Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why West Bengal Needs a Left Government - Jayati Ghosh

Many arguments can be advanced for why West Bengal should have a government headed by a revitalised Left Front government. Several of these reasons relate to the broader necessity for taking forward the struggle for democracy in all its various forms, including both economic justice and broader mass participation. But there can also be arguments that are based on the genuine achievements of the government that has been in power in the state. I propose to consider two of these areas of achievement in particular, not only because they are important for the life of the people, but also because these are largely neglected in the media and therefore do not form a sufficient part of popular perception.
The first relates to the agrarian question, which in turn is critical in determining the balance of class forces in the countryside. This may seem surprising to some, because recently the land question in West Bengal has become the subject of much controversy and there has been a tendency to portray the state government and the parties that dominate it as being insensitive to this matter. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Land use and rural property relations have dominated policies and policy discussion in the state of West Bengal ever since the Left Front government came to power in 1977. From the early - and continuing - focus on land reforms, to current debates around processes of land use and land acquisition, the land question has been the most significant political economy issue in West Bengal for more than three decades. Indeed, this is the primary point of difference between the Government of West Bengal (along with other Left-led state governments) and other state governments in India: that it has confronted the agrarian question directly.
This has been associated with different strategies, ranging from the distribution of land to the landless and the registration of sharecroppers, to the attempts to shift some land to non-agricultural use as part of a broader process of industrialization. These strategies and the processes that they are associated with obviously have strong implications for human development. And because they seek to change agrarian relations, they have inevitably created controversy, whether in the form of resistance by large landowners to a diminution of their control and power because of land reforms, or in the recent highly publicised resistance of a section of peasants to land being diverted to other uses, notably industry.
The fact that land reforms were a major plank of the state government’s activity in the early decades is well known. Cultivated area in West Bengal accounts for less than 4 per cent of the national total, but even so West Bengal has accounted for 23 per cent of the total land distributed in the country as a whole since Independence, and more than half (55 per cent) of the total number of beneficiaries of land distribution programmes in the entire country. The total number of gainers from all the various land reform programmes in the state is even more, including recorded bargadars (more than 15 lakh) and recipients of homestead land (around 16 lakh), bringing the total to more than 50 lakh beneficiaries. This means more than half of rural households have benefited from land reforms in the state since 1977, and SCs, STs and Muslims benefiting disproportionately. Women have also been recipients of joint pattas since 2003.
This part may be recognised, but what is not so well known is that the process of land distribution has continued apace, making West Bengal one of the very few states in the country where agricultural land still continues to be distributed to landless recipients, or pattadars. All the publicity was given to the relatively few attempts at land acquisition for industry. But the amount of land that was associated with such moves is actually tiny. West Bengal is not even among the top ten states in the country, with states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh taking over many multiples of the amount of land that was even attempted in the state.
In fact, the agricultural land distributed under land reform has been much larger, on average well more than double the amount of land acquired for all purposes, including industry. Even in the period between 2005-06 and 2007-08 when the state government was being accused of seeking to deprive peasants of their land because of its industrialisation drive, nearly 30,000 acres was distributed to landless peasant cultivators. This was three times the amount that was acquired by the state government for all purposes, including road building and other development. In 2007-08, the same year when the violent agitation in Nandigram was grabbing national headlines, no one bothered to report that the same state government had distributed nearly 11,000 acres, to more than 25,000 peasants.
This continuing emphasis on land distribution is quite remarkable, not only because it has been sustained for three decades, but also because the very experience of decades of successful land distribution has meant a much narrower base of land available for redistribution in recent years. It also singles out West Bengal from other states of the country, where there is no such active and continuing programme of land distribution.
This record of the Government of West Bengal in terms of land distribution is not just laudable, but also far more impressive than that of any other state government in India. The only states that come close are those that have been or are ruled by other Left Front governments, that is Kerala and Tripura. This is important because land distribution remains an essential element to prevent or restrain the control of landlordism in the countryside. Without it, not just landlordism but also the adverse and regressive social tendencies, which are so evident in other parts of rural India, would once again become significant in West Bengal. For this reason alone, it is critical to retain the political power of the Left Front.
The second important achievement of the Left Front government in the state relates to improvements in health indicators. Until about a decade ago, this was not an area of much progress, with health indicators in West Bengal basically keeping pace with the national average. But recent data - not from the state government, but from the central government’s office of the Registrar-General of India using the Sample registration Surveys (SRS) - show that West Bengal is now one of the best-performing states in the country in terms of the most basic health indicators.
