruling party and petty financial benefits.

The class conflict is now reduced to conflicts within the poor class which is itself polarized in to two classes: losers and gainers. This is what the expropriators have been waiting for years to see that it happens ever since leftist government is no longer in power in West Bengal. It is happening at two levels and at each level poor are put against each other. At one level, conflict is between the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of the freebies. And, at another level, conflict is between those who gain from corrupt practices and those who do not.

Freebies to mask 

During my several rounds of discussion with the villagers, I enquired if these freebies have been incentivizing them to transform their living conditions. Before responding to my queries they posed some insightful questions that seemed to have answered my questions. “How many people are actually covered by each scheme under implementation and for how long they are continuing to be so”? While they were anxious about the uncertain future of the schemes they are benefitting from, their happiness with the freebie was ephemeral and was outshined by frustration for not being able to restructure their household economy by means of gaining greater stability.

“How is it possible, they observed, to achieve such stability in the absence of sustainable employment opportunities, increasingly lower prices of agricultural products they receive, and rising prices of daily necessities? “ They continued “Do you think that we can solve these problems with freebies? No, never! They are meant to give us some solace”.

To illustrate it one of the respondents who has only 12 kathas of agricultural land is worth quoting. He has a family of three adults. His family receives Rs 16,000 per year of which Rs 6000 is received by his wife under Lakshmi Bhandar scheme, Rs6000 per year under P.M Kishan scheme and Rs 4000 from state government under KIshan Bandhu scheme.

His yearly expenditure runs between Rs 65000 to Rs 70,000. This is beyond consumption expenditure of rice that he grows in his tiny plot. In other words, if he gets lower production of rice that he requires to maintain his daily consumption he will be in trouble. Additionally, he receives after the outbreak of corona 15 kg rice per month (5 kg per head x3) of very poor quality.

Now let us see where the respondent stands. His average monthly expenditure is not less than Rs 5000. He meets 27 percent of it (Rs 1333) by doles received from the government. The immediate challenge for him is how to meet 70 percent of his expenditure. While 15 kg rice makes no difference in real sense, his son who has graduated with Honours in English literature earns some money through providing tuition to the local students. 

Despite being eligible to join schools as a teacher, he could not get it. The only reason, as he stated, is that he was incapable to purchase the job for his son. What is true for this respondent, is true for many in the state. The only difference, is that in this case, respondent is somehow managing his family due to some earnings of his son. In the case of others, people work as wage labor to cover the maintenance cost of the family as they have been doing all alone

Living as parasite

The question is what purpose all these benefits serve? Does it ensure dignified living? The answer is no. No respondent had any doubt about it. However, they said that they were happy to receive something free of cost, but these have no role to play in mitigating the impoverished condition that haunts them every day in some way or the other.

Instead of all these freebies, they asked why not provide employment to the unemployed? Why not pay higher prices for agricultural produces and reduce the cost of cultivation? They added further, “This type of government assistance that never aims at bringing about basic transformation to have a lasting impact on solving their financial woos is destroying our backbone and turning us parasite. We do not want to live as parasite.”

 They cited several examples to explain how such freebies being doled out makes no difference to their real life situation. For example, during 2009-10 (Before the present government came to power), they could get two bags of IFFCO fertilizer ( each bag is of 50 kgs) by selling one bad (60 kg) paddy. Now, they have to sell two bags of paddy with same quantity for one bag of IFFCO fertilizer.

Hence, the question is unprofitable agricultural operation that has been forcing people to migrate to other states where they can earn higher wages. They wondered “why the vulnerable people are leaving the villages in large number despite freebies? They observed that they never confronted a situation like the present one. “During 2010-11, we had Rs 5 to 6 thousands at our hands at any point of time. We never faced a crisis of livelihood generation. But now, despite all freebies being doled out to us we are running the risk of survival”. They observed.

Freebies Vs Welfarism

What is arguably true is that freebies are fundamentally different from welfare schemes. As it is well established (even RBI observes) freebies are not public or merit goods like education and health care and expenses that the state incurs towards their delivery have wider implications especially for long —term economic development.

One may incorporate Employment Guarantee Scheme such as MNREGA into this category of welfare-enhancing scheme. Mainstream economists justify such an intervention by the state on the ground that such welfare measures help the majority of the people to salvage from economic distress that come about in the wake of market failure.

And, finally, such measures contribute greatly to improve human development index. But freebies are doled out with a different purpose and have nothing to do with long-term development. Nevertheless, protagonists of the freebies put the latter in the same box of merit goods and justify it as having same development implications for the poor.

The purpose is to mask the real intension of the ruling party which is nothing but to influence the electorate to cast their vote in its favor. Any exception to this practice is violently countered by coercive measures of the ruling party of the state no matter if it is done at the cost of human lives. Be that as it may. But how does one discount the ill effects of such non-economic factors on economic life of the individual and then estimates development outcome as positive and significant?  

For, social tension, conflict growing out of unequal access to freebies by one group associated with the atmosphere of fear that engulfs social psychology outweighs the positive impact of the so- called overall rise of welfare.

The mainstream economists, however, overlook it and continue to hold that the delivery of freebies boosts up overall effective demand of the economy at the aggregate level causing an expansion of the home market. It is a naïve argument being inspired by Keynesian benevolence that appears to have limited multiplier effect at the local level in the present context.

True, the number of kiosks being set up right at the doorstep of the villagers by young entrepreneurs has increased. They have a very small capital base selling several goods from vegetables to grocery items necessary for day —to day consumption at the household level. Even if one wants to explain this in terms of the rise in local demand boosted up by freebies, the inner dynamics, as I explored, is different.

First of all, those young entrepreneurs are jobless and hence they are in search of some productive employment. The easy option opened to them was this type of petty trade to earn their livelihood. To my dismay, I found that the monthly average income of these young traders who come from poor background is too low to maintain even their minimum household consumption expenditure.

