West Bengal – An analysis of the election manifestos of Left Front and Trinamool Congress

April 28, 2011

by Samir Saha Poddar (Translated by Abhijnan Sarkar)

1. On Left Front’s manifesto
2. On TMC’s manifesto

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Left Front – 34 years of “Development”

With the proclaimed aim of returning to power for the eighth time, the Left Front in West Bengal had published its election manifesto. We will discuss this manifesto briefly, trying to distinguish rhetoric from reality.

In the manifesto, it has been claimed that, “In 1977, seventeen thousand political prisoners were freed from jails, and more than ten thousand cases withdrawn, irrespective of the political colour of the prisoners.” Today, after thirty-five years of Left Front rule, two thousand five hundred political prisoners are languishing in the jails of West Bengal, each one charged under numerous cases. There is no mention of this in the manifesto.

It is written in the manifesto that “Through the land reforms, 4.5 million landless and bargadar peasant families were entitled to cultivate 2.3 million acres of land.” According to government statistics, 85% of agricultural land in the state has been left untouched by the land reforms. Only 7.5% of khas (vested) land has been distributed, and the recording of barga has been done for around 7.9% of the land. The total amount of land ditributed has been 1.052 million acres of which 0.626 million acres have been distributed prior to 1977, during the Congress and United Front governments. Only 0.426 million acres have been distributed during the 34 years of Left Front rule. Meanwhile, skyrocketing prices of agricultural inputs, dependency on foreign technology, and land alienation have increased the number of landless and marginal farmers. In 1981, the numbers of landless peasants were 3.9 million whereas in 2001 the number had increased to more than double. Among the 28 states and five union territories of India, this haven of “left” rule is placed in the sixth position in the number of farmer suicides. To cover up the cases of farmer suicides, these incidents are passed off in government rexords as results of family and property feuds, mental depression etc.

The Left Front government keeps harping about initiating ‘Operation Barga’ in West Bengal. But is it a really a matter to boast of? At the time of Tebhaga movement during the 1940’s, the demand of ‘land to the tillers’ had come up in many districts of West Bengal. In the Telengana movement during the fifties and the Naxalbari movement during the sixties, peasants in various parts of rural India waged armed struggles on the issue of ownership of land. Observing the upsurge of peasant movements in three consecutive decades, a committee of the World Bank thoroughly examined the land ownership relations in India. And to contain the burgeoning peasant struggles, their proposed remedy was the introduction of the sharecropper system. First Congress, and later the Left Front has both walked along that path. Previously, the landlord could get anyone to farm their lands. The landless peasant had uncertain employment and livelihood prospects. In the newly introduced bargadari system, the peasant cultivating a land was enrolled as a bargadar, recording that (s)he was actually cultivating the land . Therefore the landless peasant, dreaming about and struggling for owning a piece of land, just became a labourer fettered to a plot of land.

The Left Front manifesto claims “While food production is decreasing nationwide, it is the reverse in West Bengal. Before the establishment of Left Front government, West Bengal was deficient in food productiom.” However government statistics report that even now the demand for wheat in West Bengal is 1.933 million tons whereas the production of wheat is 1.059 million tons. The demand for pulses and oil seed is 1.12 and 1.45 million tons respectively, whereas the production is 0.22 and 0.56 million tons only. Moreover, following the recommendations of US based consultancy farm McKinsey, 14% of the agricultural land has to be shifted to industry, further reducing agricultural production. PepsiCo India Ltd. is now doing contract farming on vast tracts of land to produce special kind of potatoes for their potato chips. They have been booking space the cold storages to store these potatoes. Small scale potato farmers have no option but to allow their crops to rot in the fields. Recently, potato farmers in Burdwan and Hooghly districts have committed suicide, others who have protested have been put behind bars. PepsiCo is also trying to farm a foreign variety of oranges for their Tropicana brand of fruit juice, endangering the livelihoods of thousands of orange farmers of North Bengal. Another multinational company, Dole has acquired eight thousand acres of land in North Bengal to produce agricultural commodities for export to Europe. The Left Front government has provided the land and the permission for cold storages to store these products. Glossing over these facts, the manifesto claims that “unlike other states, indigenous people are not evicted from their land and their land handed over to multinationals here”. The question is, for whom did the Left front government try to displace the farmers of Nandigram and set up an SEZ? Who are the people who were forced to give up their farm lands in Rajarhat to the likes Cognizant, Wipro and fifty other companies? Who were the people on whose land the chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya had gone to Salboni to lay the foundation stone for the proposed steel plant of the Jindals. It is claimed in the manifesto that ‘West Bengal is the only state in India where the government is building thirty seven multipurpose cold storages to preserve vegetables, flowers and fruits.’ The reality is that it is being done to cater to the requirements of the food products multinationals which are entering the state in a big way.

