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West Bengal's debt can be turned around: Amit Mitra

BT caught up with the former Ficci secretary general, a day after he felled CPI(M) leader and state finance minister Asim Dasgupta in the assembly polls. Listen to Amit Mitra's interview

Sunny Senand Somnath Dasgupta | May 30, 2011 | Updated 13:18 IST

What prompted Amit Mitra to quit the secretary general's post at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, or Ficci, to jump into the hurly-burly of state politics? And that too on the side of Mamata Banerjee, a political leader not associated in the public mind with vision? BT's Sunny Sen And Somnath Dasgupta caught up with Amit Mitra a day after he felled CPI(M)'s Asim Dasgupta, who was West Bengal's finance minister, in the state assembly polls. Mitra talks of the Communists' failure in the state and the road ahead. Edited excerpts:

Are you planning to release any white paper on the state government's finances?
I think this is a question you should ask to Mamata Bandhopadhyay. Today as you are speaking to me I am just an MLA from a place called Khardah, so whether Mamata Bandhopadhyay will publish a white paper or not is a question you should ask her. But obviously [about] the state finances, enough has been written, Rs 2 lakh crore of debt. If you take it in per capita terms - and here I am challenging the CPM, they say "UP has a debt, Maharashtra has a debt". You take it in per capita terms, West Bengal is No. 1 in debt. If you take it in terms of revenue deficit you will find that Maharashtra has caught up. So states which have debt are catching up vis-à-vis revenue and fiscal deficits, which West Bengal is not. It is really a case where they have completely ruined the finances of the state. Mamata Bandhopadhyay will be able to say what is her plan of action, because she has released a vision document and a manifesto, which is like a template for me, as a small guy as a MLA.

You have studied a lot of ministries and departments…
Well Mamata Bandhopadhyay's vision document's first part, is only on West Bengal, given in bar diagrams, which no political party has ever published. But CPM published a powerpoint trying to rebut its claims, by showing that GDP is growing at a high rate…
All the data in the manifesto are from the CSO [Central Statistical Organisation] and a few of them are from state sources, so there is no way they can deny those figures. So it is one thing they can confront and say you have given false information, which they could not, because it is taken from CSO sources. What they are trying to do is diversionary tactics… but they cannot answer to those very stunning graphs which Mamata Bandhopadhyay presented.

Do you know Asim Dasgupta personally?
Of course, I have great regard for him, because he is three years senior to me in college and in Presidency College there is a tradition that when you are a senior, you get a certain respect. He did not attack me personally and I did not attack him personally. We maintained that decorum, something which democratic politics must reflect, but attacked each other viciously in terms of policy issues. I have brought out every policy problem that West Bengal has been facing. I brought out that in Khardah constituency, there is a no drinking water, there is no drainage, no road and there is no hospital. There is no women's college, there is one small, small men's college... that means, whether it is education, health or infrastructure… And most importantly, the poverty level in my four panchayats just killed me. I have never seen this kind poverty living in stink over drains which have never been cleaned, with mosquitoes the size of flies, and humans living next to it. And when he started walking - after I started walking, because he had never walked in his constituency like this, because he never needed to. The communist party fixed the votes - when he started walking, people started asking him these questions. His answer was "Ebare khoma karun" or please forgive me this time.

How much of Khardah represents entire Bengal?
What is interesting, who is not from politics, whose name I do not wish to disclose, told me "I have never been to Bengal in terms of micro-Bengal, but for the past one and a half years I am having to do so and I am shocked." And what he described to me is identical to that in Khardah. He said people have complained there is no drinking water, people have complained there is no drainage… across the state. Do you know that the entire state has either no drainage and if there is drainage there is open drains? I don't mind an open drain, provided it is appropriately cleaned and sanitized…There is no cleaning. And the most telling example was, in most of the places, the panchayats come, lift the dirt and put it there. When rain comes, it goes back in. In one lane, I found no dirt. When I asked the women who had come out to receive me, why is there no dirt they said, "We heard that you are coming, we ourselves have lifted the dirt, because you are a welcome visitor. We can't let you walk through this."

One more thing I wanted to know…. People say Mamata gave you much more lenient constituencies to contest from, but you chose Khardah. Is that true?
The issue is, where do I go and fight. It is not a question of easier and tougher. Whatever words happened between me and Mamata, I cannot reveal…But end of the day, I went to fight from Khardah. And, I am sure in her mind she knew I will win.  Otherwise why would she give me a constituency like that. And I have proved Mamata Bandhopadhyay right.

Any special attachment with Khardah?
No I think it is her choice. She saw the finance minister of West Bengal there. Perhaps she wanted an economist, who had some standing, with some international background like he has. May be that was in her mind, that I can't predict. But she told me, "Amit-da, you have to fight." She told this in a public meeting Khardah, "When I asked him to fight, I saw he was very busy. I said, the land is calling. I told him to leave all that. And he has listened."

