April 23, 2016
In conversation with Dr. Amit Mitra
You’ve been campaigning for a month now, so how has the response been from the people?
Dr Mitra: I think the response is quite amazing. Why? Because we have touched the lives of people in the real sense of the term. So there’s a road that is being constructed in front of their homes and you’ve touched them. Water system has been put in place, drinking water in particular. Schools have been upgraded. A girls’ school in Mahishpota, a remote village, has been not only upgraded, it is doing now a science curriculum because we have put in place a science laboratory for the girls and they’ve done outstanding results this year. This is known by the local people in the village because it is their children who go there. The other day I was walking in this heat in another remote village, when eight girls came up to me with flowers and garlands. I asked them about what was on and they said that all eight of them have got Rs 25,000 each under ‘Kanyashree’, and one of the mothers piped up and said that as mothers they had decided that they would keep this money for the education of the girls and would not touch it otherwise. So the key point in this election is – have you touched the lives of the people in terms of development? And in this respect, we have done vast amount of development.
Khardah is a constituency where we have done hundred crore rupees worth of social and physical infrastructure projects, which has touched the lives of the people. So I would say that the response is coming from hard facts, not from promises. And under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership what we have done at the state level is known to the people. They know that Jangalmahal is now smiling because the Maoists have run away, because of development. They know that Darjeeling has been visited by the honourable Chief Minister 55 times and now Darjeeling is attracting tourists. So the point is not only in Khardah, but they see development all around. Roads with specialised mastic asphalt, have never been seen in the state before anywhere outside Kolkata. Khardah has 10 mastic asphalt roads now. What is interesting to me is that drivers of ‘toto’ (the battery-driven vehicles) came to me and said ‘thank you’. When I asked them the reason, they said “We were spending Rs 2,500 a month in repairs of spring and suspension. Today the spending is zero because of the improved roads. The cycle-rickshaw-wallas have come in and congratulated the party for having built these roads – never done in 24 years of Asim Dasgupta’s MLA-ship or 34 years of the Left Front rule. And yet, they gave us 2 lakh crore rupees of debt! What did they do with the money? Some day history will tell us where that money went and who pocketed that money. So the key point is development.
The second reason why people are coming out in large numbers to vote for us is that the previous period was one of, what we call in Bengali as ‘sontrash’ (or terror) – complete anarchy and fascist process of governance. We have given them self-respect. As I walk into the villages, men and women come upto me and tell me “Can you not build this drain for us? Can you not put up an embankment on the pond that we have in the village?” They have the right to say this on my face, which never existed during the Left Front rule because there was complete terror everywhere. So there are two reasons why they are coming out today. One – development. And two – democratic rights and self-worth.
Continuing from there what is planned for your constituency in the next five years?
Dr Mitra: I think there are two or three things we have done which we want to build on. One – There was no electric furnace for crematorium; we’ve done it. What we’ve not been able to do, plans are on for them which will be materialised if I am blessed with representing this constituency for the next five years, I would do a flyover over the railway crossing. For that the railways and the PWD have already finished the survey. I think the key is that the people are looking forward to this flyover over the railways because there is a huge bottle-neck there.
The second thing I would like to do is to see if we can build a girls’ college in Khardah, for which unfortunately land was not available before. In the next five years we have to try and get some government land wherever available, to build this girls’ college because that’s a big demand of the people. 70% people have now got drinking water in the villages from zero. We will take it to 100% and more in terms of capacity. So these are three objectives that we will immediately start with the day I get re-elected.
The Union Finance Minister has recently said that on the mainland all the states have turned revenue-surplus except for the Leftist states of Kerala and West Bengal. What are your views on this?
Dr Mitra: I see that he is totally confused and for the last five years he seems out of touch. Rs 21,000 crore is what he received as revenues in 2010-11. That has gone up to Rs. 42,000 crore in the last reckoning or double in five years. This is a record in India. No state has ever been able to double its revenue. Because of massive e-governance, for which the Central Government has given us awards, this was possible. The Union Finance Minister knows that. So the point is we have even lowered the debt-GDP ratio because though the debt is immensely high, the GDP has grown so fabulously. The debt-GDP ratio was earlier 44% and it has come down to 33% now. Though we have still the highest debt-GDP ratio in the country because of the 2 lakh crore rupees of debt that was gifted by the Left, I think the Finance Minister ought to reflect on whether he should speak at all on this further.
Bengal is growing at 10%. How do you convey the significance of these numbers to the electorate?