Beside the process of alienation of peasants from agriculture, workers of fifty five thousand closed industries have become unemployed. This has meant increasing competition for a fewer jobs, resulting in decrease in real wages. But the manifesto claims that “the wages have increased everywhere.”

It is told in the manifesto that “Today 1.7 million students appear for the secondary, higher secondary and madrasa examinations.” They forgot to mention that out of every hundred students only twenty seven are able to complete the tenth standard, a damning statistic. Nearly one third of the population is still illiterate. The standard of education is such that one third of the students of the fourth standard cannot read a simple sentence or do simple arithmetic. The teacher:student ratio in schools is a woeful fifty five to one. Fifty years ago it was twenty nine to one. Vacant posts for teachers in the schools is fifty eight thousand, every year ten thousand new vacancies are being created. The under graduate colleges in the state needs twenty thousand teachers, whereas the existing number of teachers is nine thousand.

A cunning statement has been made about the the condition of the health sector: “Out of every hundred people hospitalized in West Bengal, seventy three are treated in government hospitals.’ Cleverly, no mention is made about the number of people who cannot get access to hospitals or return without getting treatment. A survey by the Pratichi Trust, an organisation established by Amartya Sen, reveals that 29% people get treated in government hospitals in India, in West Bengal it is 24%. To get the basic tests like ultrasonography, X-ray done, patients have to wait for anything between 20 and 120 days. And in the case of surgeries, the wait is from 22 to 176 days. The government displays extravagant advertisements “My government stands beside me.” Can the reader remember in which government hospital did any of the stalwarts of Left Front like Jyoti Basu, Subhas Chakraborti or Mrinal Banerjee breathe their last? In which government hospital was the industries minister Nirupam Sen recently treated? These people are among the few who can avail top class treatment in private hospitals at government expense. Minister Manab Mukherjee’s wife got a pair of glasses for Rs 32,000 of taxpayer’s money. These are the same people who write the manifesto!

They write in the manifesto “The government has taken an initiative to supply drinking water.” At last! The demand for the drinking water is only 0.82% of total demand for water. Till today, a large number of people in rural Bengal make holes in the sand beds of rivers to collect water. In summer, scarcity of water haunts urban areas too. In Kolkata, 31% of households, and in rural Bengal 66% of households do not get tapped water. The quantity of water that is wasted in the streets of cities can meet the demands of 1.5 million more people. No attention has been paid to 1.2 million silted up ponds and lakes, the traditional mainstay of water supply in West Bengal. On the other hand multinational soft drink companies have been given a free hand to take up groundwater for their bottling plants, seriously depleting groundwater.

The manifesto proudly proclaims “A new dawn has dawned in the IT sector. Over hundred thousand young people are working in the IT sector. The Left Front government wants to carry forward this progress for the sake of students and youth. Last year this sector saw Rs 6500 crore worth of exports.” We have a lack of teachers, health workers, researchers, experts in agriculture and industries. The government could not employ these hundred thousand young men and women in these sectors. When these young people got educated and trained, reaping the benefits of the labour of the people of the state, they were put into the employment of foreign companies. Is this something to be proud about. The multinationals are making profits from the cheap labour of our youth. Whatever money this labour brings, it does not build the future of society. This is a matter of disgrace, and what is a matter of disgrace is being said with pride. After all this they write, “The main protectors of US interests in India are the Congress, BJP and their allies, the Leftists are the only opposition in this respect.”

As part of their future programme they have announced the building of a hundred new bridges and flyovers, modernisation of airports, and building of new airports and sea ports. It is unlikely that most of these projects will benefit people who live on less than Rs 20 per day. Together with this, new power plants have been proposed. In Haripur, the controversial nuclear power plant project still on the cards, regardless of the local peoples’ strong opposition to it.

In conclusion the manifesto says, “The Left Front government is pledged to continue an incessant struggle against shortcomings such as insolent and authoritarian attitude towards people.” It is not made clear whether the “shortcoming” is considered as a mistake or a wrongdoing. This means that they do not admit any wrongdoing. It is clear from the manifesto that the 8th Left Front, if elected to power, will continue on the same path of subservience to multinational and national big business interests (remember they had said that not even a hair on the head of the Tatas can be touched). This wrong has never been admitted, it has not been admitted in this manifesto either.

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TMC – How many years will they need to be in power to turn Fascist?

A wind of change is blowing in the fifteenth Vidhan Sabha elections in West Bengal. Therein lies the importance of the manifesto of those who are espousing “change”, and the need for a glimpse at it.

