The stage was all set at the Writers Building in Kolkata, the headquarter of the West Bengal government. It was the launch of the third phase of West Bengal State Wide Area Network (WBSWAN). An embarrased Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee walked out of the venue. Here is why. Started as a part of the development agenda, the project was initiated on a pilot basis in 2001. Burdwan was to be the first district connected with the Writers Building through videoconferencing.
The third phase was launched to take the connectivity further down to the Panchayat level. At the launch, however, the entire demo went awry, when the CM got connected to Patharpratima, instead of Gosaba in the Sunderbans. Attempts to get connectivity in other blocks too failed, as the system encountered severe connectivity and audio problems. The situation further complicated when Bhattacharjee tried a safer bet of getting connected to Burdwan, a chapter claimed to have been successfully closed. Bad luck prevailed there as well. The icon could not be accessed at first, and then the CM ended up being connected to Chandrakona in West Midnapore. Even after trying for half-an-hour, he failed to connect to Burdwan.
Although Debesh Das, Minister of IT cited this as a temporary technical snag, the incident is a proof enough of the poor state of the project.
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Enlightened Buddha Fails to Push Hard
West Bengal seemed to be on the verge of change under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, when he took charge nine years back from veteran Jyoti Basuthe man often held responsible for the degradation of the state. As Bhattacharjee announcednothings wrong in industrializationand that he would stir the state to keep pace with its counterparts, the people saw a potential savior in him.
Indeed, Bhattacharjee started off his stint with lan and initiated certain moves to reinstate the lost glory of the state. With his bunch of administrators, the chief minister made some very laudable moves that drew much public attention from all corner.
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His effort to build a strong and efficient IT set-up was particularly noticeable. In the year 2006-07, IT exports from the state registered a growth of 46% against the national average of 32%. Taking together the exports from SEZ and other non-STPI units, the total exports during the year 2006-07 exceeded Rs 3,600 crore. The expected export revenue for 2008-09 was Rs 7,100 crore and that of 2009-10 is Rs 10,700 crore. In terms of employment generation, the state IT sector created around 15,000 new jobs in 2006-07.
The state started with a vision to rank among top three IT states in India by 2010 and contribute 15-20% of the countrys total IT revenues. With abundance in quality talent pool and support from the government, the state saw some remarkable achievements in the software sector within a short span of time. In the last three years, the state witnessed major thrust in the hardware sector too, when local companies like Xenitis, RP Infosystem, and Syntech launched their own PC brands and manufacturing units.
Adding to the quality talent pool, what really helped the state pick up pace is a balanced IT policy, lower cost competitiveness, quality power supply, and attractive land rates. With a dynamic chief minister at the helm, a proactive IT department led by the then IT Minister Manabendra Mukherjee, and principal secretary of IT, GD Gautama, West Bengal succeeded in attracting both domestic and MNC IT players to invest handsomely in the state. Companies like Wipro, HCL, IBM, Capgemini, Cognigence, Genpact, TCS and others declared bullish expansion plans in the state.
However, once the new administration took charge in 2006 Rajya Sabha elections, things seemed to have come to a standstill. The current IT administration, under Debesh Das, and Siddharth, principal secretary of IT has got nothing much to boast of. There has been no visible improvement in infrastructure, nor any major investment has come to the state. The political unrest surrounding Singur and Nandigram further damaged the already distorted image of the state and most of the potential investors retracted their expansion plans.
IT is in Shambles
It wont be an exaggeration to say that progress of the IT sector in West Bengal has been halted over the last couple of years. Anybody can see the decaying state of basic infrastructure like potholes, fluctuating power supply, unruly traffic movement, lack in safety and security of employees, price hikes by the local auto servicing, etc.
In few words, development of basic infrastructure has taken a backseat and the state IT department seems to be least bothered of the situation. Although the CM keeps declaring potential tie-ups or future projects, the truth is that hardly any of them have resulted in real-time delivery in the last two years.
Touting West Bengal as one of the most lucrative states in the country for IT projects, the IT minister had declared some crucial factors as the key behind attracting investments in the state. These factors included cost, transport, power, law and order, talent pool, and supportive role played by the department in terms of creating the right ambiance for growth of IT industry in the state. Besides promoting land or space acquisition process for IT companies at cheaper rates, the department is supposed to be focused on facilitating the development of appropriate and adequate human resources as well.
However, the current situation in the state depicts an altogether different picture. Over the last three years, overall living cost in the state has increased. But the average salary has remained the same. Although the state transport department has increased public transportation services yet people travel in dangerously over-boarded buses and auto-rickshaws, the main means of commuting in the locality.
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Tragedy of Errors
Most dismal is perhaps the states initiatives on e-governance. As per the 2007-08 Dataquest-IDC Indian e-Governance survey, West Bengal had ranked seventeenth among all Indian states. In the 2008-09 survey, West Bengal was ranked further down in the table. At nineteenth position, it was ahead only of the newly formed Jharkhand and first-entrant, Bihar. The per capita IT spending also decreased as the state was positioned at #15. Interestingly the per capita IT spending in a smaller state like Uttaranchal is seven times higher than West Bengal and that of Jharkhand is more than double.
The survey further exposed bitter realities about the decaying infrastructure and poor administrative support system essential for a healthy and growing IT industry.
The citizens were also not happy with the states performance as West Bengal has again been ranked third among the three worst states in India.
The state further ranked fourteenth as far as e-readiness is concerned. The revelation is stunning and leaves one wondering about the future of the state.
Industrialization is one word which has shaped the destiny of plenty of states including Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and even Himachal Pradesh. But it is this very word which has stayed miles away from the state of West Bengal. What is even more disturbing is its state of agricultural affairs. Although the Left Front government always proclaimed that agriculture and farmers were its key focus areas, little has been done about their problems. Singur and Nandigram chapters have brought out the nude picture of the suffering rural masses the recent havoc done by cyclone Aila has unmasked the ruling party.
It wont be wrong to say that the downfall of the Left Front in West Bengal has a deep connection with the decades of piled up frustration with the governments non-performance.
Dataquest tried to contact the IT department to get an update on the latest facts and figures of IT in West Bengal as well as its comments on the poor show and what initiatives the department is planning to take in order to improve the situation. While our email sent to Siddharth failed to get delivered, the same mail sent to the IT Minister remained unanswered.
As is evident from the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the ruling Left Front government in West Bengal has virtually been wiped out by the voters who were determined to bring in some refreshing change in the dooming state. The once leading state and the intellectual capital of India has been in a sorry state of affairs and nobody seems to care.