Fare forward! Bengal.

Fare forward, Bengal

Roopen Roy

(Roopen Roy is the Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting. Views expressed in this article are personal)

“O voyagers, O seamen,

You who came to port, and you whose bodies

Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,

Or whatever event, this is your real destination.'

So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna

On the field of battle.

Not fare well,

But fare forward, voyagers.” The Dry Salvages . T.S.Eliot

Many believe that Bengal’s past is brighter than its future, that the best has been and the worst is yet to be. I refuse to write the epitaph for the gravestone of Bengal. I do not subscribe to the philosophy of determinism which proclaims, in essence, that one's life is predetermined before one is even born.

If Bengal walks backward or is doomed to fail, then you my dear reader, I and the vast majority of people who are not reading this article will be responsible. We can sleep on a guilt-free pillow by blaming a particular bhadralok or a specific bhadramahila depending on which side of the fence we are. I would echo what Cassius told Brutus :

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

I have come to believe that while a few politicians can do immense harm with their negative actions for a short period of time----- it is not they but business, industry, workmen, farmers and civil society at large which determine and propel the country’s progress. If it was not the case, then countries like Italy and Japan could not make steady progress. They have had inept and corrupt political leadership. They have experienced frequent changes in government. But they have developed an ecosystem whereby progress happens not because of political leaders but inspite of them. We must build such a resilient ecosystem by focusing on several fundamentals. In this brief article I will limit myself to only three suggestions

First, we must focus on dramatically improving our farm productivity. West Bengal is the most densely populated state in India. It has 7.8% of the country’s population and only 2% of the land. There is a large unemployment in the agrarian sector which is not very well disguised. The cultivable plots are small. Commercial farming is not permitted and farm output is abysmally low compared with international benchmarks. No strategy for alleviation of poverty will succeed unless West Bengal re-industrialises and improves its farm productivity. Without a thoughtful farm strategy, we will not be able to wean away poor farmers from the clutches of Maoists with guns alone nor liberate them from poverty.

The natural strategy for growth would hinge on attracting agro-based industries that take to market packaged fruits, food and vegetables after processing. The favourable multiplier effect of agro-based industries is usually significant. Improvement of productivity can be achieved by introducing contract farming on a commercial scale. For role models, I am not looking at the USA or Israel or Italy. I would like to benchmark productivity with states like Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh to begin a small leapforward.

The second suggestion is to focus on our knowledge infrastructure. According to a recent Nasscom study, the addressable market for global sourcing of IT will increase from the current $500 billion to $ 1.6 trillion by 2020. The export component of the Indian IT industry is expected to grow to a minimum of $175 billion from the current $60 billion –an almost three-fold increase. In an optimistic scenario, our IT industry has the potential of attaining a size of $375 billion by 2020 - more than 5 times its current the size. The most interesting data point is the co-relation between the availability of talent pool and the size of the industry measured in $ billions. If we create a talent pool of 13.5 million then potentially the size of our IT industry would be between $225 billion and $310 billion.

Bengal is uniquely positioned to fully participate in this opportunity. All that it will have to do is to adopt intelligent enabling policies that will unshackle the education sector from the clutches of red tape and corruption. The government must continue to invest in primary and higher education. But it must also create an enabling framework that will attract honest and quality investors to bring in private capital, expertise and delivery capacity in education. And these investors could well be eminent foreign universities. India spends more than $4 billion in educating young Indians abroad and the entry of foreign universities will enhance opportunities for our children and might even keep a billion or two at home.

My last and most critical suggestion: we must learn to build a core economic agenda that does not flip-flop with changes in government. Based on my experience with investors, particularly, MNCs, uncertainties, fickle economic policies and instability are the biggest hurdles to the attraction of new investments in any region. If we permit a competition among political parties on calling Bangla Bandhs on Mondays and Fridays, then we are cordially inviting disaster. In this negative warfare, regardless of which party wins, Bengal is certain to lose .

It is critically important that the people of Bengal- regardless of their political views, unite and force a limited economic consensus among the warring political parties. While politicians are free to oppose each other on their political programs, they must agree to at least a small set of common economic issues where all of them must speak with one voice and put Bengal first. Only then we can say, “Fare forward, Bengal.”