Friday, February 8, 2008

CPM waste land

WASTE LAND (Editorial, Kolkata, Telegraph, Feb. 9, 2008)

How is it that Marxism, despite its political appeal, almost always fails as a guide to governance? This has been the case in the former Soviet Union and its socialist satellites in eastern and central Europe. And this has repeatedly proved to be true for Marxist Bengal. The Bengali comrades’ political rhetoric has won them elections after elections, but the long reign has also been marked by their failures in governance. One more proof of this has come from the Planning Commission’s latest note on Bengal’s record in implementing several schemes that are crucial for alleviating rural poverty. The case of the most important of them — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme — is particularly instructive as an example of economic mismanagement. Arguably, it is the most ambitious — and the most expensive — programme ever initiated by the Union government in order to reduce rural poverty and provide jobs to villagers. Ironically, the leftists have been its most vocal advocates. But the fact that Bengal has been able to spend less than eight per cent of the funds available for the scheme last year speaks of the Marxists’ incapacity to handle the business of governance even after three decades in power. The Bengal government’s performance in other rural projects only confirms this impression.

It is possible that the finance minister of Bengal, Asim Dasgupta, has his version of the story. But nothing that he may say in the state’s defence can alter the fact about its pathetic record. Usually, such schemes fail because of two reasons — bureaucratic inefficiency and “leakages”, the official jargon for the theft of funds. In Bengal, a more serious problem is the absence of a delivery mechanism. It is a problem that afflicts all aspects of governance in the state. The chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, knows it only too well. That is why he harps on his mantra of “Do it now”. But his sermon obviously has made no difference to governance in the state. Bengal’s failure in these schemes will only strengthen the case of those who argue that these are “expensive gravy trains” that drain the national economy and encourage political and bureaucratic corruption.

In a report last month, the comptroller and auditor general advised the Centre to ensure that the states improve their “administrative and technical infrastructure” in order to properly implement the NREGP and other such schemes. For Bengal, the more important question is whether the state has the political will or the administrative ability to “improve” the ways in which its government functions. Other states too have problems in properly utilizing rural development funds. The malaise in Bengal seems to be primarily systemic. But there is a larger message in these cases of failure. It is time to rethink the economic argument behind such colossal and wasteful schemes.

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