Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fulfilled her electoral promise last week with her announcement of the formation of three new districts in West Bengal – Jhargram, Asansol and Kalimpong, as part of her party’s commitment to re-organize the state’s districts for better administration.
On her campaign trail in the run up to the 2016 Assembly elections, Mamata Banerjee had announced her party’s commitment to create five new districts if her party was re-elected to power.
The reorganization of state districts was needed for better focus and administration, as several parts of West Bengal still remain with poor infrastructure. Local people have been demanding more funds and greater attention from the state administrative machinery.
In her second term, the CM announced that the state will focus on carrying forward the development agenda, with infrastructure at its core, and also focus on local employment generation through MGNREGA.
She also announced her party’s commitment to further widen the Khadya Sathi – food security through subsidized food grain, and Sabuj Sathi – scheme for distribution of bicycles to girl students.
Under Khadya Sathi, subsidized rice at Rs 2/- per kilo was being supplied to over 7 crore persons, in a state with a total population between 9 and 13 crore, as per 2011 Census. She has now offered wheat at Rs 2/- per kilo to the same segment, thus covering around 80% of the state population.
The move to create five new districts is likely to see TMC further consolidate its hold in the state.
The New Districts
Take the case of Jhargram. It is presently part of West Midnapore district which has a total of 9,345 sq kms of area. Jhargram has always been low in priority for the state government, and as a result, remained neglected and became a breeding ground for Maoist militancy.
With the new Jhargram district being carved out of West Midnapore, the region is sure to develop faster. In her first term, Mamata Banerjee did create a lot of infrastructure that built goodwill among the local people and they in turn, rewarded her with a second term.
Burdwan is another large district covering 7,024 sq kms area. Despite the area being rich in natural resources, Asansol has not witnessed the level of development it deserved. Same is true for other parts of Burdwan district. With this in mind, the CM announced her intention to bifurcate Burdwan into rural and urban parts. The new Asansol district should see the fulfillment of a long standing demand of the locals.
The demand for Kalimpong as an independent district has been voiced for a long time and has been part of the Gorkhaland agitation in the state.
Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a former spokesperson of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), broke away from the party and fought the recent assembly elections as an Independent, with support from TMC. His main electoral promise was to create a new district of Kalimpong. With this announcement, both he and TMC, will emerge more popular with the locals. GJM has also welcomed the announcement.
The vast marshlands of Sunderbans form part of the 9,960 sq kms of South 24 Parganas district. Given the vastness and difficult terrain, with large marshlands and wildlife, the population has remained thin and spread out. The region has seen little investment in health, education or employment infrastructure.
While the CM recently announced the formation of Jhargram, Asansol and Kalimpong, Sunderbans happens to be one of two other new districts on the pipeline. The process of preparing the infrastructure and selecting the relevant personnel is on and one should see an announcement coming in the next few months.
Basirhat is part of North 24 Parganas district and locals have been demanding a separate district for the development of this region. Mamata Banerjee plans to fulfill this demand shortly as the necessary infrastructure is in the process of being put in place.
Challenges before Mamata Banerjee
It is easy to create new districts but the move requires additional funds to support the new administration. Mamata Banerjee has been going about criticising the Left for the financial mess in the state which continues to face a significant debt, but now has to raise resources to support these new districts.
Each new district requires physical infrastructure to support the district headquarters. The additional burden of salary requires to be earmarked to support the new District Magistrate and his staff.
Then, there is the Police. Each new district will requires a new Superintendent of Police and his supporting staff. The police will require vehicles and other related equipment. All of these come at a cost.
How does Mamata Banerjee plan to raise additional funds to support the new districts, especially when existing districts are crying for funds?
It is normal for a new district to receive additional funds and assistance from the state headquarters but it also comes at a cost to other parts of the former district from which it has been carved out. This leads to dissatisfaction among locals of the former district. Is TMC geared to handle the political fallout, especially since the Left is waiting to make inroads back into any spaces or opportunity that TMC may create?
Overall, West Bengal is a state that has witnessed stagnation for several decades under Left rule. Can Mamata and her party make a sustainable difference with these new districts? She has certainly made a beginning.