"Appearance tyrannises over truth," said Plato in The Republic. This couldn’t be truer for governments and governance where it’s often the perception and media waves, which decide winners and losers than any real assessment of the work.
West Bengal, India’s sixth largest economy, is the perfect example. For three decades, the state had seen economic ruin under the communist rule as it shied away from business development, looked down on industry and remained marred with labour unrest and strikes.
Even as the current Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has shapeshifted the state and turned it into an economic powerhouse – West Bengal is among the fastest growing states in the country – its reputation seems to precede it. Surveys after survey have been slamming the West Bengal government for not doing enough on governance indicators.
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The recent most survey slammed the government for not performing better on providing employment, farm credit as well as fertiliser subsidy. The report said that the government has performed poorly in almost all governance issues and there’s nothing for the citizens in the state. While this narrative gets thrown around a lot in sections of the media and people seem to believe it, the truth is that West Bengal is among the top-performing states of India when it comes to governance.
SKOCH studied major initiatives rolled out by the West Bengal government in great detail and evaluated them on various parameters to arrive at a comparable ranking. After this gruelling process, the state emerged on the third spot in the ranking! While it achieved the first spot in last year’s SKOCH State of Governance ranking, its performance has remained steady in the past two year and its set to reap fruits of the work the government has put in to take it to a path of modernisation and reforms.
The problem with narratives is that they are mostly rhetorical. For West Bengal too, that seems to have happened. The state has seen its Gross State Domestic Product grow at 11.88 per cent compounded annual growth rate between 2011-2018 but it is still questioned on its development credentials.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already made clear her intentions of improving the state’s development credentials.
Some of the major steps taken by the government include:
West Bengal boasts of 12 growth centers for medium and large-scale industries, along with 21 SEZs and second largest tea production in the country. The state government has taken multiple decisions over the last year, which embellish West Bengal’s place in the top 3 of SKOCH State of Governance rankings.
SKOCH studied dozens of such initiatives and shortlisted the best to be lauded and set them as an example for other states and the centre to follow as best practices. Here’s a look at some of those:
To support 72,00,000 farm families of West Bengal, a unique assured income scheme was introduced in 2019, with financial assistance at the start of farming season, as well as financial support to families, in case of untimely death of the farmer. Called Krishak Bandhu Scheme, it has an assured income component under which every farmer will get Rs 5,000 for up to 1 acre of land. The support will be paid in two instalments coinciding with Kharib and Rabi seasons.
In the case of untimely death of the farmer in the age group of 18-60 years, the nominee/family member is also eligible for a one time grant of Rs 2 lakh from the government. In a short span of time, the government managed to cover 40 lakh farmers across the state who were digitally registered and benefits were provided using digital processes and authentication as the project now seeks wings to expand across the state and cover the rest of the farmer population.
To provide better healthcare facilities, the government has launched an insurance scheme which covers the secondary and tertiary care medical expenses of almost 112 lakh families covering 4.3 crore population. The scheme includes all preexisting diseases and conditions eliminating preset conditions. The beneficiaries are able to check their coverage details, current balance, transaction details as well as available hospitals etc.
As part of the scheme, 460 government and 681 private hospitals are covered. The scheme works by eliminating expenses for consultation, diagnostics, medicines up to 1 day before the admission of the patient and up to 5 days after their discharge.
A solid IT platform serves as the backbone where online monitoring takes place and SMS alerts are issued to beneficiaries on their benefits and claim updates. At the same time, a mobile app has also been launched which provides 24*7 assistance.
Waiting Hut by the West Bengal government is a unique intervention project where pregnant women from remote and inaccessible areas are accommodated 7-10 days before their delivery date in waiting huts that are in close proximity of delivery facilities. In these huts, they are provided with free medicines, diet and diagnostics services. The government has started 12 such huts in the Sundarbans and other far-flung areas of the state.
The initiative is geared to contribute towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 which focuses on health and well-being. The government’s initiatives have considerably raised the rate of institutional delivery in the state from 88 to 98 per cent.
The government is in the process of setting up another half a dozen such huts in more remote areas and the work is in full swing. This is a big departure from the earlier provisions where healthcare insurance is given but there are no facilities for transfer or pre-natal care.
The government’s public works department launched a programme named Samiksha, which has revolutionised the way infrastructure development projects in the state such as roads, infrastructure and bridges are monitored. The application works as the central nervous system of the organisation where everything from administrative approval to project completion is tracked and updated on a dashboard.
