Twenty-five years of Left Front Government in West Bengal

Solemn Promises and Sordid Performance

TWENTY-FIVE years back, in 1977, the Left Front led by Mr. Jyoti Basu of CPI(M) came to power in West Bengal. The Front defeated the Emergency-tainted Congress Party, which had been unleashing a ‘semi-fascist’ terror, particularly against the revolutionary left, the Naxalites, although in this course, even the leftist ranks of the parties of the Left Front were not spared. Democracy became the crying need of the people; the mood and temper of the people of West Bengal was such that to defeat the Congress they would vote for any party or alliance that promised minimum democracy to the people. The Left Front promised to give them a better life and a better economy apart from democracy – in a nut-shell, ‘better governance’. In the Front’s parlance it would be ‘alternative rule’ by a combination of left parties. What has happened to that promise today? The promises and proposals made in the 1977 charter (they were 36 in all, with a number of sections and sub-sections appended to each) have all vanished into thin air. After 25 years, it is now an ‘improved Left Front’ that desires to follow ‘the rule of the game’ (as told by Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya himself in his latest interview appearing in Anand Bazar Patrika, a leading Bengali daily, on May 12, 2002). What is that ‘rule’? And what ‘game’ are they playing with the people of West Bengal? The game is nothing but the game of bourgeois parliamentarism, which has its own, in-built ‘rule’ – making promises, gaining votes, capturing power and then forgetting everything in the name of the ‘changed situation’, ‘Centre’s apathy’ or ‘impact of globalisation’. Moreover, for CPI(M) there is the logic that ‘a government with limited power’ can do nothing (even though they often claim that ‘we have many alternatives’). Ultimately they have resorted to the pet social-democratic logic: We have to follow the ‘rules of the game’.

In the checklist given below, Comrade Partha Ghosh contrasts some of the promises made in the 36-point charter of 1977 with the actual performance. See for yourself where West Bengal stands today.

The ‘improved Left Front’ in West Bengal is now busy formulating a draconian act POCA (Prevention of Organised Crime Act) to deal with so-called Muslim terrorism. A few days back the new chief minister Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya proclaimed that the unregistered madrassas are the dens of anti-national activities. Thus Bush, Advani or Buddhadev, all are singing the same tune of curbing ‘Muslim terrorism’. Although following the serious protests launched throughout the state by the revolutionary and progressive forces belonging to all the communities, Buddhadev had to retract his words but still POCA remains in his mind. Though the CPI(M) and the Left Front had promised to re-establish and enlarge the basic freedom and democratic rights in West Bengal (see Point No. 2 of the charter), they are now busy with restricting and curbing it in the name of the ‘changed situation’. This is the ‘rule of the game’, as the chief minister has recently said.

A comparative examination of POCA and POTA would reveal that they are nothing but duplicates of each other. However, at present the CPI(M) state leadership (and even a good section of the central leadership) have no personal experience of such draconian acts, they feel no hesitation in promulgating these acts.

There is only one hitch. Advani, the saffron union home minister, has already become the ‘hero’ of the ‘hard state’ with the promulgation of POTA. Circumstances like being in the opposition party, and that too, in a state like West Bengal made Buddhadev lag behind. Otherwise, as Buddha himself said in a recent interview, he had thought of this act before Advani! No wonder, because social democracy, almost everywhere, serves the purpose of supplying logic to the reactionary proponents of ‘hard state’. CPI(M) is no exception.


