West Bengal has the potential to become a growth engine for the entire BBIN region. It can be a driver for realizing the Act East policy and gain from greater engagement with South-East Asia from Kolkata to Manila and Tokyo
West Bengal is one of the most blessed states in terms of climate zones. It also has the best transport infrastructure in India as well as three international borders and easy access to a fourth, China. It has high mineral resources, fertile soil and marine resources and reach. It is the gateway to India's Northeast and ASEAN and can take advantage of the evolving Blue Economy.
It has a very good education system, high level of literacy, healthcare in international demand, the highest foreign tourist footfall in India, high skills in arts, crafts and textiles, a tradition of cosmopolitanism, progressive ideas and the capability of being the best state in India.
However, since the late sixties, it has suffered from flight of capital and de-industrialization. This is not likely to return soon unless deep systemic changes are made in governance and administration, with widespread corruption and extortionate practices arising from shortage of services and formal employment being eliminated. Land scarcity also militates against large scale industry but West Bengal has the largest number of MSMEs.Therefore, we must look at alternative paths to growth of employment, particularly self-employment and small entrepreneurship, innovations, productivity, output, income and revenue.
Agriculture is a mainstay of the economy. Therefore, we must use all the climate zones of West Bengal from Himalayan to marine to maximize, agricultural and horticultural output in each zone by modern methods such as multi-cropping, layered plantations, agri-aquaculture, hydroponics and vertical farming. Further, we must minimize harvest wastage.
Thereafter we may use a range of methods to add to crop value by chopping, drying, pickling, freezing, retail portioning and wholesale packaging to derive the maximum possible value from the produce. Agricultural, horticultural, forest, aquatic and marine production and processing can use village self-help groups in manufacturing and supply services.
Finally, active supply and marketing systems need to be made widespread and predictable. In short, such processing efforts can become MSMEs. Crop–specific value-addition strategies can be worked out. This will help West Bengal provide better and safer nourishment to her people as also to neighbouring countries and the wider world by marketing under the Biswa Bangla brand. Products must meet international standards.
Growth in agriculture will stimulate the demand for energy, machinery, equipment, chemicals, fertilizers and other necessary inputs. West Bengal has the capacity to design and manufacture most of these requirements. Renewable energy must be encouraged and working schedules changed to maximize the use of daylight. Solar-powered passenger and goods transportation must be encouraged. Waste to power systems must be installed at all levels of habitation. Domestic users must be encouraged to reduce grid power use and instead contribute to power supply.
Advantage in logistics
Animal husbandry and fisheries are another area with great potential and value. Livestock and poultry farming can be encouraged to increase protein availability. This will help growth of many other downstream industries in leather and food processing, animal feed, nutraceuticals and more.
West Bengal’s advantage in logistics must be used optimally. The domestic airports should be used as freight hubs by putting up refrigerated storage hubs using solar-powered heat exchangers, modern haulage bays prepared for efficient load management and wholesale and retail packaging industries promoted. Road, rail, river and marine freight must be supported by warehousing and distribution chains.
West Bengal needs to lead in skill training, industrial and machinery design and fabrication, metallurgy, engineering and knowledge industries. Diplomas must be acceptable internationally for holders to find work anywhere in the world. Migration is not a liability but a revenue resource and raises local prosperity, as shown by states like Kerala.
Overall, West Bengal has the potential to become a growth engine for the entire BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) region. It can be a driver for realizing the Act East policy and gain from greater engagement with South-East Asia from Kolkata to Manila and Tokyo. However, this needs a sustained and coordinated effort by the whole of society, with our businessmen and youth leading the charge.
Creating new opportunities
Young people in our universities must not wallow in despair at the shortage of formal employment but look at new opportunities to create their own prosperity. We must make a whole of society approach and provide encouraging leadership and support at all levels to create and leverage a new paradigm of cooperation to achieve common prosperity within the next decade. Hope and optimism must drive hard focussed effort. The future cannot be painted as bleak, to foment despondency and laziness. As Swami Vivekananda said, we must arise, awake and not stop until the goal is reached.
Meanwhile, West Bengal must remain an inclusive, tolerant, cosmopolitan educated, skilled and innovative society to let the springing tiger leap and Chand Saudagar and Bijoysingha sail the seas again!
(The author is a former Indian ambassador who lives in Kolkata. Views are personal)