Dr Mitra: Bengal is growing according to the last reckoning, in terms of GVA converted to GSDP. It is growing at 12.02%. Now what that means is, if you go to a market in Khardah, you will not get a place to stand properly because the market is so busy. That means people have earnings that they can spend, arising out of the GDP growth. And the minute they spend, fortunately the state gets revenue, gets VAT. So the cycle of GDP growth, purchasing power, tax payment and betterment of the lives of the people are all inter-connected. I am delighted that Bengal has grown in such phenomenal numbers – from 7.3% in India to 12.02% here. This is an indication of the thriving purchasing power of the consumers which you will see in any market that you go to, from the remotest areas of Bengal to the big cities of Bengal. Purchasing power means power to the people and the intention to vote us back in power.
You have said that Bengal may be a little crowded in terms of actual investments by 2021. Can you explain that?
Dr Mitra: This was not said by me but it was said to me by an industrialist, with whom I toured Pakistan some 15 years ago and had no contact with further. He called me up one day and said that he would invest in Bengal immediately and was sending his team for this. He has a cement business with a Rs 7,000 crore turnover. When I asked him on why suddenly he had woken up, he said that the buzz in his community of entrepreneurs is that if you don’t go to Bengal now, the competition will be so stiff two or three years later that it will be too crowded. So that is the reason he felt that he needed come right now. So he sent his team here, they bought land in our industrial park and I am expecting the construction process to start and machines to arrive any time now. It is he who said that if I don’t come here now, it may be a little too crowded later.
How do you measure the achievements of the Trinamool government in the last five years?
Dr Mitra: I think the only measure of Trinamool government is the aggregate statistics which speaks for itself – doubling of taxes, GDP growth, etc. A very important measure is asset-creating capital expenditure. Do you know that when we came to power, the growth of capital expenditure in 2010-11 in the budget was negative 26%? This is a record in the negative zone for all of India, that capital expenditure shrinks. We reversed it and we have grown it by six times. The capital expenditure of Bengal has grown from Rs 2,200 crore to more than Rs 13,300 crore, which is a growth of six times. That you are creating assets – schools, colleges, roads, hospitals and other things, is the ultimate test of development.
What is the going to be focus of the government after getting re-elected?
Dr Mitra: I think the focus of the government is to look at the entire spectrum of development that is taking place, and pick from that, social infrastructure, physical infrastructure, provision for other services and further reforms of governance. We have done one of the best reforms by governments in India for which we received the highest award from the Central government for e-taxation. We’ve got the highest award from the Central government for e-based governance for ‘Kanyashree’. We got 12 awards, 6 of which are from the Central government. As soon as we come back to office, Mamata Banerjee will look at what are the other things that we can do which will further deepen this process of development. The government is mandated to provide social infrastructure. The government will contribute in areas where there will be market failure. The government is expected to produce schools, colleges, universities wherever the private sector is not forthcoming. All of that has to be deepened.
The industry has to further deepen itself in Bengal. Already you have the largest cement company inflow in Bengal. In Salboni, you have the Dalmia India Cement, inaugurated by the honourable Chief Minister. You have the Emami who is building a new plant of Rs 700 crore during our regime. The Jindals are building a Rs 700 crore cement plant. And now the fourth cement company, Shree Cement, has expressed interest. Like this you have clusters of manufacturing. Today the largest investment made in Bengal is by Matix in fertilizers, with over a billion US dollars or Rs 6,500 crore. Now they want to expand into coal gasification to expand their plant. We have coal-bed methane which no other state has. Rs 2,000 crore of investment by one company and another similar investment by another company are coming up for this. Very interestingly, Tata Metallics wants to expand and has asked for 300 acres more of land which we are happy to provide in our industrial park. Tata Consultancy Services is building a 40 acre campus with 20,000 additional IT professionals. Similarly Cognizant has already finished constructions now and they are recruiting 5,000 additional professionals. All this development of industry and IT will have to be pushed forward in the next phase, so that Bengal becomes a competitive state, competitive to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and others in the next 5 years.
What is your approach to make the state more financially sound, given the big debt burden that you are carrying?
Dr Mitra: I think first of all one has to understand that India could give 10 billion dollars to Greece to restructure its debt but will not give even 1 rupee to Bengal to get it out of the debt trap. Despite of all of that, for 5 years we have continued to function, bringing in development at the highest pace possible. I think what is required is that the Central government must follow the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations of debt restructuring. Then Bengal will move further forward. If it doesn’t, we will continue on our path that we are on today – lowering debt-GDP ratio, increasing tax-GDP revenue in every way, to make the state fiscally more sound.
Final question – It’s quite hot, so what are you doing to stay fit?
Dr Mitra: I stay fit by drinking fluids upto 3 litres a day and that includes electral and nimbupani. That’s the only way to bring all the minerals that go out of your body through perspiration, back into your system. And I am fighting fit!