What they promised in 1977 Where we stand in 2002
(The number in brackets indicate the serial number in the original 36-point charter)
1. To nationalize all the core industries. To abolish the power of monopoly capital. To take effective steps to stop infiltration of the multinational corporations. (Point No. 1) 1. One such big industry, termed as the ‘pride of Bengal’ is Haldia Petrochem, which was built in joint collaboration with Purnendu Chatterjee of Soros Group and the Tatas. Now the West Bengal government has sold its shares to Mr. Chatterjee, retaining no stakes in Haldia Petrochem. The Tatas have also withdrawn their shares. Haldia Petrochem has now become the ‘native pride of the foreign capital’. The other big industry is Bakreswar Thermal Power Project. It was built on B.O.T. basis. The Japanese Mitsubishi, the Microsoft, the IBM, all are welcome here, because “we want capital”. “We are a capital-friendly government” – now this is the mantra of the ‘improved Left Front’. The process started after their much celebrated ‘Industrial Policy of 1994’ took shape during Mr. Jyoti Basu’s tenure. The ITC, Videocon, Hindustan Lever, Lafarge, are all being accorded red carpet welcome. This is the ‘alternative’ of abolition of monopoly or checking multinationals.
2. To provide jobs for all the able-bodied hands, and social security and unemployment allowance to the unemployed youth. (Point No. 3) 2. The number of unemployed youth has shot up to a registered 66 lakh figure. If the unregistered unemployed youth are also to be counted, the number would cross the ten million mark. When the Left Front government came to power in ’77, the number of registered unemployed youth was not more than 10-11 lakh. Yes, of course, the government has started an unemployment allowance in ’79, but the amount is a meagre Rs. 50 per month. Now the government has decided to offer the unemployed a one-time sum of Rs. 5000. You take this allowance and your employment exchange card will be seized. Nor would you be allowed to sit for public service commission examinations. To those having no employment whatsoever, what kind of social security would the government offer? Would they get free medical service, free education, free food and free travel? If not, what comes under this social security? This year, the ‘improved Left Front’ government has introduced an examination fee for clerical exams. The unemployed youth have to pay Rs. 250 to Rs. 500 for these exams.
3. To fix the remunerative/support prices of cash crops like jute and cotton so as to protect the interests of the primary producers, and to purchase these produces on support price (if possible, with a bonus to the small producers) to check distress sale or black-marketing. (Point No. 4) 3. Distress sale of jute is a common phenomenon in North Bengal, and also in North and South Dinajpur and Nadia districts. Last year the Jute Corporation of India stopped purchase of jute due to paucity of funds. The state government has no institutions to purchase jute. The only course they have is to blame the central government for the crisis of the jute-growers. This year the producers are selling Aman and Aous (local seasonal varieties) paddy at much below the government-declared support prices, i.e., Rs. 530 to Rs. 550 per quintal. The sale is going on at Rs. 320 to Rs. 340 per quintal. Bonus to small producers of paddy is ‘not possible’ due to ‘resource crunch’. West Bengal has not yet gone the Andhra Pradesh way, but if you pursue Chandrababu’s path, how long can the incidence of suicides be kept at bay?

4. To solve the bustee (settlers’ colony) problem and arrange for sufficient aid from the Center to provide shelter to all, particularly to the weaker sections. (Point No. 7)

4. Around 20,000 people, most of them coming from erstwhile East Pakistan in the late 1960s, have been bulldozed for the ‘developmental purpose’. Altogether 10 lakh people in Kolkata and its suburbs are under the threat of eviction. They are now becoming ‘developmental refugees’. Not only in Kolkata, even in Siliguri the weaker sections residing at the bank of river Teesta have received ‘eviction orders’. No alternative shelters are being promised. Be it Narmada project or the Metro Rail Project in Kolkata, the new dictum of development schemes is: the poor have to make sacrifices for city’s development.

5. To immediately open all the closed industries, lift lock-outs and lay-offs in all cases, stop retrenchments and reinstate all the penalized workers and employees. (Point No. 10)

To ensure need-based minimum wages, pension and other social security schemes for all… (Point No. 12)

To provide job-security and abolish the contract system. (Point No. 14)

5. The number of closed and sick industries in West Bengal has reached 66,000.

The ratio of lockout to strikes in 1998-99 was 2:1. Thus West Bengal has become a ‘peaceful’ state for capital investment and also for capital flight! The Dunlop owned by Manu Chhabria is a case in point. The blue-eyed Brailly of UK siphoned off Rs. 100 crore from 4 jute mills in West Bengal.

West Bengal’s industrialists top the list of PF/ESI/Gratuity defaulters. According to an approximate estimate, PF defaults amount to Rs. 120 crore, ESI defaults Rs. 80 crore and Gratuity to Rs. 50 crore.

No, the private sector industries are not the only culprits. The state government is no less responsible with PF/ESI dues in state PSUs amounting to over Rs. 10 crore.