To provide better healthcare facilities, the government has launched an insurance scheme, which covers the secondary and tertiary care medical expenses of almost 112 lakh families covering 4.3 crore people. The scheme includes all pre-existing diseases and conditions eliminating preset conditions.
The launch of this initiative has helped fast-track approval, construction, requisition of funds and demands based on projects and also facilitated faster report generation. The app comes with a one-page dashboard for overall departmental/individual progress. There’s also a mobile interface, which helps decision makers stay updated with the progress on-the-go.
In order to provide food security to the underprivileged, the government of West Bengal has launched a flagship programme Khadya Sathi in 2016. This programme covers 8.82 crore or 92 per cent of the state population where 7.42 crore people are able to avail foodgrain at Rs 2 per kg while the rest avail it at half the market price.
The programme works by ensuring the minimum support price to the small and marginal farmers by the way of procuring paddy from them and then distributing resultant rice to the poor through public distribution system.
As per Achintya Kumar Pati, Additional Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies Department, the network consists of more than 20,000 touch points for obtaining foodgrains while the procurement is done through 405 centralised procurement centers, which cover more than 1,000 cooperative societies and 800 rice mills.
The programme has proved to be instrumental in ensuring food security to the poor in the state and has improved the financial health of the farmers as well.
For capacity building, the government has launched an integrated skill development programme, which has an annual target of training six lakh people. The scheme aims to create a pool of industry-ready skilled candidates. The beneficiaries of this programme are mainly young people from underdeveloped regions.The e-Governance portal of this programme allows monitoring for all stakeholders and there are interventions through district and sub-division level organisations to monitor the status and progress, said Sandeep Ghosh, OSD to West Bengal Skill Development.
So far, 10,000 candidates have undergone skilling through the programme and many more are in the process of being trained as they become candidates for eminent private and public sector organisations. Spread across geographies, 152 Polytechnics, 250 ITIs, 3,390 Vocational Training Centers and 1,836 Skill Training Centers are operating close to 332 courses.
After training, the department arranges on-campus as well as off-campus recruitment through job fairs etc for providing employment to the candidates.
Empowering women through SHGs
As part of improving agricultural practices and improving livelihoods for rural women, the government has initiated a programme for Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) practices. Under CMSA, women farmers with marginal landholding are adopted for a period of 12-months during which they learn sustainable agriculture with community resource persons.
The programme has enabled more than 88,000 women farmers last year to engage in sustainable agriculture practices and ensured enhancement of farm incomes, said Shubhanjan Das, Additional Secretary and CEO, West Bengal State Rural Livelihood Mission. It has also proved pivotal in effecting a systematic change in ensuring easy access to services and facilities for sustainable living while maintaining natural resources.
The availability of water at very shallow depths in the state has posed a unique challenge for the authorities: ensuring safety and sanitisation in the state. According to Arnab Roy, Principal Secretary, Public Works Department, to overcome this, the state has 217 rural drinking water testing laboratories established by the government. To manage the operations of these labs, the government had launched a smart monitoring network in 2015, which provides a dashboard with several smartphone applications for collection and testing of water samples from interiors of the state.
A similar initiative under this umbrella involves verification, geotagging and mapping of public drinking water sources on a GIS platform. This works for community mobilisation and helps initiate disinfection of contaminated spots in the region by identifying these with the help of citizen feedback and digital testing.
Blockchain based donation management
To improve the transparency and efficiency of donation collections, the West Bengal government launched a first-of-its-kind initiative where a crowdfunding of a social project happened through a blockchain technology system. Prosenjit Abhya, Manager IT, from the Corporation said, the transactions were secured through complex cryptography allowing for complete transparency and immutability.
The platform runs on Ethereum ledger, which creates a pseudonym for every donor in the portal. The transactions are recorded in the blockchain ledger and timestamps are printed so that audit is simple and easier. The platform allows user to view their transaction records, receive SMS on updates of payments and allows the authorities to manage fund flow for traceable audit with least paperwork.
In its effort to introduce technology for effective service delivery, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation has taken various measures to ensure that the lives of the citizens are easier. As part of this, it has launched its mobile app for the city, which leverages e-Governance, initiatives and brings them on the citizens’ palms. The app allows 4.5 million people to find nearest toilets, common payment centers, check their property tax dues, among other things.
The app is available across mobile platforms including Google Play and Apple. It now allows death registration, crematoriums facility and e-Payment of services such as property tax allowing the authority to increase revenue by easing up transaction flow for the citizens. The above initiatives show that the picture of the state portrayed in the popular narrative is far from reality. West Bengal is developing, modernising and reforming more rapidly than most Indian states and it is setting new benchmarks for economic growth and industry best practices.
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