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Economist’s Column
Decentralisation in West Bengal - A Counter Culture?

By Apoorba Kumar Mukherjee

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usm-red.gif (844 bytes)Growing Isolation of Sangh Parivar
Political Comment By HKS Surjeet
usm-red.gif (844 bytes)Economist Column
Decentralisation in West Bengal


Going by official records, we have about 3.9 million beneficiaries of recent land reforms implemented in West Bengal. They, together will their dependents constitute bulk of the rural population of with their dependents constitute bulk of the rural population of West Bengal waiting to emerge as viable producers and consumers in the rural economy. To use modern cliches, they constitute the ill or well formed social capital of West Bengal. We have got used, since Independence, to a culture that looks (down?) upon them as objects, targets and beneficiaries of the development package, variously advertised and administered by the developmental tourists. Decentralisation as an effective counter-strategy has to base itself on a counter culture informed by a different vocabulary. We the academicians, policymakers, administrators and planners should undertake an exercise in self-introspection before going about our search or research for the ‘targets’ of decentralisation.

The political campaign for land reforms begun by the left and democratic forces of the country right from the pre-independence days and sustained in West Bengal for nearly three decades after Independence by the peasant organisations has created since 1977 the ideal ambience for the introduction of decentralised planning. The culture of this long political battle has displaced old values, old loyalties and old forms of dispensation of justice.

We are yet to educate ourselves adequately to accept and appreciate this change of culture in our dealing in various capacities with the rural poor whom as producer, planner and activist have become self-consciously assertive. As far as West Bengal is concerned, I am not much worried about 'empowerment' of the rural poor. They are sufficiently empowered by now. I am bothered about our own hesitation in laying our services at their door.

The social awareness and zeal for community service possessed aplenty by the rural poor in West Bengal have been demonstrated time and again since 1978. Mention has been made of their self dedicated service through the institution of the Panchayats during the devastating flood in 1978 The Hon'ble Finance Minister Dr. Asim Dasgupta cited the instance of construction of a bridge over Darakeswar river in Kashipur, Purulia in one of his lectures in 1992. Such instances may be multiplied through more intensive local studies. They point towards the unmistakable evidence that much energy and initiative life in waiting to be turned into community benefits provided we are willing to tap the same. Decentralisation, as has been rightly pointed out by its votaries in the light of their experiences in Kerala, West Bengal and Karnataka, apart from being a goal in itself is also a means to economising the cost of development and harnessing local initiative.

Mention must also be made of the resurgent political consciousness of the rural poor. Lieten has rightly referred to a decline in the Dapat of the village aristocracy and representatives of the local state, the police and the bureaucracy, in his study of the district of Birbhum. People have now come forward to judge critically issues of development without fear or favour. This is another aspect of community gain achieved through a sustained process of decentralisation. To appreciate this rise in the level of popular consciousness again, we have to learn to communicate with those whom we had so long treated as objects. Our difficulties in interacting with the new social groups churned out through the process of decentralisation being first with our language. We are, with honourable exceptions, poor in english but even poorer in the vernacular. Decentralisation, to be meaningful and effective, requires diffusion of knowledge and information through a more intelligible medium of communication. And a feedback in terms of local knowledge and wisdom has to be encouraged in all interactional situations. We must not remould the make-up of people's representatives at the grassroots level into carbon copies of the urban baboos, in the name of cultural upliftment but move in the opposite direction of putting an end to the awe-inspiring babu culture.

Planners, policy makers and academicians will agree, perhaps, that decentralisation is a conscious, political movement entailing conflicts of power and interest, pitting social groups against one another and generating social strains and tensions, priorities of decentralised planning are likely to be attacked under the spell of liberalisation no less in India than in other South Asian countries as the ILO study has shown. Resource crunch is inevitable under such circumstances. And yet by guaranteeing constitutional recognition to local self-governing Institutions, we have built up a multi-federal state structure with as many as five distinct layers of Government - the Union, the state, the District, the Block and the village/town. Administrative decentralisation is therefore a fait accompli now. The choice is between putting it merely on paper and taking it to heart. If we opt for the latter, we have to face the challenge of a major qualitative change in our academic as well as administrative approach to the new realities. Unlearning past prejudices is an arduous task, involving struggle against the self. But beginning a new learning might be enjoyable.

Writer is Professor of Barddhaman University

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