They, in fact, joined the distress employment category of unemployed people. Hence, even if we assume that freebies have triggered off employment generation in rural Bengal, it is misnomer. Secondly, since freebies are delivered to the vulnerable who are engaged in constant struggle to meet both ends, are inclined more to exert demand for necessary goods whose multiplier effect on the aggregate economy is too weak to account for. Thirdly, no evidence is available to suggest that the multiplier effect is primarily confined to the state alone so that the government can have economic reasoning to justify it as the state economy could reap the benefit of the same.

False development narratives

 When anarchism rules the roost of political engineering under the shadow of democracy, fear psychosis of the mass yields paralytic impact on the disadvantaged to voice against tyranny planted by the ruling party. It helps the latter to trap them by false development narratives.

It is false because structural transformation of the rural economy that can extricate the poor from impoverishment and ensures sustainable income and employment generation is now substituted by freebies. This is also the core of development of the center. The development debate is now diverted from structural transformation to freebies. In a market economy like the one we have here in India associated with doling out freebies is found to be an easy option to influence the electorate and continue to stay in power.

Structural transformation includes, to cite a few examples, agrarian reforms, agricultural market reforms, credit market reforms etc, besides the development of collective enterprises in the rural hinterlands through, for example, forging and maximizing forward and backward linkages between farm and non-farm activities. This is what the country needs, Bengal needs, for real economic transformation to take place.

While this is not intended to achieve by the ruling parties, politics of populism prompted by infusing the culture of doling out freebies prove to have enormous instrumental value to intensify the sphere of influence among the poor masses. It is beholden by the politics in power as an infallible truth to push people towards the kingdom of falsity with a profound policy choice that aims to subsidize their survival at sub-optimal level

 On the top of everything, the all-pervading alleged corruption that seems to have shaken the foundation of the cultural fabrics of Bengal has eaten up the vitality of the systemic efficiency in several ways both for today and tomorrow. Its paralytic impact on social morality is immense and is certainly difficult to discern the irreparable damage that it has caused to the intellectual and spiritual development especially of the younger generation.

The intellectual backbone central to which is humanism — humanism that never distinguish people in terms of religion, caste, language, and race, the humanism which is founded on self-respect, honesty and freedom is now under threat of demolition. Humanism that transcends through the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Bhaki Movement, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra vidyasagar, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and millions of those who sacrificed their lives for the nation during the freedom struggle and several social and agrarian movements is gradually losing its relevance in Bengal.

Cultural onslaught by Hindatva Politics

The onslaught on the cultural values of Bengal that centers on humanism is palpable with the ghastly appearance of Hindutva politics spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The outstanding feature of Bengali culture in which I am brought up in rural Bengal is that no scope had ever existed to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim.

Of course, religious practice has been different but it was never assigned any role whatsoever in shaping community life. . Even now when I visited my friends in the Muslim dominated village (where Hindus also live for generations) adjacent to our village, after five decades or so, I rediscovered how communitarism continues to be valued for mutual insurance to live together for generations.

The bond is so strong that human values are always kept above all considerations that respective religious faith maintains. I could see how “Mora Eeek brinthe doti kusum , Hindu Musalman” (We are two flowers from same stalk Hindu-Musalman) composed by the rebel poet Nuzrul Islam continues to reverberates on all sides. These lines resonate human values that lent credibility to the growth of Bengali culture to occupy place in the international forum thorough the voice of great writers, poets, novelists, social reformers, revolutionaries and intellectuals.

The challenge is how to dismantle the conspiratorial move of the Hindutva politics that mix politics with religion. Never did I witness such an abominable attempt to polarize those who have faith in Hindu religion and consider them as “natural allay” of their political design to serve their political end. Many of us may have faith in Hindu religion, but do not follow the dictate of Hindutva politics.

At my personal level, I used to witness during my college days, no correspondence whatsoever did exist between religious faith and political ideological conviction. How can Hindutva politics mutilate the history of the loss of illusion of religion which is ingrained in “The religion,” (religions are the varied expression of ‘The religion’) as observed by Swami Vivekananda.

Concluding remarks

The challenges that Bengal is encountering today are two-fold. One: to extricate people from the false development narratives planted by the ruling party and look forward for ‘real’ development and two: to defy the dictates of Hindutva politics and resist communal disharmony perpetrated by it. It is no less than another freedom struggle, as I perceive, that Bengal has to wage sooner or later to decolonize from these evil forces and reinvent itself. The process has begun. The crystallized discontent fomenting over time is now leading people to coalesce to build up massive resistance. 

It is solidarity that can bring all those political and non-political forces together and design new form of political engineering. It may effectuate growth of ‘politics of alliance’ that sustains. However, the emphatic truth in this regard that one cannot ignore is to recognize the difference that exists between alliance politics based on solidarity and the same on the basis of support. It is needless to point out that the commitment to solidarity for a ‘cause’ is basically different from ‘supporting a cause’. 

For, in the case of the former one submits to the cause despite differences that exist between individual, groups or political parties rather than submitting to ego or hunger for power. Discovery of a ‘common space’ to work on at this moment of history assumes immense significance without which development delusions may remain far from being chased away. The ‘alliance politics’ may then have a new incarnation to witness ‘real development’ that Bengal is looking forward. This is true for the country as well.

Prof. Sunil Ray, Former Director of A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna. Presently, advisor to IMPRI, Delhi.

The article was first published in The Mainstream Weekly as ‘Development Delusions’ and The Forthcoming 2023 Panchayat Election In Bengal on 17 June, 2023.

Read more by the author: India has one of the Highest Unemployment Rates and Lowest Growth Rates during the Pandemic

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