Elections in West Bengal are politically charged affairs. The recently concluded Panchayati Raj elections were probably more so than usual. The current round of polls, the 7th since the first local government elections in 1978, is significant because it comes after a string of incidents in West Bengal. In the last three years issues like land acquisition (including the violent agitations in Singur and Nandigram), the PDS scam, outbreak of Bird-flu, the bungled Rizwan-ur-Rehman case, and the bundling out of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen have rocked the state. Adding to the volatile mix is the state government’s controversial industrialization policy, of which Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is the most fervent cheerleader. This is the first time in the Left Front’s 31-year-rule that so much dissent has been publicly articulated in their bastion of rural Bengal. No wonder a nervous CPI (M), in the run up to the polls, was trying to protect its turf amid bickering with its own coalition partners and a reinvigorated opposition.
The Panchayat polls were held in three phases on May 11, 14 and 18 for the three tier system: Gram Panchayats (GP) being the lowest representing a cluster of villages, Panchayat Samity (PS) covering a block and the apex Zilla Parishad (ZP) at the district level. The Left Front, specifically the CPI (M), suffered a jolt in its bastion of rural Bengal with the opposition winning 4 of the 17 ZPs in West Bengal. The Congress retained the Malda ZP but lost in Murshidabad, its stronghold which went to the Left Front (LF). But it made up for its loss by wresting North Dinajpur from the Left. Meanwhile the Left lost East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas to the Trinamool Congress and retained North 24 Parganas by a thin margin. The tally of the LF decreased from 15 district councils in 2003 to 13 in 2008. The LF performed strongest in a broad swathe across South and central West Bengal and the districts of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri in the North. The district that the Left lost, East Medinipur, witnessed a violent agitation against land acquisition in Nandigram. The TMC was the biggest gainer this time round as it won 2 ZPs where it had drawn a blank in 2003.
In panchayat samities the Left won 183 against a combined opposition tally of 137, down 30 per cent as compared to its 2003 tally where it won 285 samities. The TMC gained the most by winning 79 samities up from 12 in 2003. There are a total of 8,798 panchayat samities and 41,516 gram panchayat seats.
The results indicate chinks in the Left’s armour, but it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that it is a rejection of the CPI (M)’s industrialization policy because it has posted big victories in other districts which have also witnessed land-acquisition: In West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and Burdhaman the Left has improved its 2003 tally.
To understand why the Panchayat elections are so important it is necessary to understand how the system was introduced and how it functions. West Bengal was the first state to start the exercise of handing over implementation and maintenance of rural projects to elected bodies of local self-government in 1978. Since then elections to three-tier system have been held on a regular basis every five years. The ruling Left Front, a coalition of left parties of which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the major partner, has won an overall majority in every election.
The period when Panchayat raj was formally instituted corresponds to the beginning of LF rule in West Bengal. In 1977, when the LF assumed office the CPI (M) had almost no network or cadres in rural West Bengal. Its urban support base was restricted mainly to Kolkata. The party realized that if they had to stay in power they had to expand in the rural hinterlands. They did this by declaring that jotdars (middle and big peasants) were now welcome to join the party since their interests were not opposed to the Party’s. Hitherto the party had sided with the poor and landless peasants. This action resulted in the jotdars deserting the congress en masse and joining the CPI (M) thus changing its character from a party representing the landless and rural poor to one that represented the interests of the rural elite. At the same time it expanded the party’s base by allowing it to sink deep roots in rural West Bengal. In the 1978 and 1983 elections only 7 per cent and 8 per cent of elected representatives were landless peasants while 93 per cent were from landowning classes.
The process of land reforms initiated by the LF government, known as Operation Barga, further consolidated their hold over rural areas. However, the two processes were not taken to their logical conclusions. Says Debabrata Bandopadhyay, former land reform commissioner of West Bengal, “Operation Barga registered the names of around 15 lakh bargadars, but did not grant them ownership rights over the land. Similarly, the LF government has not devolved any significant power to the panchayats.” In fact, far from empowering villagers at the local level the panchayati raj system has become a “wide nexus of corruption” according to Manoj Bhattacharya former MP and spokesperson of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) an LF constituent. “If people oppose the ruling party then they are deprived of the amenities provided by the panchayat system and threatened,” he adds.
This was illustrated by a visit to Kemia-Khamarpara panchayat on the outskirts of Kolkata in North 24 Parganas district. These are the rural areas adjoining the up-market Rajarhat and Salt lake localities. The urban-rural divide is stark indeed. Driving through Kolkata’s commercial district of Salt Lake is a revelation. Many of the gleaming steel and glass buildings housing IT majors wouldn’t look out of place in Mumbai or Bangalore. The rural hinterland of Kemia-Khamarpara is clearly changing. A board in front of a field announces that this is the site for ‘La Martiniere School for Boys’. Another sign points the way to a ‘vedic retreat’. Manas Ghosh, president of the local Trinamool Congress (TMC) unit is predicting a rout for the CPI (M) because people are fed up with corruption and cronyism by panchayats led by the party. A case in point is the Union Government’s NREGA scheme which guarantees a minimum of 100 days of work per person in rural areas. Since the job cards are issued by the panchayats the party has entered their men’s names in the rolls. “These people do not work, but get paid anyway while the deserving ones go jobless,” says Ghosh. There are also allegations that CPI (M) cadre are intimidating opposition candidates into not filing their nominations.