At FICCI you have championed the cause of reforms. Do you and Mamata see eye to eye in everything?
FICCI as an institution created by Mahatma Gandhi in 1927 is not a vacuous business body. It understands; it has 220 economists in their building. They are not business people. They are professionals. So we take a very balanced view of many of these issues. And we think that when the manifesto was written or the vision document was written, in which she took inputs from many people, she is on the right track. In the political economy, she understands better than any of us. This is how today you have Noida. Did anybody predict that this will happen in UP? Now nobody is talking about Noida… everybody still wants to ask me about Nandigram, where the CPM murdered people. They simply went and gunned people down. That was not the police. Police was part of it, but the main gunning down was done by cadres. That has not happened in Noida! What is fascinating to me is, the documents, if you read, you will find are very well argued, put together with great logic… she has spent hours and hours, poring over it…. She has consulted a lot of people.

How will you use your understanding and your contacts to improve Bengal?
First we have to be pragmatic and understand that industry does not come because of friendship. They put their money where the mouth is, which means they need returns. And so many people I know have called me and said, we sought stability and we got in fact stability with a one-party rule and a few industrialists cornered the whole booty, because they happen to be part of the rent seekers with the government and everybody else was left out. From the time of 'gherao' and beating up of managements, many people left. Now Mamata Bandhopadhyay is ideologically very clear that while trade union is important to democracy, building factories, providing jobs, having a relationship that is productive but firm, where any illegal thing that company does Mamata Bandhopadhyay will not spare him.

As far as trade union is concerned she expects empathy, she expects a good working relationship. As for the Marxists, I repeatedly said that they had an inner contradiction which they could not resolve. First they had a contradiction where they talked about the petty bourgeoisie democracy in which they came into power and they could not resolve whether to sabotage it, to go for a dictatorship of the proletariat, or work with it. That is how they created a fascist structure which no country, no civilization has ever done in recent times. They came in by electoral process, but they created a party cadre rule where I am told that if you wanted to file and FIR, you had to go to the party secretary in-charge of FIRs - in that police station. Every police station had a party secretary. If there was a dispute between a husband and wife, CPM would come and say they would fix it. Every piece of land was done by the party, not by professionals, not by civil servants. They created a unique model, which had two pegs - one, is a party centric, cadre centric allocational mechanism. The other is they had created a voting machinery, where you did not have to maximize votes. James Buchanan got the Nobel prize for saying politicians maximize votes. But there were no votes, so there was nothing to maximize! Imagine, Dr Asim Dasgupta won by 44,000 votes [in 2006].

On behalf of Trinamool and Congress, I have won by 26,000 votes. That means 70,000 votes is what crossed over. How could that happen?  That means that of the 45,000 votes, a huge proportion if not all of it, were…. [Cadres] told voters the day before polling, tomorrow is a holiday, go on a picnic, your vote will be cast." And in many polling stations, 9-9:30, polling was over. Many middle class people have said to me when they went to vote, they were told that their vote was cast! The first time, during the Parliamentary election, the Election Commission came down very strongly. But they had a shortcoming, they did not have enough CRPFs [Central Reserve Police Force]….. This time, whenever I talked to an observer - and you must write this - within 10 minutes the observer settled the issue…

In another case, I went into a booth where there was an assistance desk.  I was told by my people that the five women sitting there were all CPM workers, and they are "assisting" the voters. They are simply saying, press the third button. When I challenged those women, why are you sitting here? They told me, most aggressively, from which I knew they were CPM workers, that "we are from BDO".  And they took out identity cards. So they had been recruited to sit there because they owed their jobs to the CPM. We made 26 complaints in five hours, every one of them was addressed in 10 minutes. The minute the CRPF started route march, the criminals started running away. The whole this was based on criminality. Mamata Bandhopadhyay's huge pull, the tsunami that she has let loose, coupled with the institutional mechanism of the Election Commission, is what produced these results…..

West Bengal was once a hub of manufacturing. Do you think the state's future depends on manufacturing, or it can go into something else?
I think we have to remember that manufacturing occupied about 13 per cent of India's total manufacturing revenues between 1965 and 1975. That has systematically come down to about seven per cent or less than that - some very small single digit number. Why? Because about 58,000 factories have closed in Bengal according to the state's own statistics. Most of them were manufacturing. When I was a child, my grandfather, Suresh Chandra Bose, Subhash Chandra Bose's elder brother, he was an entrepreneur by nature, took me to a place called Howrah ghat… it was the toolroom of India, not Ludhiana, precision tools were done by small and medium enterprises. This time I took time off to go there. There is nothing. Some small people doing some forging work… In Chakdah, if there is one factory working, there are ten closed. And you can see that they have become junk. So obviously, manufacturing will play its own role.

Agriculture- The growth of agriculture in West Bengal was 17 per cent annual, before the Left Front came to power. That has fallen to 7 per cent… I will give you another number: Mandays lost. West Bengal is one half of all of India. These are all given statistics which they cannot deny. So on the one hand, there were the man days lost, which means they were doing something to the system where people were not coming to work. Two, 58,000 factories closed. Three, there are one crore people are unemployed.
 