The Bangla version of the manifesto consists of sixty four pages, in which twenty two pages are dedicated to discussing the achievements of Mamata Banerjee in the rail ministry, which are quite irrelevant to the issue under discussion. The first twelve pages consist of a long foreword, apparently penned by Mamata herself. The main part of the manifesto is 30 pages, with a lot of repetitions and some incoherence

The first thing to notice about the manifesto is the sheer number of promises, “land will be distributed to the landless”, ‘within five years, five cold storage wills be built in every subdivision so that farmers can profit by cultivating potatoes, brinjals, cabbage etc. Distress sales will be a thing of the past”, “we want to introduce green revolution in industry… on one hand, ecologically sustainable, environment-friendly industry and on the other…..agro-based industries, environmental resource-based employment-generating industries’; “intensive care units will be established in every subdivisional hospital”; “ we will take every step to restore peace in Jangalmahal not through the barrel of the gun but by the means of development and according forest rights to the adivasis”; “will invigorate the traditional sports such as kabaddi, kho-kho, archery, daribandha, swimming etc. in the districts……various types of sports would be suitably encouraged for sportlovers.”

It has been said that no polluting industry will be set up, but it has not been stated whether the currently running, highly polluting sponge iron factories will be shut down. The manifest has announced ‘no to SEZ’, but has not said whether the running SEZs in Falta or Sector V will be taken out of the SEZ category. It is written in one place that “necessary steps will be taken to free all the political prisoners who are languishing in jails without trials.” Well, that sounds good. However, Mamata has written in the preface ‘all the cases of the political prisoners will be scrutinized by a review committee to determine whether the person has committed a crime… decisions will be taken according to the observations of the review committee.” Two things said in two different places. Mamata has placed a condition on the release of political prisoners. Political prisoners are usually kept in prison for long periods of time under false cases. The same thing had happened in 1977 when the Left Front came to power. This time, according to Mamata, the review committee will first judge the case of the political prisoner; if the committee determines that the prisoner is guilty, the case will be handed over to the judiciary. Will this process allow the fast release of political prisoners? In ‘77 the process of release was comparatively simple; most of the political prisoners were members or supporters of the Naxalites, and the Naxalite movement had been crushed, at least for the time being. Therefore, there was not much chance of the released prisoners going back to political activities. But now, the Maoists, Kamtapuri, SUCI, Gorkhaland, Greater Kochbihar, PCPA in Jangalmahal- all are politically active. The released prisoners would return to their old places and strengthen their organizations. Will the government allow this? Can we expect such a democratic environment?

In Singur, although the Left front government has not divulged the contents of the agreement with the Tatas, we know that the government had provided land, Rs 200 crore in subsidies and other benefits to the Tatas. Singur is a model of Public Private Partnership (PPP). The flagbearers of change also want to build roads, irrigation facilities, spinning mills, garment industry, and labour intensive large and middle scale industries in the PPP model. They have openly welcomed big capital for production and distribution facilities. Why will the big capitalists invest to develop labour-intensive industries which will generate less profit? In one place in the manifesto it is written that foreign investment plans adopted by Left Front government is a sign of failure of its industrial policy. In another paragraph the manifesto criticizes that the ‘much proclaimed foreign investment attraction policy of Left Front has been able to get only Rs 23,650 crores in terms of actual investment which is much lower than other states.’ So, it is not clear whether the harbingers of change support or oppose investment by foreign and national corporations. Moreover it is said that “the projects which fulfill both the interests of private investor and public interest, must be carried out properly.” Can the interests of the private investor and the public’s interest be fulfilled simultaneously? If a government is concerned about public interest, then it has to take responsibility and invest itself. Otherwise the government would be limited to being the agent of national or international corporates, and repress the public in their interest.

“Adoption of improved technology in agriculture”, “use of improved hybrid seeds”; ‘productivity increase by applying improved science and technology’- all these have been said in the manifesto. These are oft-repeated words to justify the introduction and usage of seeds etc. from agriculture MNCs producing genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The MNCs have destroyed the two thousand varieties of paddy in our country, which has been produced historically by indigenous technology developed by our farmers. Were these examples of primitive agricultural practices? The seeds and fertilizer provided by the MNCs require huge amounts of water. Their use increases agricultural productivity initially, but no analysis has been done comparing the productivity of traditional agricultural practices with the cost and productivity using MNCs’ agricultural inputs in long run. Nevertheless, dependence on genetically modified seeds is nothing but surrendering our food security to foreign corporations. Therefore the manifesto should have been less ambiguous on the issue of traditional versus GM seeds when it talks about improved agricultural practices.