The fact that the CPI (M) has a vice like grip in rural West Bengal was driven home during the Nandigram uprising in 2007. Nandigram was a solid red bastion till plans for taking over farmland for a chemical hub was announced. Overnight party workers, disgusted with the party attempting to shortchange them, switched allegiance to the BUPC. “One important lesson of the 11 month struggle was the absolute need for unity to defeat the CPI (M),” declares Arjun Sengupta, a government employee and Assistant Secretary of the non-party West Bengal Government Employees Union (WBGEU). One factor that has benefited the LF hitherto was the feeble resistance put up by a disunited and fractious opposition. Post-Nandigram, there seems to be a realization for some kind of united front. Thus an alliance was forged between the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and the TMC. This unlikely pairing of a “left” and “right” party seems strange till you realize the symbiotic nature of the alliance: the TMC contributes the numbers (it is the only opposition party that has some kind of mass base) and the SUCI contributes the intellectual capital. There is a possibility of many more such informal understandings at the lower levels among parties to defeat LF candidates. Further, even LF front partners may be working to undermine each other and big brother CPI (M). A report in the Statesman on May 20 quotes Left Front Chairman Biman Bose saying that “the LF partners’ incapacity to evaluate their organisational strength has posed a problem in unifying the Left”. The report also quotes him saying that “several thousand candidates of some of the LF partners are contesting against the nominees of other partners. At some seats the LF partners have been contesting on the basis of an understanding with other forces”.
Pravas Ghosh, Secretary of the WB unit of SUCI, explained the alliance in terms of putting up a common front to “break the nexus of vote-bank politics controlled by the rural gentry and mafia that the panchayats have turned into.” The SUCI is contesting 1,775 gram panchyat, 427 panchayat samity and 63 zilla parishad seats throughout WB.
On the other hand is ‘Babu Sheik’ of Chanduli village in Bardhaman district. Babu was with the CPI (M) and a member of the party’s village committee. The village committee has the final word on implementation of local projects by the panchayat. Babu was aghast with the rampant corruption regarding the distribution of rations at the fair price shop. “Rice and wheat meant for above poverty line (APL) and below poverty line villagers was diverted to the open market where it was sold at a profit,” he says. When he protested he was suspended and implicated in a number of false cases in the local police station. He then joined the CPI, an LF constituent, but is working to split the left vote to defeat the CPI (M) candidate.
The PDS scam hit the headlines in late 2007. The basic issue is that fair price shops, through which essential commodities like rice, wheat and kerosene are distributed has been misused by the ruling party. Essential supplies are sold in the open market while the BPL people do not receive their share. Villagers in Bankura, Birbhum and Bardhaman took matters in their own hands and demanded their rightful share outside ration shops and in many instances beat up the dealers and burnt the shops. Many of the dealers were connected to the ruling party. This surge of rural anger came right on the heels of the Nandigram violence.
The political space vacated by the CPI (M) is being filled by other political parties. For instance, CPI (ML) Liberation is trying to represent the rural poor, a constituency that was once the calling card of the CPI (M). CPI (ML) Liberation is one of the splinters of the CPI (ML) party formed after the exodus of an extreme-left faction of the CPI (M) in 1967 after the Naxalbari uprising. I traveled to Mahipalpur village in Hooghly district to see how CPI (ML) Liberation was planning to contest the polls. Hoogly, incidentally, is where Singur – which witnessed a violent agitation against land acquisition for Tata’s Nano car factory – is located.
CPI (ML) liberation is contesting in 2000 odd GP seats throughout WB. The party is positioning itself as the guardian of the rights of the landless peasants, or so claims Shankar Baul Das, who is contesting on a party ticket for the 28 Bolagarh ZP seat. Some of the demands on which he is canvassing include raising the number of work days under NREGA from the current minimum of 100 to 200 and raising the minimum wage to Rs 100 per day. The party has found some traction here after a near revolt of agricultural labourers after the CPI (M) dominated panchayat reneged on wages owed to them. Then there is the issue of Singur. The issue of land acquisition will play some part in determining the fortunes of candidates who contest on various party tickets though it is difficult to predict its exact impact on the final outcome. Land acquisition is also contentious because of the sheer number of people who depend on agriculture in WB. According to a Liberation activist, there is a lot of disguised unemployment in agriculture in the state because productivity has peaked due to the intensive use of machinery and pesticides. This has led to a lot of out-migration of agricultural and other labour from West Bengal. So is industrialization the solution, I ask him? “How can fertile farmland be handed over to industry even as food prices are rising. In any case, instead of inviting new industry how about reviving all the sick industrial units in the state,” he retorts.
