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May 27, 2012

It will Take Years to Wash Away Filth Left Behind by Communists

It will Take Years to Wash Away Filth Left Behind by Communists

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee says her government will pursue Expressions of Interest worth over 95,000 crore received from business houses, to take Bengal forward from hope to reality in her second year in office. In her first interview with the Indian media since completing her tumultuous first year, she talks to Basistha Basu about her plan to turn around the state, her penchant for staying in headlines for all the wrong reasons and more. Excerpts:

Are you satisfied with your government`s performance in its first year? 

I can only humbly state that our achievements have been multi-dimensional, covering a whole range of areas, and personally very satisfying. West Bengal was in a state of complete rot, courtesy 34 years of Marxist misrule. We started the reforms deep down, taking a bottom-up approach. No flashy moves would suffice. If Bengal is to be restored to its old glory, one had to start deep down in the system. For the effects to show on the surface, it will take time. Our success in curbing Left-wing extremism in Jangalmahal has begun to show results already. We achieved this through a two pronged strategy of intelligence based security action and a massive development in the region. We have attempted to correct the deep structural problem that had arisen due to CPM`s heinous policy of upholding narrow partisan interests over professional governance. We are trying to rectify deep-rooted maladies in law enforcement, health care, water resource development, power generation, education, technical training and skill development. I can go on listing all the measures we have introduced to benefit people, but briefly, let me assure you that work is going on at a dizzying pace.

Do you sometimes feel you were better off during your campaigning days than as the chief minister of a near-bankrupt state?

(Smiles) It used to be said that if Bengal were to be auctioned, no one would pay even a rupee for it! But seriously, when we took over, Bengal was in a mess. It will take years to wash away all the filth left behind by the communists, to make Bengal shine once again. This is a huge challenge for me and my team. I have personally never shied away from a challenge, and we will succeed in this too.

Do you feel let down by the Centre`s response to your demands for the state? 

That is there for all to see. We have asked them many times, but we are not beggars. No one from Bengal will go (to Delhi) with a begging bowl. We have a strong case. Everyone knows we have not been granted any special favours.

Do you have an alternate plan in place, in case the Centre does not provide debt relief to the state? 

I wish I could tell you, oh yes, don`t worry, but I can`t because the problem is so huge. The outstanding debt is about 2.3 lakh crore. Of this, the Left Front government had left an uncovered debt of 2 lakh crore. It did not pass the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, and yet each time it borrowed additional funds, it got the Centre�s permission to do so. So, why shouldn`t the Centre take some responsibility for the financial mess that Bengal is in today? The debt to GSDP ratio of Bengal is the highest, at 38%, according to the finance commission, while it is less than 30% in both Kerala and Punjab. My government isn`t responsible for this; we inherited this. The Centre gave moratorium on interest repayment to Punjab twice and also looked at debt write-off. That`s all we are asking for such a moratorium for three years, so that we can recover a bit.

Meanwhile, to tide over things here, we have raised additional revenue of 4,000 crore in 2011-12, and plan to raise another 6,000 crore in 2012-13. Our e-governance reform has led to much higher compliance. We are doing our best, but we simply cannot handle a 2.3 lakh crore debt burden ourselves. This debt trap is a vicious cycle and we cannot do without some legitimate relief. After all, we are accountable to over 90 million people of this state who have placed their trust in us.

Do you believe the UPA needs you more than you need it? 

(Smiles) It is not about needing more or less. It is about the political reality. After Congress, the Trinamool is the largest

party in the UPA-II. We want UPA-II to last its full term, but we must be given respect. Let me tell you something frankly. When it comes to appointments of governors or nominated members etc, we have never made any demands. That, the Congress decides. We have our manifesto and we may be a small party, but to us, self-respect and love of the people is everything.

Among the names doing the rounds as possible candidates for the upcoming presidential election, who, in your view, will make the best President?

(A big smile breaks on her face) I am talking to ET, right? So, let us resist speculation (laughing). Whom the Congress party will name is its internal matter. Let us be patient. There is still time.

There is a perception that your party and government begin and end with you. Do you plan to keep it that way?

(With a fleeting frown) I can see you asking the same question to Sonia ji, Nitish Kumar or Jayalalithaa. Yes, it is true that our party is like a big family and my colleagues treat me as the head of the family. We have our systems, our talent, our resources. We have a totally democratic set-up, but very often the party authorises me to take the final call. This is our party matter, so please�(somewhat reflectively) I am not any golden girl born with a golden spoon. My years of struggle and commitment to the people are my strength. Let people judge, no problem. I am always with the people.

A year ago, many people looked upon you as a messiah. Do you believe that perception has taken a knock?