Following the footsteps of the central government, the LF government of the state has left 1,00,000 posts vacant. It is even planning for e-governance with a declared aim to introduce a better ‘work culture’ among the government employees. This step is being opposed even by the coordination committee led by CPI(M).

6. To acquire ceiling-surplus and benami land and distribute the same free of cost to the landless, poor peasants and agrarian labourers. To radically change the land reform legislations so as to do away with all modes of re-centralisation of land ownership and provide adequate benefits to the bargadars, landless peasants and agrarian labourers. (Point No. 16)

To arrange for round-the-year work for agrarian labourers and payment of adequate livelihood wages to them. (Point No. 20)

6. Out of the 10 lakh acres of land acquired for distribution, only 2.5 lakh acres of land has actually been distributed during the entire 25-year period. Most of the ceiling surplus land was captured by the peasants themselves during the turbulent days of Naxalbari movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Cases related to 2,50,000 acres of so-called disputed surplus land are still pending in the court. Obviously, the erstwhile landholders are benefited by these ‘disputes’.

Out of 30 lakh bargadars, only 15 lakh got registered in the early days of Operation Barga. Now the operation has been wound up. Rather the reverse process has gained momentum. Poor bargadars with no means to sustain their livelihood settle with the landowners for a paltry sum of money and become landless agrarian labourers. In Bardhaman district alone at least 70,000 such cases have been noticed by the district land revenue department. Such incidence is also noticed in North Dinajpur, Maldah, and Midnapore districts.

Following the 2nd and 3rd land reform acts and their amendments, at least 19 lakh acres of land has become ceiling surplus. But the poor landless agrarian labourers are not getting even a few bighas of land.

The minimum wage fixed by the state government for the agrarian labourers is Rs. 62.10, with some regional variations. But to get it in reality remains a dream for agrarian labourers everywhere. Generally they get Rs. 28 to Rs. 35 plus 2 kg. of rice, and in some places the wages are as low as Rs. 20 to Rs. 25 only. Most of the agrarian labourers (their total number being more than 70 lakh) are getting jobs for only 100 to 130 days a year.

The ‘food for work’ programme, under which 100 days work is to be provided by the panchayats, is very much absent in many areas. Wherever the scheme is being implemented, it is marred by partisan sectarianism, nepotism and corruption. From the Karanda killings in Bardhaman in 1993 to the recent episode in Suchapur in Birbhum, or Chhota Angaraia killings in Midnapore, show that contradictions are maturing in rural Bengal between the neo-rich and the agrarian labourers. The CPI(M) machinery is throttling the assertion of the agrarian labourers to get organized as a class for itself. The recent incident of burning of houses and properties by CPI(M) goons in Dhanekhali block in Hooghly district is a pointer to this.

7. To institute a proper enquiry into the killings of citizens and political activists including Hemanta Basu (a Forward Block leader) during and before emergency and to punish the culprits. (Point No. 31)

The Left Front proposes to set up an enquiry commission regarding the incidents of police torture on political leaders and cadres in the police stations, jails and other places and the killings of political prisoners inside the jails. The ministers, officers and others responsible for all these dastardly acts would be invariably punished in an exemplary way. (Point No. 32 A)

The Left Front proposes to set up another commission to search out persons (ministers and corrupt officials included) responsible for the autocratic measures, corruption and crimes against people and ensure that they are duly punished.

7. The less said is better in this regard. The large-scale genocide perpetrated against revolutionary communists and the ranks of left parties (even CPI(M) lost 1,200 cadres in the genocide) in the 1970s has still not been investigated and none of the perpetrators of these crimes has been punished. The two enquiry commissions set up to investigate them were dismantled midway.

Thereafter, not only the Naxalites but all the progressive forces in West Bengal have appealed to the government and our Party has even organized a successful statewide bandh to press the demand for setting up such a commission. But all this has fallen into the deaf ears of the government.


CPI(M)’s Kulak Confessions

(Below we reproduce some excerpts from the West Bengal CPI(M)’s review report on the peasant front as adopted by the party’s 20th State Conference held in Kolkata from 22 to 25 February 2002 (translated by us from the Bengali original, pp 88-90). The excerpts are quite self-explanatory and reveal the growing pro-rich bias of the West Bengal CPI(M)’s agrarian theory and practice. – Ed.)

