It's really been a long hiatus from the blog sphere. I have tried to mend my way over and over again, since the heady days of "one-blog-a-day" of the first half of 2006 to the lethargy of "one-post-a-year" of 2011.
A lot has changed around me as well, perhaps the reason why I never found time to reflect and document everything that went through my head. I got married, India won the "cup that matters" and the 34 year old left front government in my home state was asked to leave by the masses swayed by the ‘winds of change’.
After having spent a nice relaxed weekend and deciding to let my work rule the designated 12 hours of my day and not more, I finally found some time to reflect on what I would like to see in the City of Joy and the towns around it, now that the much hyped change has finally happened. It's not too ambitious, hence not too difficult to fulfill either. Things that we would need for our capital city to stand at par with Chennai and Delhi (I would rather not want to get Kolkata comparable to Mumbai for obvious reasons), things that we would need districts, cities and towns to stand at par with those of the more developed states across North India and things that will make reaching my native village not a task akin to some less celebrated adventure sport.
So, here goes...
1. Roads - Maybe we could start with mending the broken ones (in Kolkata and the district towns) before building new ones in the towns and leading to the villages. Given the lack of public transport that uses rail or waterways in the state, not only will roads open the door to realization of the dream of a strong public transport system in the state; it will also open up the state in terms of investment in the lesser known regions. Though the “investment-driving” roadways like the National Highways continue to be the prerogative of the government at the centre, the capillaries will need to be built by the state so that connectivity provided by the National Highways are able to deliver the benefits through to the deep pockets of rural Bengal.
2. Urban Infrastructure
Sewage Systems - When we are talking roads in Bengal, can sewers be far away? :P The sewage systems in a lot of cities, Kolkata being the foremost, can do with some serious urban planning and rework.
Public Transport System – Why do we have to face jams and pay out an insane amount of money to travel 200 kilometers in an AC bus in a state which pioneered the Metro Rail? I can’t say the public transport system in Bengal is terrible (being a resident of the Millennium City where public transport is quite a joke). But there could be role models to follow, like the city of Chennai in particular and the state of Tamil Nadu as a whole.
Electricity & Internet – Penetration of the internet in Bengal continues to be one of lowest in the country. Load shedding is a common phenomenon in the towns and villages, though Kolkata seems to have managed to get out of its clutches pretty effectively.
Airport – Having a single Airport in a State is a shame. Period. For the sake of numbers though you can pull in the airport at Bagdogra. However, in terms of connectivity, Kolkata airport alone serves as the single operational airport for anyone who wishes to fly out of the state and even some parts of Jharkhand. One might be surprised to note that almost everyone who lives in Dhanbad and needs to board a flight has to do so from Kolkata. Hence the completion and opening of the planned airport on the Durgapur-Andal stretch will be a major performance point in the new government’s report card.
3. Services – Thankfully, during the last half decade of its rule the left front government decided to remain uncharacteristically quiet about the software giants setting up shop in Kolkata. Perhaps because their beloved CITU couldn’t make a headway into the hitherto unknown culture of an organization without a trade union. The services industry seems to be well grounded in Bengal, with the presence of Wipro, TCS, CTS and Accenture in the capital.
Maintaining healthy growth of the services industry will prove to be a major challenge though. While it has the capacity to attract talent back into the state, the brand new software set-ups will take some time to gain the same strength that they have in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Gurgaon.
4. Manufacturing – Here’s where the mammoth rebuilding exercise lies. Except for a dying mining business and the once-sick steel industry (both centered on the Raniganj-Dhanbad coal belt), there’s hardly any other manufacturing organization alive in West Bengal. The likes of British Oxygen and Dunlop have been clear victims of the Unionism in Bengal.
Investment in green field plants, capital projects, logistics management, construction and commissioning activities have to be invited in every area of manufacturing including Oil & Gas, Automobile, Steel and Cement. Engineering a re-birth of the manufacturing sector, in my mind, is the toughest challenge faced by the new government
5. Basic Education – The communist government is perhaps solely responsible for handicapping a generation of students who could not afford convent education by removing English from the curriculum. Thanks to my parents, I have never had to worry much about not knowing English, but not everyone is as lucky.
Cleaning up the curriculum, getting the right people to teach in government schools through sanitizing the School Service Commission examinations and transparent and timely administration of the education machinery could bear fruit within a decade.
6. Education Hub – West Bengal is one of the only two states in the country to have a fully functional IIT as well as an IIM (other one being Uttar Pradesh) along with six government run medical colleges, such exalted and revered institutions like the Indian Statistical Institute, Jadavpur University, B.E. College (Shibpur), the Presidency College and St. Xavier’s, other than the NIT at Durgapur and more than fifty other Engineering colleges.
The opportunity for the government to make the state one of the most sought after destinations for a complete education is present and very much realizable. Though it might sound like a distant dream for a state still struggling to get it’s economics in shape, it does have the potential to brand the state for what it was known in the it’s days of glory, intellectual supremacy.
7. Productivity and Yield Improvement - In one of my older posts, I have wallowed over how sophisticated machines and extensive farming practices have done for Uttar Pradesh and Haryana what intensive farming and age old techniques of hand-sowing of paddy couldn’t do for our farmers.
I always felt it was not only about who owned the land and who got the grains that grew on the land. It was much more. It was about how much we are reaping from an acre of farming space. Our paddy fields are perhaps not best suited for the sophisticated machinery, but we can definitely find ways of increasing yield of the crops and productivity of our farmers.
8. Public hospitals – In one word, the public hospitals in Bengal are scary. I haven’t had a change to enter a public hospital in any other state, hence am ill-equipped to make a comparison. However, on an absolute scale, we can do much better as a state. I have seen mice of the size of moles scurrying around the floor, mosquito nets strung on saplings in a feeble attempt to protect malaria patients from further mosquito bites. Anyone who has spent some time of his adolescence reading Bengali newspapers (like Anandabazar Patrika, Bartaman or Pratidin) would definitely have come across incidents of stray dogs found roaming around in maternity wards. There’s a lot of scope for improvement. I shall leave it at that.
9. Public Distribution System – A number of kids from my generation would have had the experience of standing in serpentine queues in front of Fair Price shops for wheat, sugar and the occasional kerosene distribution. It was a fortnightly fixture on my weekend from 4th standard to 9th standards (after which I was told that spending my time standing at the ration shop queue is of lesser consequence than studying for my board exams). There were so many instances when people never got their quota because they were late by a day or because they were at the end of the queue. Maybe, the PDS system will get cleaned up as a byproduct of cleaning up the party cadre which has imbedded itself in the fabric of government “work” in Bengal. Perhaps it will need more effort than just that.
10. Bengal is again unique in being one of the few states which have a beach (Digha), the geographic specialty in form of the swamps of sunderbans and the mountains of Darjeeling. Its historic & spiritual richness is unparalleled (the city of Kolkata, Dakshineshwar, Tarapeeth, the terracotta temples of Bankura and Bishnupur to name a few) and its cultural contribution to the country is significant.
Tourism, which can be a huge revenue earner for the government, is being abused by quacks and home grown tour companies which sometimes leave tourisms stranded, further destroying a high potential industry through its callousness and greed. West Bengal tourism needs to be revamped and re-constructed to popularize the state and bring in the much needed cash to reinvest in welfare.