At a first glance Gautam Deb does not inspire much confidence. His thin body, average height won't reveal the inner strength, determination and hard work that is associated with him. Having an important portfolio of the minister of North Bengal Development Department (NBDD), he has worked tirelessly for the entire North Bengal, a backward and neglected area of West Bengal comprising six districts, giving the people of the region a real taste of development for the first time after independence.
When it won the state for the first time in 2011, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) could not make inroads in the strong Left and Congress bastion of North Bengal. Immediately after taking over the reigns from Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Mamata Banerjee took up the challenge of winning the hearts of the people of North Bengal by setting up a different ministry for the development of the region. A mini secretariat, "Uttarkanya", was established near Siliguri and her trusted lieutenant Gautam Deb was deputed as the minister of the department.
There is hardly any doubt that it was a masterstroke from the firebrand and charismatic chief minister of West Bengal, which paid huge dividends in this year's assembly election. Fighting alone in this election, they won 24 out of 54 seats from North Bengal, a place where Left and Congress parties have traditionally dominated for years.
For Gautam Deb, who carried out Mamata's vision for the development of North Bengal, it was a tremendous challenge when he took over as the minister. People had no idea what Mamata Banerjee had in mind when this new department was set up. But she had a definite plan for our region. It can now be safely said that the people have recognised the development work under the previous TMC regime.
From day one, Mamata gave Deb a free hand to run the department. The minister formed a vision document for the region and the department set up 17 colleges, 3 universities and a government engineering college. Apart from that, a Kisan Mandi and a pineapple processing center at Siliguri and food processing units at Haldibari are also in the pipeline. Thousands of kilometers of roads across North Bengal have already been constructed connecting places hitherto isolated due to lack of any all-weather roads. Roads in several places have been repaired and renovated and given the mastic look for weather sustainability. Numerous bridges and culverts have ameliorated the plight of many. Municipalities and corporations have benefitted from the introduction of modern equipment like compactors, JCBs, dumper-placers. High mast LED lights have illuminated dark places in the interiors villages.
Shourya Park, an innovative wildlife Safari scheme, has already enchanted the domiciles and tourists alike. Introduction of a toy train at Surya Sen Park in Siliguri, renovation of the Sports Complex of Jalpaiguri, and modernization of the art gallery in Jalpaiguri are some other notable projects undertaken by NBDD. Another success he should claim is that despite running an important ministry and spending almost Rs 1600 crores, the allegation of corruption has failed to touch him.
In the last 5 years he travelled extensively throughout the entire North Bengal. One day he would be in Malda overviewing the 'Bhutni Bridge', and the next day he would be in Cooch Behar, taking stock of the engineering college and the university. His extensive travel and hard work in the last five years have also taken its toll on him. At the end of the last year, he was diagnosed with blockage in his heart which resulted in a bypass surgery. His detractors saw this as an end of his political career because before this, under his leadership, the party saw two losses - one in Siliguri Municipal Corporation and the other is Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad.
But he made a spectacular comeback just after a couple of months. He proved everyone wrong by undertaking an extensive election campaign just 3 months after having the surgery, for his constituency and other constituencies of North Bengal. During the last phase of election, he toured Cooch Behar, a district where factionalism was at its worst and helped the party perform very well by sorting out the differences among the local leadership. Those who don't know him closely enough find his courage in the face of adversity very surprising. But the people close to him know what lies beneath his small stature.
(Biswajit Jha is a guest writer. The views expressed above are his own.)