On the issue of port development in West Bengal, and the development of the proposed Tajpur port in particular, the Union government has been showing a stance that reveals its antipathy to the development of infrastructure, communication, and economy of this Bengali homeland.
When the BJP-led NDA government took over the Union government of the Indian Union in 2016, what they proposed was “cooperative federalism.”
That slogan now stands exposed, as an extremely naked form of centralisation has taken shape. This spans from huge powers enjoyed by extra constitutional entities like Niti Ayog to blackmailing states on UDAY and APMC acts, as well as various other despicable ruses to disempower states -- economically, administratively, and politically.
In short, Delhi is running an unprecedented political conspiracy against the federal structure of the Indian Union, all under the public relation exercise called “cooperative federalism.”
Now, in case of West Bengal, it has gone one step further by threatening to renege on a port project promise and becoming an active inhibitor in the economic development of West Bengal. It is a matter of utter shamelessness and victimisation of a state that is on an economic recovery path.
After destroying the Calcutta port through systematic abuse and denial of funds, the Union government announced last year, with much publicity, its plan to develop a port in Sagar, West Bengal.
After having systematically denied funds to West Bengal for ages in every field and continually de-industrialising it for decades by the freight equalisation policy, this announcement was indeed some cheerful news for the people of a state which contributes hugely to the Union exchequer through its coal, jute, tea, and income tax but gets some pitifully low amount of funds in return.
This is the case with many states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. So, these so-called “central funds” are funds generated in the state itself -- received via Delhi, which keeps its cut.
However, business has been booming in the seas of West Bengal. Kolkata Port Trust had its highest ever container in the current financial year 2016-17. In view of this increase in demand, the West Bengal government also planned its own separate port at Tajpur, backed up by private investments.
In the flawed federal system of the Indian Union that doesn’t allow a state government to chart its economic development path, even in the permission for setting up of a forward-looking initiative like the Tajpur port, the Union government has tried its best to spread thorns in its path.
At first, the Union government simply resorted to blackmail, saying that, if Tajpur port was set up, Delhi would pull out of its Sagar port plan.
Gone are the tall assurances made publicly. Gone are the concerns for railway connectivity that were promised.
It shows that notwithstanding its tall claims of “sabka sath, sabka vikas,” (with everyone, for everyone’s development) it’s finally the state government that has a single-minded responsibility and concern about the welfare of the people of West Bengal.
The Union government is simply interested in grabbing a share of lucrative resources.
States that have solid financial independence are tougher to make slaves out of
Thus, it wanted 75% stake at the Tajpur port. In its magnanimity, the West Bengal government offered a compromise and offered 25% stake. But for the imperious government of Delhi, that is not enough, and since then it has done all in its might to create road-block after road-block in the creation of the ports at Tajpur and Sagar, raising specious concerns about viability.
That is quite rich from a government that runs an airline with tens of thousands of crores in a subsidy plan. The Union government is thus becoming an obstacle in the economic development of West Bengal which otherwise has potential in the port infrastructure business and logistics field.
This situation would probably not have arisen if the West Bengal government had promised to hand over the Tajpur port development project to a particular Gujarat-based corporate group, a hot favourite of the Union government which bags huge projects and near-monopoly rights for an array of money-making businesses, all approved by the government.
It is probably not accidental that the current prime minister of the union government had been seen using private plane facilities belonging to this same corporate group, which also is among the top 10 loan defaulters in the Indian Union.
With such defaulting crooks being among Delhi’s favourites, who needs Pakistan-printed fake notes to destroy the economy?
West Bengal is the only state in the Indian Union’s eastern coast without a deep sea port which is reckoned to be crucial in the economic development.
This shows the amount of neglect and loot that West Bengal has been subjected to since Partition.
What is interesting is that no viability questions are being raised about the proposed Tajpur port, vis-à-vis the private Subarnarekha port in Odisha that’s quite near to Tajpur.
Thus, it is a question of stake and not the red herring of viability that is the core issue.
The only naysayers are the Union government’s port officials and shipping ministry. The Union government is actually all set to take back the Rs515 crore grant released for Sagar port.
The long-term game-plan of the Union government is clear: It wants to starve the states from all autonomous, lucrative, viable, and elastic sources of revenue so that they become completely dependent economically on Delhi.
States that have a solid financial independence are tougher to make slaves out of. The present government of West Bengal understands this nefarious game plan very well and thus has been one of the strongest votary for federalism.
When a state or a region has greater control over its own affairs, it can work wonders. Its resources are used for its own development. Its economic plans are tied to its own reality. Thus, East Bengal, in its present form as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, has charted an astonishing growth path.
These are the same people as West Bengal, except that at Partition, West Bengal was miles ahead in all-economic matters. Now it is almost the reverse and this reversal primarily boils down to one fact.
East Bengal plans its own economic future while Delhi largely plans West Bengal’s economic future as an after-thought in its own centralised list of priorities.
If the Union government at Delhi has the spine to be honest, every year at budget, it should also publish a white paper that would show state-wise break-up in revenue and resources earned in each revenue category and also the state-wise money given back in every form. Then it will be clear who Delhi takes from and to whom Delhi gives.
In fact, West Bengal premier Mamata Banerjee has already demanded so, saying that nothing beyond defence, foreign affairs, railways, and monetary policy should be in the Union government’s hands. It is, thus, not surprising that Delhi tries to use very trick in the book to destabilise her government.
In a diverse polity like the Indian Union, federalism means economic and political justice. The Tajpur impasse, in its microcosm, shows how ugly the centralising animal can be.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on Twitter @gargac.