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WEST BENGAL

Secret behind CPM’s successive wins may lie in rural cold storage

Saturday 6 May 2006, by CHATTERJEE*Manini

PATUL VILLAGE (HOOGHLY DISTRICT), MAY 5 : As twilight begins to fall, a group of ten young men begin to wrap up-literally-a day’s hard work. It is the first harvesting season of the year and they are tying up sheaves of ripened paddy on the fields that belong to Sukur Ali, the local landlord. No, they tell us, they don’t know anything about the politics of this area because they have come from a far-off village in Sundarbans (where they voted for the CPI(M)) before their departure. Twice a year, they come as hired labourers to harvest Ali’s crop.

As they return to their work, Debashis Ray walks down the brick-paved road that skirts through the fields towards his home in Patul village looming in the far horizon. He also belongs to a family of ??khet majoor’’ (landless agricultural labour) as do, he claims, over 70 per cent of the villagers. But he would rather not do the backbreaking work of harvesting another man’s field for Rs 50 per day plus ?tiffin.’

He prefers his work as an icecream vendor. He gets a commission of Rs 120 if he sells icecreams worth Rs 300, and on a hot summer day, can make around Rs 100 a day. The price of the ice lollies range from Rs 1 to Rs 10 and he has enough customers to make a good living carting his icecreams across two or three villages within a five-km radius.

There was a time not that long ago when the vast majority in rural Bengal harvested just one rain-fed crop a year, could afford barely one meal a day. But as we drive through miles of lush green countryside-interspersed every few minutes by marketplaces laden with consumer goods-it is clear that much has changed. Bicycles have given way to mopeds and motorcycles; paddy has been supplemented by a plethora of other crops; and village children-much like their city brethren- manage to eat their icecream and have it too.

The transformation of rural Bengal during the last three decades of Left Front rule and the overwhelming role played by the CPI(M) in this process is the main reason that party leaders down the line are confident of a seventh successive victory. But both rural prosperity and the CPI(M)’s preponderance in the countryside could also, paradoxically, prove problematic for the party. ??Do not think,’’ says a CPI(M) veteran in Kolkata, ??that we are depending on the urban middle-class vote to win.’’ The newspapers and TV channels may be going full throttle about ??a pro-Buddha’’ wave thanks to his reform-friendly image, but the backbone for the CPI(M) remains its rural base nurtured with great care.

??The turning point in our rural economy came around 1985,’’ says Sunil Sarkar, Hooghly district strongman. Operation Barga and decentralisation of power through the panchayati system were not an end in itself. The gains made from land reforms were consolidated through an intensive programme of providing irrigation, credit, roads, power and micro-transport. As a result, both agricultural productivity and the rural market grew at a phenomenal pace.

In many parts of the state, three crops are sown every year. ??A man owning five bighas of land was considered a marginal or poor peasant. But with three crops-including cash crops like potato, til, jute-he now effectively owns 15 bighas and has become upper middle class,’’ says Sarkar.

Nirupam Sen, former district secretary of Bardhaman and now state Industries Minister, points out that the West Bengal government’s agricultural initiatives-basing itself on the poor and middle peasantry rather than the rich farmer-enabled the state with its limited land holding to top rice, potato, and vegetable production in the country.

The focus on potatoes, vegetables, fishery, oil seeds and the enhanced production of rice has been the key factor in facilitating a thriving rural market economy. Hooghly district alone has 167 cold storages for potatoes and two ??multi-purpose’’ cold storages-one set up by Mitsubishi-which stocks lobsters, prawns, crabs etc harvested from the wetlands around Sundarbans which are then exported to south-east Asia.

Not only has a subsistence farmer become a cash-rich one through selling his produce in the market, but high agricultural productivity has spawned a tertiary sector-shopkeepers, motorcycle repair shops, middlemen who rent out tractors and electric pumps, rice mill owners and the likes of icecream vendors.

But that has led to its own problems. Although CPI(M) leaders in Jangipur block (under which Patur village falls) insist that the ??rural neo-rich’’-direct beneficiaries of LF rule-continue to remain their supporters, the visible differences between the newly prosperous and the ??khet majoor’’ sections could lead to strains in the future. Unlike other states, where government programmes are seldom associated with the party in power, the CPI(M)’s presence is only too visible. Party members, villagers tell us, have played a key role in implementing the state government’s new initiatives in the last five years-the thrust on rural schools, mid-day meal scheme, health centres and formation of women self-help groups (SHGs).

But since the ??Party’’ is everywhere, it is also a lot easier for petty grievances against local leaders to build up. Almost every villager we meet in the district is all praise for the ??development’’ that has come their way. But some of them, sotto voce, also say that there is a ??mood for change in the air.’’ Why? Do they think Mamata Banerjee can give them a better government? ?? Oh no, she does not have any programme, we never see her people except at election time,’’ says Asit Das. On the other hand, says his companion, we see too much of the Party. And since no party-even one whose members ??devote 365 days a year among the people’’-can meet everyone’s rising aspirations, elections are an ideal occasion to wreak revenge for a favour not done.

That task, a villager whispers, was made a lot easier by a strict Election Commission this time round.

manini.chatterjee@expressindia.com

See online : The Indian Express

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