Column : Mamata wins, Bengal loses

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Sep 29 2011, 08:38am hrs
On a day the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee won the assembly bypoll from Bhowanipore, a safe seat near her home, by 54,213 votes, there was another political victory to celebrate. The Calcutta High Court upheld the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011, introduced by the Mamata Banerjee government in June to take back the 997 acres leased to the Tatas at Singur for 99 years, as constitutional and valid. Delivering the verdict after hearing arguments for and against for three months, the High Court ruled that the state was justified in its action because no socio-economic development had taken place on the land leased to the Tatas.

Although the verdict has been put on hold until November 2 to allow anyone aggrieved with the order to appeal, once the stay order is lifted, the Mamata government will be allowed to return 400 acres to unwilling farmers at Singur, which was why the Act was introduced in the first place. It was a poll promise, and Mamata Banerjee had made her intent clear minutes after she was sworn in on May 20 by announcing that she would return land to unwilling Singur farmers.

But if this can be construed as a victoryBanerjee called it a historic verdict agitation of the farmers in Singur has not only shown the path to other parts of India, but also to the whole worldits a short-term political victory at best. For the long-term, it doesnt augur well for a state that is starved of big investments. If industry exited the state in large numbers in the violent 1970s when Naxalite activity and militant trade unionism were at peak, the new government doesnt seem to be in a hurry to woo industry back. In all this talk, everyone, particularly the government, appears to forget that the Tatas had to exit the state with its small car project because of the

violence surrounding it in the first place, orchestrated by then Opposition leader Mamata Banerjee. To later pronounce that the Tatas had abandoned the Singur project was unfair and wrong. When Ratan Tata announced the Tata pullout in October 2008, he had said: The reason we are leaving is the agitation by Mamata Banerjee.

That important fact appears to have been glossed over. If socio-economic development didnt happen at Singur, its because the Tatas were not allowed to develop the place in the first place. Ever since the new government has come to power, knocking off Left rule after 30 years, it has been sending mixed signals to industry. On the one hand, it harps on pushing mid and small enterprises, but it has done precious little to create a proper investment climate for big industry. How will MSMEs flourish in the absence of big industry, to give just one example How will industry flourish if the legal climate is vicious No one in the government is willing to answer these questions. Bengal is fertile and has very little land to spare for industry, and the government's intransigence on land acquisition is bound to cost it dear. In her first interaction with industry bigwigs after becoming the CM, Banerjee made it clear that her government would not help industry acquire land. In August, responding to Tata Global Beverages shareholders anxiety on whether the Tatas would invest again in Bengal, Ratan Tata said: There is a need for us to satisfy that there is no hostility towards us and when we feel that way, we will undoubtedly, like anywhere else, make investment in the state (Bengal). Driving home the social and economic development aspect, he said: I think we would have created 8,000 jobs in and around that region when the plant was operational. I think, for the state, it was good. We would not have exploited anybody nor wish to participate in that.

After the verdict, Tata Motors said it was studying the judgement to decide its next course of action and is most likely to appeal, but even if Tatas were to lose this battle, in the long run, this is a defeat for Bengal, making it even for difficult for the state to return to its days of industrial glory.

sudipta.datta@expressindia.com