The CPM government at that point initiated digging of canals etc, but the process started as a discussion but never got implemented…
I am sorry to say this is story everywhere (in Bengal). There are discussions, because I guess Marxists use a lot of dialectical processes of Hegelian nature but they don't translate into facts. In my constituency the biggest problem is what you have said. The rain water comes, but there is no canal system to take the water and put it into the rivers. I will give you a graphic example. One woman said to me: During the monsoons, there is chest deep water where you and I are standing, but I carry my granddaughter on my shoulder and I take her to school, because I want her to be educated, unlike me. I carry her through this water because, as a small child she will get drowned. They have not built roads, a drainage system. This is a huge problem. They have only had discussion.

When will we see Trinamool getting to act?
I think those who know Mamata Banerjee in the Railway Ministry and I work with her for one and a half years. She comes to every meeting 5 minutes early, unlike many politicians in this country. She literally goes to yesterday, "Why wasn't this done yesterday?" so her approaches deliver. So when she did this vision document, one thing she asked everybody she consulted is - My first 200 days. And that's how she put together the 200 day agenda.

In the railway ministry, she did manage to create an impression that nothing is happening.
For reasons that I do not know, this English speaking media has been responsible - I will give you a very graphic example. There was a very major paper and came to me about what you are saying, public private partnership. I brought out the whole set of internal papers, and I gave her the complete brief, that four companies are competing for electrical engines. Who are they? General Electric, Siemens, Bombardier and Alstom - the four greatest companies in the world who own technology for electrical engines.

Two companies had come competing for diesel engines. Who are they? There are only two people in the world who make diesel engines: GE and EMD. Both had come and were competing. Six companies were competing for Kanchrapara EMUs, along with two joint ventures with Indian companies, Texmaco and Jindal Steel (because they are technology owners, they do not implement). I gave her all this, and she filed a story four times and you can write it. One of India's leading newspapers. She filed a story four times. I have all the four copies. They never published it. Instead, they published an article saying Mamata is giving resources only to Bengal….Is this journalism?

Let me give you a second example. A second English paper.  The bureau chief came to me, spent one and a half hours, and I repeated many of the achievements of the Railways - the vision document, which she had done, 20:20, which no minister had done, the white paper she had done, no minister had done. They don't carry all this. So I explained the whole thing. But I am saddened to say that he never wrote the article or the article never published and for two months he avoided me wherever he saw me.

So why is the Dedicated Freight Corridor project stuck?
The dedicated freight project, please understand, was initiated by the Japanese earlier, and when she took over, she put huge pressure on them. She got the dedicated freight corridor through the Cabinet - the allocations were done by her. And the Japanese had the faith on her because of her integrity. They told me. They said we are very excited because here is a railway minister who is impeccable in her integrity. So we know there will be no fiddling will happen from there so we are comfortable… the Japanese are like that. So she got it through.

The only issue with the freight corridor - of course, there were [16] people in the corporation which was formed earlier, before she joined, who were caught by the CVC. Is it her fault? That they were making money from creating the earthworks? …It slowed down only because if people are cheating the government, how do you expect…

No 2, the only issue that came up is, on the corridor that was coming up, there were only three hotspots where there were land issues. What did she do? She said, bring the rail line closer to the regular rail line. Because regular rail line already has land. So some adjustments were done immediately. Then she said I see this railway line swinging through the middle of the country side. Why? If somebody is objecting, fly over the guy. This has happened in the United States and Europe. In democracies, people do not want to give up their land. So it is so dear to them, you find a technical solution. And so she resolved those hotspots by these processes, but she was not going to take away land by force. And thank god she didn't, because one of the hot spots is in UP. And today, with Noida, those hot spots would have gone into fire.

Nobody writes about the fact that there were 16 people from that corporation, which was formed before she joined, were caught by the CVC. [about a year ago] Then you have to select people. Let me tell you about the selection process of the government. Who is the chairman of the selection committee, do you know, for selecting the CMD of the Delhi Mumbai Corridor? The Cabinet secretary. And who is the member (points to himself). We are struggling. We are going to pay a pittance and we want the best people in the world. And there are people. It has happened that in the industrial corridor, we finally got Amitabh Kant. Super officer. What is Amitabh Kant making?

Do you know that three people were selected for that from the private sector, as per instructions from the Cabinet decision. Three people were selected out of 11. All three said, "we are making Rs 3 crore a year and you are giving Rs 1 crore" (which was unusual, by the way, because nobody in government gives Rs 1 crore) "One third income loss, no sir." That's how Amitabh Kant was kind enough to come up, he took his regular government salary and took charge.

West Bengal has a debt of 2 lakh crore. Do you already feel like running away?
The debt can be turned around. Mamata Bandhopadhyay will sit across the table with the prime minister of India and the finance minister of India and with an appropriate milestone and plan structure….Please understand that CPM never submitted a milestone based vision document…I don't know why! The Prime Minister has said this to me. The finance minister has said this, the Reserve Bank has said this to me. And the Reserve Bank Report [the latest one] of March 30, please read it, it is written that they haven't submitted it.

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