Since 1997, both crude birth rates and crude death rates have improved much faster in West Bengal than in India as a whole. The crude birth rate (live births per 1,000 people in a year) in West Bengal declined by 28 per cent from 22.4 to 17.5 between 1997 and 2009 (or by 28 per cent), compared to a decline of 19 per cent for India as a whole. The death rate in West Bengal fell by 25 per cent over the same period, as compared to 20 per cent for India as a whole.
As a result, among the major states, West Bengal in 2009 had the fourth lowest birth rate (after Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab) and the lowest death rate among the major states, even lower than that of Kerala. What is also noteworthy is that the state’s rural-urban gap has closed for the death rate. In 2009, the rural death rate in West Bengal was 6.1, which was lower than the urban rate of 6.4, whereas for India as a whole the rural death rate was higher by 34 per cent - it was 7.8 in rural compared to 5.8 in urban areas. Even Tamil Nadu, the state that has otherwise performed very well in health indicators, shows a high rural-urban gap in the death rate of 29 per cent.
One major - and positive - reason for the decline in death rates in West Bengal is the decline in infant mortality rates (IMR) in the state. The infant mortality rate - expressed as the ratio of the number of death of infant of one year old or less per 1,000 live births - is often regarded as the single most important indicator of overall health conditions in a particular area. The decline in IMRs in West Bengal has been the most rapid in the country after Tamil Nadu. This made it one of the best performing among major states with the IMR of 33 putting it in fourth position after Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The rural-urban gap in the IMR has also improved, making it one of the smallest in the country. It is also remarkable to see that in 2009, the urban IMR for West Bnegal, at 27, was lower than the urban part of Delhi state, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation as well as a much larger per capita health budget.
What is worth noting is that West Bengal throughout this period has had a very low - almost negligible - gender gap in IMR, thereby making it very different from several other states of the country. This is also confirmed by other survey data - for example the various rounds of the National Family Health Surveys have found the gender gap in IMR to be always among the lowest in the country.
The other very important indictor of both health conditions and the status of women is the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) which is the rate of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births among women aged 15-49 years. Once again, MMRs are lower in West Bengal than the national average, and have been declining faster as well. The lifetime risk of maternal death (defined as the probability that at least one woman of reproductive age of 15-49 years will die during or just after childbirth assuming that the chance of death is uniformly distributed across the reproductive span) was only 0.3 per cent in West Bengal in 2004-06, compared to 0.7 per cent for All-India and 0.2 per cent in the best-performing state, Kerala.
What accounts for this recent improvement of health indicators in West Bengal, especially in relation to the rest of the country other than Tamil Nadu? A number of possible explanations can be considered.
First, there has been a general improvement in institutional conditions, especially in the West Bengal countryside, in terms of the number of hospitals and health facilities and the increase in access of women to ante-natal and post-natal services. This has been enabled not only by increased public expenditure in certain areas, but also by a programme of more decentralised public health delivery, with greater autonomy given to local and village health committees in terms of spending and care systems. Thus, the NFHS surveys have found that there was a gradual increase in the percentage of mothers who made at least three ante-natal visits during their last birth in West Bengal, from 50.3 per cent in 1992-93 to 62.4 per cent in 2005-06. This compares favourably with the national averages, which were significantly lower.
Second, since health is intimately related to both sanitation and nutrition, some improvement in both of these variables is also likely to have played a positive role. The extension of better sanitation facilities to rural areas has accelerated, and the state has been recognised by the central government as a star performer in terms of improvement, though these facilities still remain inadequate. It is likely that the improvement in both IMR and MMR has been most marked in those districts where the sanitation programme has been more successful.
More significantly, the state government has been able to use to a greater extent the decentralised panchayat system for implementing greater autonomy to village health committees and allowing for more flexibility in health treatment that has allowed the resources for public health to be used in the most effective manner. This builds on the other great achievement of the Left Front government, of first creating and then continuously strengthening, the locally elected bodies. This has had many positive effects, but it is noting how this institutional arrangement, which has been such an important feature of Left run governments in the country, has also enabled improvements in basic conditions of longevity and health.
Both of these point to some very significant successes, but of course there is still a long way to go. And this means that it is crucial to consolidate these gains and move forward, rather than allow them to be dissipated or even reversed. For concerned citizens of the state, these would constitute very important reasons for voting Left.