That`s understandable. People expected me to change Bengal perhaps overnight, which was not possible. I did deliver Bengal once, driving the Marxists out of power, and I hope to do so again by pulling it up from the morass it is in. But this will take time. Look at the unemployment scenario, for example. The communists left behind 10 million jobless. Over the past year, we have created 500,000 jobs, and our target for 2012-13 is one million. We hope to accelerate the pace, so that at least by the end of our first five years we succeed in wiping the backlog to a large extent.

You have been getting a lot of bad press of late. Does that worry you? 

The media will write what it has to and I have always said that I do not mind constructive criticism. But what I do mind is motivated and planned vilification, or outright character assassination by a small group of people and a section of the media which has deep vested interests.

Among your decisions that drew flak in the media was the removal of railway minister Dinesh Trivedi. Were you angry with him because he raised fares, or because he did so without your approval?

The Trinamool Congress believes in the Vision 2020 document, outlined by the Indian Railways three years ago. Any attempt to derail this vision is unacceptable. Also, we are committed to the safety and welfare of the common man. A hike in fares is not the solution. Other options have to be explored. The Railways have to find the right balance between commercial viability and social responsibility. It is the lifeline of the nation.

Then, you were accused of intolerance over the cartoon controversy. Would you like to tell us whether (a) you laugh at yourself; (b) you can tolerate criticism; and (c) you have a habit of taking every comment to heart?

(a) I can and I do so often; (b) I can, if such criticism is constructive; and (c) No, not always. (She puts her phone away and looks straight) Now if that has answered your three questions, let me tell you that the Trinamool Congress, more than many other parties, has benefited tremendously from its partnership with the social media. As such, we don�t just tolerate social media, we cherish it. Having said that, we also realise the anarchic nature of its universe. It is impossible to police it 24×7. Social media plays by certain rules, some unique to its ecosystem and still evolving, while others are more universal. One may need to be careful about these. We have, in recent days, come across some material on the social media, which I want to tell you about. There was, for example, a blog post that incited hate against other ethnic groups, an image that portrayed a deity with the face of a dog, and a social media account that was hacked into by someone impersonating a schoolmate and using this account to tell a college in the USA that the account-holder was not interested in the college�s admission offer. It may be difficult to pre-empt uploading of such material, but it is potentially very dangerous. Calling for steps to check the damage from such material is, I think, perfectly legitimate.

Looking back at your recent interaction with students at the Town Hall, do you think you could have handled the situation differently than walking out of the event abruptly? 

The audience was supposed to reflect a cross section of Bengal, but it was more like a planted gathering. I was shocked to hear later that there was an allegation of authoritarianism against me � against someone who has fought for 40 long years against the authoritarianism of the Marxists, the super fascists. But, talking about hindsight, well, as you know, I am an emotional person. It is better to be transparent and emotional, because I have nothing to hide. People know that. Maybe that is my minus point (laughs).

What do you regard as your major achievements over the past year? 

Betterment of conditions for the minorities, who form a large part of the state�s population and have been neglected for long. Then, e-governance; public-private partnerships for highways, feeder road construction and 34 multi-speciality hospitals; single-window application system and reduction of red tape to start new businesses in the state; ongoing reforms in the education sector and the appointment of 46,000 new teachers; creation of four new police commissionerates in densely populated areas to strengthen law and order and recruitment of about 35,000 police personnel. Last, but not least, resolution of the Jangalmahal crisis and cooling of the Darjeeling hills. Look at the number of tourists flocking to the Dooars and Darjeeling this year. Besides, of course, we took steps to boost agriculture and manufacturing.

What specific steps have you taken for agriculture and manufacturing?

Let me first point out that the average annual agricultural growth in the state had declined sharply from 17% in 1965-76 to 8% in 2000-07. Now, we have a 70% rural population, which we need to look after. Over the next four years, we plan to restore agricultural growth to its earlier pace at a sustainable basis. From 2011-12, we first started building cold storages in all 341 administrative blocks and a kisan mandi alongside each. Much more is on the cards. Similarly, manufacturing in Bengal had declined from 12% in 1976-77 to a mere 3% in 2008-09. We are determined to reverse this trend.

Do you plan to woo the big guns of India Inc as well, or do you envision growth only through small and medium scale enterprises? 

Big guns or small bullets, I do not know. But what I do know is that we have already received Expressions of Interest worth over 95,000 crore.

Could you please elaborate on this? 

Let me just name a few – TVS, a GAIL joint venture in Greater Calcutta Gas Supply Company, a SAIL JV with Indian Railways to manufacture wagons in Asansol, a Frito Lay project, which is a unique case of aggregating small potato farmers. This is just the beginning.

What are your priorities for 2012-13?

We had to spend our first three months just fishing out files from the various departments at Writers� Buildings. So, all the work that we did was actually done in the balance nine months. In our second year, we will focus only on plan implementation. On the industry front, we will concentrate on the EoIs to take Bengal forward from hope to reality. These are exciting times.



Courtesy : The Economic Times