Column : Mamata-industry rift gets wider

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Jan 13 2012, 09:06am hrs
He was gentle about it, but Nobel laureate economist Prof Joseph Stiglitzs contention that a government role in helping industry acquire land could help matters didnt really go down well with the Mamata Banerjee administration. At the Indian Statistical Institute, where a three-day workshop is on to discuss Economic Growth in West Bengal: Challenges and Priorities, after Stiglitz had spoken, state industry minister Partha Chatterjee stressed that the hands-off land policy was for keeps. Back to square one, vis--vis Mamata and industryrelations between the two are perhaps at their lowest ebb. Theres confusion on many fronts, not least the land acquisition policy of the government.

As soon as she came to power, chief minister Mamata Banerjee met industry heads and clarified that her government wouldnt help in acquisition of land, and that they would have to buy land directly from farmers. In her eight months in power, she has met industry leaders thrice and no amount of explaining by industrialists has helped to change her mind. At the ongoing state-sponsored Bengal Leads summit to explore investment opportunities, confusion reigned. The chief minister, in her impromptu, street-smart manner, pointed at industry leaders from the dais and asked them about their intent on investment in Bengal. ITC, are you interested Goenka, when are you increasing power generation at your Haldia plant Both ITC chairman YC Deveshwar and CESC vice-chairman Sanjiv Goenka smiled, but in the past Deveshwar has pointed out that big investors will keep away from Bengal if the government doesnt help in land acquisition. At the business summit, there was no discussion on the bone of contentionlandand how to tackle the issue to attract industry to West Bengal.

In the eight months in power, there has been some good news on the IT front, with Wipro giving the green signal to its second campus in Bengal, Cognizant announcing its expansion in the state and Infosys agreeing to build its first ever campus in Bengal. But besides these, few investors have flocked to the state and planned big-ticket investments, like Sajjan Jindals R10,000 crore steel plant at Salboni, are yet to take off.

Some of the chief ministers colleagues, too, arent quite happy with the state of affairs and though no one, obviously, will come on record, the simmering discontent is quite apparent. The grapevine has it that Amit Mitra is quite miffed with the hands-tied-behind-his-back role he has had to play as the finance minister. As the chief minister has gone about announcing one populist measure after another, he has been forced on the backfoot. In an unprecedented measure, the state

didnt present a budget this fiscal, and so no one knows what the government is doing to increase revenues. There have been no fresh taxes either, though the chief minister has just given her nod to a much-needed power tariff hike, as the state utilities are going through a severe cash crunch. A planned reshuffle has been put off due to various reasons, not least the bitter breakdown with industry over the way the chief minister handled the AMRI Hospital fire aftermath, plummeting relations with ally Congress, rising campus violence and the brewing resentment within the Trinamool Congress.

Industry body Ficci, in a strongly-worded statement recently, said the government should release the non-executive directors of AMRIseven are in jail for the December 9 fire that killed 92who werent in charge of day-to-day operations. The Ficci letter to the government said the AMRI issue had sent wrong signals to investors and that it would take time to change the negative sentiments or perception about the state. No covert or overt victimisation should take place in the name of justice, the letter said. The fact that the letter came from FicciAmit Mitra was Ficci secretary-general before joining the TMCenraged Mamata further and she was swift to respond to it, saying, I am not against industry. But I am against industry that kills. A murderer is a murderer. A terrorist is a terrorist. A Bengali is a Bengali. A Punjabi is a Punjabi. Terrorists do not belong to any community Her response isnt doing anything to comfort the business community, largely dominated by Marwaris. The growing refrain is that the action against the Goenkas and Agarwals and Todis, some of the biggest investors in the state, has upset existing and potential investors (Emami, Shrachi) and is keeping them away.

After the Tatas were forced to exit the state with their small car project at Singur and given the Mamata governments intransigence on what should the state should do to woo back industry, General Motors is exploring the possibility of trying out its concept car in a Bengal city. This may be the best piece of news for a state that was once known for its industrial prowess.