-Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
Somewhat surprisingly, the sixth edition of the Bengal Global Business Summit (BGBS) 2022, hosted by the state’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) government on April 20-21, attracted participation of 4,300 delegates from 42 countries, including businessmen, politicians and academics from the US, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Netherlands, Finland, Morocco, Bangladesh and Bhutan. During the two-day event staged to attract investment into West Bengal, 137 memoranda of understanding (MoUs) were signed between the state government, foreign and domestic companies which could generate a massive investment inflow into the economy of the state and create millions of jobs in West Bengal (pop.91 million) which has 7.6 million registered unemployed youth.
The list of high-profile delegates attending the summit included several big names from India Inc, including billionaire Gautam Adani, who pledged to invest Rs.10,000 crore in the state over the next ten years. However, it’s important to note that the signing of MoUs and investment pledges are ceremonial statements of intent rather than binding contracts. Ground conditions and the investment climate — the preserve of the state government — have to be conducive for MoUs and pledges to translate into on-the-ground projects.
In this connection, West Bengal’s history has been tragic. From the mid-1960s onward, two communist parties — the CPI and CPM — dominated West Bengal politics and during the uninterrupted rule of the latter for 34 years (1977-2011), rampant trade unionism backed by the CPM prompted sustained flight of capital, destroyed industry and generated mass unemployment. Unfortunately since then, extortionist youth-wing members of the CPM have switched sides and have continued to create law and order problems as youth wings of TMC. This unchanged ground condition has made domestic and foreign investors wary of investing in West Bengal.
Be that as it may, a notable feature of BGBS 2022 was several high-potential initiatives in higher education. Over 15 MoUs were signed between state and foreign universities, including five by Jadavpur University, and three by Calcutta University.
Jadavpur U has signed MoUs with University of Warsaw (Poland) and Exeter University (UK) and Calcutta U with UCL London, University of Leeds (UK) and the University of Warsaw. Vidyasagar University, Midnapore signed an MoU with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Presidency University, Kolkata with Jamshedpur-based Atomic Minerals Directorate. Among private universities, Sister Nivedita University, New Town signed an MoU with Okayama University, Japan.
However, academic news that stole the limelight was an announcement by Purnendu Chatterjee, head of The Chatterjee Group (TCG), to establish a greenfield world-class research university in frontier technologies in Kolkata, which intends to attract 200 research scholars every year. Though Chatterjee has declined to cite a figure, it is estimated that TCG will invest Rs.2,500 crore, making it one of the largest investments by a private entrepreneur in West Bengal.
But even in the education sector, the investment climate is less than perfect. On February 28, the Calcutta high court ordered a CBI inquiry into the state’s long-standing teacher recruitment scam dating back to 2016. The court observed that “prima facie evidence” raises “a serious concern” about the involvement of government officials in recruiting 10,000 government school teachers. Consequently, the CBI has registered a case against Alok Kumar Sarkar, a deputy director of the West Bengal Directorate of School Education, and several officials of the School Service Commission.
No exams have been conducted for the recruitment of teachers in state-run schools after 2016, and several writ petitions alleging malpractices are pending in the Calcutta high court. According to Shankar Samanta, convener of the West Bengal SLST Candidates Association, since no recruitment notices have been issued during the past six years, 1.2 million aspirant teachers statewide who have acquired B.Ed degrees have become age-ineligible to write the State Level Selection Test.
Lack of transparency and prolonged delay in teacher recruitment is generating outrage within the state’s academia and bhadralok (refined middle class). Knowledgeable academics are questioning the trumpeting of MoUs signed with foreign universities at BGBS 2022, while no attention is being paid to the utterly derelict condition of the state’s public school system, plagued for years by poor infrastructure and an alarmingly high 1:59 teacher-pupil ratio.
“Attendance in online classes conducted by us plunged to 5-6 percent during the unwarrantedly prolonged 99 weeks lockdown of schools in Bengal. With recruitment stalled since 2016, there is an acute shortage of teachers in rural hinterlands of the state which will force a huge number of children to dropout of the education system,” warns Swarnendu Sinha, assistant teacher in a state government school in the Nadia district.
According to Suman Sengupta, a well-known public intellectual, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s “lack of urgency about teacher recruitment and her apathy about the future of students in public schools will result in an entire generation losing its future.”