Tathagata Bhattacharya is Editor, Special Editions, at Network 18. Having worked for well over 10 years with leading national and international media organisations, he is as enthused by newsbreaks and analyses as he is by single malts, Jazz and military aviation. You may come across this man listening to John Coltrane or reading Yasar Kemal on some obscure Himalayan tract though work pressure reduces the statistical probability of such a chance encounter.
October is a month of festivities. There is Durga Puja and there is Diwali. But for more than 6000 retired employees of the Calcutta State Transport Corporation (CSTC) and their family members, there was no joy this year. They were breaking into their meagre fixed deposits and life's savings just to keep themselves alive in these hyper-inflationary times.
The West Bengal government, led by Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, in an unprecedented move, has suspended pensions of these employees from August. To add to it, current employees of the State Transport Department have not got paid till now for the month of October.
Granted, West Bengal is faced with a precarious fiscal situation. But that can't explain abruptly stopping the pension of 6000 old people, many with ailments, in these times. Along with the festivities come festival expenses. Most of the pensioners used to draw sums of money as meagre as Rs 2000 and 3000. Stopping that without any explanation is cruel to say the least.
The most baffling thing is the silence on part of the government. When confronted by journalists in Kolkata on the issue, the state finance minister, Amit Mitra, reportedly said: "Please do not ask any questions. The finance minister is deaf and dumb." Surprisingly, post-retirement benefits were factored in the Rs 87,000 crore financial statement presented by Mitra in August.
On October 7, Santana Chakrabarty, a retired CSTC worker committed suicide after she was unable to cope with the financial hardship. While the state could not save her, nothing has stopped Mamata Banerjee from granting Rs 1 crore to each of the big three Kolkata football clubs. Of them, two are owned by the Vijay Mallya-led UB Group.
Not only that, Banerjee announced that numerous small clubs across the state will be given Rs 2 lakh each for developing sports infrastructure.
These measures are not just populist as they appear on the surface. By keeping these clubs happy, Mamata is also trying to keep hundreds of thousands of unemployed youths happy. That way Mamata is doing what all former Bengal governments, Right or Left, have done with temporary success - wooing the lumpenproletariat.
More than 50 infants and babies have died over the last few weeks in different government hospitals in West Bengal including six today. Blaming it all on the rot that set in during the Left Front rule could have helped her come to power but might not be enough to help her cling to power.
This is a time when Mamata needs to shed the robe of the Opposition leader she has so long donned. Her misplaced priorities and stranger measures suggest that she is planning to run the state like a local youth club. She needs to step in, take matters in stride and ensure resolute action. Unless she acts as a chief minister, slogans like Ma Mati Manush and bringing about cosmetic changes like playing music at busy crossroads and the proposed Kolkata Eye would not be able to perpetuate her stay at Writers' Building.