The wider debate about industrialization is West Bengal has been sidelined by political nitpicking. But the fact remains that the CPI (M) remains as committed as ever to it. On May 1 I was on a bus traveling to North Bengal when I saw something interesting. It was an advertisement issued by the government in the English-language newspapers commemorating May Day. But instead of the traditional hammer and sickle, the sickle had morphed into an industrial style cog-wheel with serrated edges and the hammer had also acquired industrial appendages!
North Bengal is known for its tea estates. Darjeeling tea is famous worldwide. A lower grade of tea is grown in neighbouring Jalpaiguri district, known as Dooars chai. The problems affecting agriculture in North Bengal are well documented, but officially unrecognized. Jalpaiguri – which lies at the confluence of Northeastern India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Bihar and Nepal – is home to a variety of people. There are 131 tea gardens in Jalpaiguri employing 2.5 lakh workers, mainly adivasis from Jharkhand and Nepalis. The town of Banerhat near the Bhutan border lies close to a cluster of tea gardens. I visited some of them with Victor Basu who is trying to organize the labour there. As I rode with him I noticed graffiti scribbled on the tea garden fences: We demand the immediate creation of Gorkhaland. The old agitation for Gorkhaland had flared up again under a new leadership. The Indian-Nepalese concentrated in Darjeeling want their own state to be carved out of the hill areas of WB. There is a substantial population of Indians of Nepali descent here and there is talk of including certain blocks of Jalpaiguri in the proposed new state.
Earlier in the day I was talking about the role of panchayats with Sarita Pradhan, a labourer from Kathalguri tea garden, in the office of Dooars Jagran, the organisation the Victor runs. Kathalguri shut down in 2002 when the owner ‘abandoned’ it and left the workers to their fate. Since then Dooars Jagran has recorded 525 starvation deaths in Kathalguri alone and another 300 in Ramjhoda. Victor estimates the total number of deaths in Jalpaiguri’s closed tea gardens at between 900-1000. Of course, the statistics and cause of death are disputed by the government.
Panchayati raj was introduced in the tea gardens only in 1997. There is a lot less awareness about the role of panchayats. Sarita didn’t show any enthusiasm to vote because no benefits have accrued from local self-government. A ‘people’s manifesto’ is being prepared by Dooars Jagran in association with the West Bengal Education Network (WBEN), a statewide coalition of activists, NGO’s and self-help groups. The manifesto contains 12 demands to be presented to the candidates in the polls when they come canvassing for votes in the tea gardens. Among them: implementation of NREGA, social audit of public finances and provision of proper education facilities.
At Diana tea garden Vijay Singh, a temporary worker at Diana points out that the integrated child development scheme which is implemented by the panchayat is not functioning properly because the ICDS centre has no building. The scheme is meant for taking care of the children of working women. But when it rains, which is quite often, the children have to remain at home. “The government declared the formation of gram unnayan samities in every panchayat in 2004 to ensure greater participation to solve just these issues, but it has not been vary effective,” says Vijay. The Sampoorna Grameen Rojgar Yojna, another Central scheme to be implemented by the panchayats, has not functioned effectively here. Under SGRY Rs 62 has to be given out per worker per day which includes a minimum of 5 kg of rice at a rate of Rs 6/kg. Party controlled panchayats have given less and pocketed the difference.
The final halt on my way back to Kolkata was at Malda. This district is one of the more backward ones and has a host of rural problems: trafficking of women, rural poverty, etc. But what I found was even worse. From Malda I headed to Bangitola GP, which lies in Kaliachak 2 block, bordering the Ganga. There is a huge problem of soil erosion in the villages bordering the Ganga. For the past 50 years around 40,000 families in Malda have lost their land due to soil erosion. The problem began with the construction of the Farraka barrage further downstream, near the border with Bangladesh. The barrage destroyed the natural flow of the Ganga which started overflowing its banks upstream.
I was sitting in the office of the Ganga Bhangan Pratirodh Action Nagric Committee (Ganga PAN). Ironically, their office had to be relocated here from Panchanandpur three years ago because that village went underwater! Some of the members of the organization had lost their homes and fields 6-7 times. Khitir Bux, an office bearer of Ganga PAN committee says, “We estimate the number of displaced people here at 2 lakhs”. People who cannot afford to buy new land simply move into shantytowns or migrate. Malda has one of the highest out migration rates in West Bengal. With poverty and migration come the inevitable trafficking of people, which includes women and children. There are a lot of women from these areas who are promised jobs and marriage outside the state by touts, but instead end up in bars and brothels. In fact, studies by NGOs have shown that a disproportionate number of women working in the ‘dance’ bars and brothels in Mumbai are from West Bengal. “Every day around 350-400 people leave Malda,” says Ruhul Amin a resident of Bangitola.
The results of the panchayat polls may not necessarily reflect the turbulence in West Bengal’s politics. That there has been a dent in the Left’s support and the opposition has gained is undeniable, but overall, the Left still has a majority, though not as commanding as in the past. One question that will confront the Left and which will have to be resolved is how to continue the industrialization project in a manner that does not alienate the population at large.
Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in Himal Magazine in July.