Electrification of every village has been promised in the manifesto. But today it is not sufficient just to promise electrification, the means of generating electricity are also important. It is necessary to cancel the proposed nuclear power plant at Haripur and encourage non- conventional energy sources such as wind and solar power. The manifesto is silent about this.

Fifty thousand ponds will be dug! But what about the softdrinks MNCs who are plundering millions of gallons of groundwater every day, resulting in the drying up of the ponds? If that is not prevented, digging ponds will not help. The harbingers of “change” have not said anything about that.

In last few years, numerous private schools, colleges and medical colleges have come up, lacking proper infrastructure. These are centres of unbridled profiteering. The flagbearers of change have also pledged to establish schools, colleges, universities and ten medical colleges, but have not mentioned whether under public or private ownership. The government can, and should, stop the vicious network of profit-making institutions involved in education and health, and run them with proper infrastructure. But the manifesto does not indicate any such thing. It has been said that poor and meritorious students will be given opportunities for part-time income. Is it an indication of encouraging child labour?

About the demand for a separate state in the hills, the manifesto says “Trinamool Congress does not believe in the division or partition of Bengal”. The Left Front maintains the same stand. The two parties have the same political views on this issue. The Darjeeling hills were historically part of Sikkim till 1835. The British seized Darjeeling from Sikkim. By claiming the hills to be a part of Bengal, TMC has supported this action of the British just like the CPI(M). The people of the hills are physically, culturally, linguistically different from the Bengalis. They are called Gorkhas. TMC has said that they will recognize all the mother tongues of the people of Bengal. They will not recognize the separate identity of the Gorkhas, but will give accordance to their language. How is that possible?

The manifesto says “Necessary steps will be taken to help the police to get back their good name”. What is “good name” of the police? Did the police have a good name from ’47 to ’77? It has been stated that in the period after that they did not have a good name. Didn’t the police during the reign of Bidhan Chandra Roy fire on peasants in the Tebhaga movement? Didn’t they put the shanties in Tollygunje on fire to evict the refugees staying there? Didn’t they evict people from Cooper’s camp? Weren’t there atrocities by the police in the Asansol collieries? Wasn’t there killing of peasant women in Naxalbari by police firing? Were there no cases of custodial rape? Will the harbingers of change try to bring back this “good name”?

It has been stated in the manifesto, “ Marichjhanpi, Bijansetu, Kashipur, Baranagar, Netai… wherever there has been cases of human rights violation in the last 35 years the new government will arrange for investigations into them within six months”. The Left Front had also talked about investigating Kashipur and Baranagar, but had done nothing. The massacre at Kashipur and Baranagar happened more than 35 years ago. The Congress and CPI(M) carried out the massacre together. The mastermind was the then chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, in whose funeral recently Mamata Banerjee took the leading role to show him her respects. When the Kashipur-Baranagar massacre was committed, Siddhartha Sankar Ray had said in reply to a journalist that before any investigations it would have to be seen whether the people killed were “peace-loving” or not (Yugantar, 15/8/1971). Is it possible to believe after this that the Kashipur-Baranagar massacre will be investigated? And the same stands for the other massacres which have been mentioned in the same breath with Kashipur-Baranagar. The Naxalite leader Charu Mazumdar was killed in police custody when Subrata Mukherjee was the interior minister. The same Subrata Mukherjee is one of the star candidates of the TMC in the elections today. As are a couple of high ranking police officers and a chief secretary from the Left Front era, together with an ex-president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). None of this bodes very well for “change”.

The Trinamool Congress has published a separate manifesto in English, which has no relation to the one in Bangla, calling it a “vision document”. In the English version, a lot has been said about industry and infrastructure which is not there in the Bangla version. The World Bank envisages the creation of an important commercial centre in Kolkata. The TMC has referred to this vision and has taken on the great task of turning it to reality within 200 days of coming to power. The contents and the presentation of the English manifesto make it abundantly clear that it is addressed to the corporate sector and to the affluent, whereas the Bangla version is directed to the poor. As the working class does not want the establishment of SEZs, the Bangla version has said “no to SEZ”. The corporate sector wants more and more SEZs, therefore SEZs have not been mentioned in the Bangla version. The Left Front manifesto has talked about the building of bridges, flyovers, modernization of airports and expansion of sea ports as future projects. The English manifesto of the TMC has promised to do the same within only 1000 days.

And in conclusion, a question to didi – in the preface didi has said “if a government stays in power for a long time, every step of that government becomes like that of Fascists”. If that is true, then how long will the “long time” be for didi?