On Land Question: It is true that the key slogan of the peasant movement is radical land reforms. But the slogan of radical land reforms can only be a propaganda slogan in the present structural framework. The effective slogan in this context is: land reforms within ceiling limits. … Of the 1.3 million acres of land vested with the state, more than 1.05 million acres have been redistributed among more than 2.3 million landless beneficiaries. … The land tribunal has initiated the process of disentangling some more land for redistribution, but unless this land is fast redistributed there is every danger of the land being locked again in litigation at High Court level division benches. Comrades are lacking in alertness and initiative on this score.

Thanks to the land reforms movement and increasing fragmentation of erstwhile joint and big families, there is little concentration of land ownership left in the state. The land-ownership pattern in the state yields the following picture: 11,00,701 small holdings (16.81% of total holdings), 50,03,845 marginal holdings (76.42%), 4,41,936 medium holdings (6.75%) and 1,152 large holdings of over 10 acres (0.2%). This also includes 11,05,957 acres of land being cultivated by 14,97,418 bargadars or sharecroppers. Generally speaking, landlords thus no longer dominate the agrarian scene of the state. The land seizure and redistribution movement has therefore lost its old fervour and momentum. In the changed context of land and production relations shaped through land reforms, the peasant movement has come to acquire a multifarious and multidimensional character. But this realisation is yet to dawn on our comrades working on the peasant front. We therefore hear from some quarters demands to lower the ceiling limits so as to give an impetus to the peasant movement. At the same time we also hear a few comrades question the very relevance of the peasant front in the state.

On Sharecroppers: Operation Barga has secured the cultivation rights of 14,97,418 sharecroppers over 11,05,957 acres of land. This security of tenancy has generated enthusiasm among the sharecroppers and led to a rise in production. But some sharecroppers tend to confuse their cultivation rights with ownership rights and thus they refuse to hand over the due share of crops to the owners. This is an opportunist tendency, which is harmful for the peasant movement and detrimental to the cause of broad peasant unity. Fighting out this opportunism is a key task of the peasant movement. This tendency is witnessed particularly in those areas where the landowners do not reside in the concerned villages and activists of the peasant movement remain oblivious of their responsibilities in this regard. We must wage a sustained struggle against this trend.

We are noticing a new twist to the Barga question in recent times. This is not a question of eviction of bargadars nor has the peasant front taken any initiative to stop or overcome the barga practice. Many new occupations are now available in rural areas or in neighbouring urban areas. In some cases, bargadars feel compelled by real life conditions to switch over to other occupations. There are also instances of landowners seeking a settlement with bargadars so they can sell off the land or use it for other purposes. With growing penetration of capital into agriculture, barga practice is bound to become a thing of the past. Time and again we have discussed the subject among peasant front comrades. This is becoming a common feature in rural areas and in many cases our comrades are intervening and mediating in settlements where the bargadars are being paid very little compensation. We have decided that in such situations if land owners and bargadars both agree then our principled position would be to ensure that bargadars get half the land or half the value of the land.

On Wage Struggles: The number of landless agricultural labourers is not insignificant. Redistribution of 1.05 million acres of land among the landless may have temporarily checked the number of the landless in the state, but against the backdrop of intense countrywide crisis and the relentless process of immiseration, the number of landless labourers is bound to go up. A section of small peasants too has to resort to wage labour. Wage increase is the natural and primary demand of this growing section of the rural population. The growth of democratic forces in the countryside can only proceed on the solid and organised foundation of agricultural labourers. In spite of our consistent emphasis on this aspect, most of our district leaders are yet to realise the importance of this front. Instead of building up planned movements for wage increase, temporary market-induced increases in wages are often sought to be projected as fruits of wage struggles. …

As a result of the policies of economic liberalisation, the prices of foodgrains and other crops are showing a downward trend. Consequently we now see inhibition to wage struggles even in places accustomed to such struggles. We however believe that even under the present conditions it is possible to assess the per capita surplus value generated by agricultural labourers by deducting the average input cost from the sale price of crops, and consequently it is also possible to decide on the fraction of that surplus value for which we can conduct wage struggles of agricultural labourers. …