Mayhem at Dinhata by D. Bandhopadhyaya (Statesman, Feb. 14, 2008)
On 5 February, police fired on a group of Forward Bloc demonstrators at Dinhata in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal.
Five persons were killed on the spot and a dozen others were seriously injured. They did not wage war against the state. They did not storm the Winter Palace. They did not try to pull down any “Bastille” at Dinhata. They were not armed revolutionaries trying to seize power through the barrel of gun. In fact, they were unarmed. The lone policeman who died was not hit by any bullet. He was injured in stone-throwing.
These demonstrators were demanding proper implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, for “enhancement of livelihood security of the poor and destitute households”.
It was reported that against a target of 100 days employment guaranteed by the law, mandays generated in Cooch Behar was around eight in a year. That apart, there were allegations galore regarding widespread leakage of NREGA funds. They were asking for what was legally due which was being systematically denied to them. Prima facie, their action was constitutional, legal and legitimate.
On 6 February, the Central Employment Guarantee Council constituted under Section 10 of the NREGA met at Krishi Bhawan, New Delhi, for reviewing implementation of the Act. As a member I attended it. The Union minister for rural development in his opening remarks mentioned that strong lobbies had developed in different parts of the country to scuttle the programme. He also hinted that vested interests wanted the programme to fail as it might hurt their economic and financial interests. He did not elaborate. But the heart rending episode at Dinhata clearly substantiated what he had said.
Cooch Behar is noted for tobacco cultivation. It is a labour-intensive crop. The NREGA, if properly implemented, would have enhanced the wage rates in the market. Unless the wages offered by tobacco cultivators were higher than the notified minimum wages, labour would not be available on call in adequate numbers and at the appropriate time. Hence there would be a built-in intention for the land owners to see that the programme was not implemented so that they could get labour cheap and in proper numbers when required. As such, there is nothing to be surprised at the dismal performance of the NREGA in Cooch Behar.
This tragic episode had brought into fore the fact that the poor in India in distant corners of the country accepted and internationalised this programme as their own. They were demanding its proper and effective administration which would give them a slightly better income and livelihood. Obviously, such a demand would be treated as inimical to the interests of the “kulak” lobby which was eager to get cheap labour for maximising profit.
We are talking about Dinhata where lives were lost for a totally legal demand. But the story is the same for the whole of West Bengal. At the meeting of the council referred to, data was circulated by the ministry of rural development. Dr Santosh Merhotra, adviser (RD), Planning Commission, made a composite comparative table giving state-wise prevailing market rates of wages, the NREGA wage rates and employment provided in percentage.
The table makes a dismal and despairing reading. West Bengal ranks fourth from the bottom in implementing the NREGA. Even states like Chhattisgarh (44.6 per cent), Jharkhand (32.6 per cent) and Uttarakhand (27.4 per cent) are better performers. It is way behind Tamil Nadu (61.1 per cent), Maharashtra (55.9 per cent), Rajasthan (52.5 per cent) and Punjab (41.7 per cent). Is it due to administrative inefficiency? Or is there anything more serious in the class character of the CPI-M?
West Bengal’s performance deteriorated from 14.3 per cent in 2006-07 to 11.8 per cent in 2007-08 (December). There is a degree of consistency in its non-performance. The CPI-M is now dominated by the middle and upper peasantry in the rural areas. It is not in their class interest to implement the NREGA properly which would push up wages from Rs 44.58 (per male worker) and Rs 32.35 (per female worker) to anywhere near Rs 70 per day which would drastically reduce the profit margin for them. The same class interest which prevented bestowing of title to the land that the share-croppers tilled and creating alternative institutional credit structure for the poor peasantry was behind this non-performance.
The ruling CPI-M is, perhaps, not aware of people’s wrath against them. The party is suffering from the syndrome of, in the words of Fred Halliday “enduring inability of those with power and wealth to comprehend the depth of hostility to them and the ability of history to surprise”. Otherwise, there would not have been this outburst from a Left Front partner of 30 years’ standing.
Professor Randhir Singh (formerly of Delhi University) used the term “secondary illiterate” in respect of the present crop of leadership of the CPI-M in West Bengal. By this term he meant “those who had the benefit of literacy once and come to know a few things. Know them to be true, but now gone illiterate, have forgotten whatever they once knew”.
He continues: “CPM leaders no longer speak in the language of socialism or class politics, not even when bourgeois ideologues or TV anchors get provocatively aggressive. And on rare occasions they refer to Marxism, only vulgarise it. Here is a gem of vulgarisation from Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: ‘From agriculture to industry, from villages to cities, this is civilisation. We Marxists never deny this aim. We too want this to happen’.”
Bravo Mr Bhattacharjee for outdoing Marx in Marxism. It only reminds one of Hans Mangus Enzsberger’s moving short poem: Karl Heinrich Marx:
“I see you betrayed/ by your disciples/ only your enemies/ remained what they were.”
(The author was secretary to the Government of India, ministries of finance (revenue) and rural development and executive director, Asian Development Bank, Manila)