Kolkata: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee hosts the sixth edition of the Bengal Global Business Summit (BGBS) at a time when the state has remained in the news for wrong reasons for over two months, and even her present industry minister Partha Chattopdhyaya is under Calcutta High Court glare on the issue of severe irregularities in School Service Commission recruitments during his innings as education minister.
However, for Mamata, who helms her party, Trinamool Congress (TMC), convincing victory at the Asansol Lok Sabha and Ballygunge Assembly bye-election has proved to be the saving grace. In both cases, it is a sort of revenge against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – at Asansol TMC's Shatrughan Sinha, originally of BJP. Later a party hopper, he snatched the seat from BJP and at Ballygunge turncoat candidate Babul Supriyo, who was minister of state in the Modi ministry, carried the day.
BGBS is a two-day event, scheduled for April 20 and 21. Local entrepreneurs apart, representatives from 14 countries have confirmed participation at the event.
In her third term as CM, which began on May 5, 2021, she has been stressing industrialisation and employment generation right from the start. Political quarters saw it as her attempt to live down the Opposition charge of having failed to bring industries in her previous two terms and has caused a major setback to the state's economy through her prolonged agitation on the issue of land acquisition by the Left Front government for the Tatas' Nano car project at Singur in Hooghly district. Ultimately, the Tatas withdrew in the latter part of 2008 even though the project was almost 85% through at that point in time.
In a bid to convey her seriousness about industrialisation, she activated the proposal for the Deocha-Pachami coalmine in Birbhum district. She told the Centre that the state government would itself implement the proposed deep-sea port at Tajpur in Purba Medinipur district. Deocha-Pachami has a chequered history, but she has been harping on it because of its employment potential. Without disclosing the 'how' of it she has been claiming it can create job opportunities for a lakh of people directly and indirectly.
She has announced a compensation package for land losers and their rehabilitation in recent months. But agitation by the Opposition and sections of Adivasi residents is yet to be resolved by the state administration. A team of Adivasi leaders met CM at Nabanna on April 13 when they urged her not to pursue it, and reports have it that CM urged them to allow work at least on the government-owned part of the land. The team is yet to revert to CM.
It is being expected in industry circles that CM may announce the selection of the Adani Group for the Tajpur deep-sea port in Purba Medinipur district as the group has emerged as the highest bidder if Nabanna can sort out an important legal issue that cropped up lately. Following Gautam Adani's meeting with Mamata in December last and his son Karan's calling on CM in February, there is heightened speculation on the group's interest in West Bengal's industrialisation. A major port project spurs a host of industrial activity automatically over time, and the strongest point favouring the state administration is that land is not an issue at all. The group has wide experience in implementing and operating port ventures.
Right now, it is the highest bidder for the modernisation of Berth 2 of Haldia Dock. It also has gas distribution licences for certain parts of the state in partnership with Indian Oil. Some weeks back, its group outfit, Adani Wilmer, acquired a closed rice mill in the Purba Bardhaman district. All of these explain Nabanna's focus on this group which has its base in Prime Minister's state – Gujarat.
Viable, alternate industrial activity at Singur has been eluding Mamata since May 2011, when TMC grabbed power in the state, and her topmost priority then was to return the land to all those who, she has been claiming all through, were "forced" to give land for the car project. Return to farming on the returned land has proved a futile exercise. In recent weeks, the administration has allotted 10.27 acres of land owned by West Bengal Small Industries Development Corporation there to five parties for setting up agro-industries, according to a brief announcement by the industry minister. The original land givers continue to receive subsistence support from the state government.
During her regime, the state has seen investments in IT and ITES, food processing, leather, hotels, real estate, and cement sectors. Small-medium-scale investments have materialised in a gold jewellery park in Howrah district, a foundry park also in Howrah district and a warehousing facility Visible increase in the importance of West Bengal as a trading hub, availability of skilled workers at relatively low rates, inflow of a large number of youths from different parts of the country for IT and ITES sector jobs do deserve mention. The state, at last, has the presence of almost all essential players in the IT and ITES segments. The demand-supply factor explains the automatic growth of housing construction and the creation of cement capacity. Natural advantages, particularly soil fertility and active monsoon, explain investor interest in food processing.
But, hefty investments in heavy industries, such as integrated steel plants, heavy earth moving equipment, automobiles etc., are eluding the state, and the five BGBSs held during the Mamata regime did not help attract big-ticket investments. After the Tatas' withdrawal, atleast the first three BGBSs did not carry much conviction with investors with deep pockets. When CMs of states invite prospective investors, they do respond; they do attend conclaves ; they submit expressions of interest/intent, but follow-up is not visible in many cases. They remain EoIs.
In retrospect, Mamata did not pursue ventures conceived and proposed, often with support from the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh, with a vengeance. Her explanations were devoid of rationality. For example, a large nuclear power complex at Haripur in Purba Medinipur district with Russian collaboration, Singh personally took the initiative to include it in the protocol. She rejected it on the grounds of safety and damage to the ecology.
In sharp contrast, despite some opposition and concerns among citizens, Tamil Nadu ensured the implementation of the Kudankulam nuclear power venture under the aegis of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL). NPCIL scientists and experts at Atomic Energy Commission tried hard to convince Nabanna that ground realities and advances in technology did not bear out its apprehensions. But to avail, though the protocol remains valid to this day.
She has been equally obstinate about a petro-chemical hub at Nandigram in Purba Medinipur district, which was cleared by the then Union minister-in-charge Ramvilas Paswan and for which Indian Oil had agreed to be a key investor. Here again, she had made land acquisition an issue.
The third proposal, not pursued to culminate to this day by Mamata, is NTPC's Katwa super thermal power project. Buddhadev Bhattacharjee's ministry had arranged 55% of the required land. In the last three years, this has just not been mentioned by the state government. NTPC scaled down its capacity to make sure that there was no hitch on the land issue.
A key indicator of industrial progress in a state is the demand for industrial power. A rise in demand indicates momentum in industrialisation. The conclusion is obvious if Nabanna has not prevailed upon cash-rich NTPC, which has a proven track record, to fructify the venture at Katwa in Purba Bardhaman district.
The list is not complete without mentioning the financial hub proposal firmed up by the Left Front government. Mamata re-laid the foundation stone for it in an immature move a few years back. She has not spoken a word on its progress since then.
It remains to be seen whether serious investors who make it to BGBS this time round ignore the wrong reasons the state has remained in the news since February 18-19. In the last two months, there have been several instances of violence, rapes, and deaths in mysterious circumstances, including people being charred to death in what is widely believed to be retaliation over sharing the spoils of illegal activity.
The Calcutta High Court has already assigned several cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation, relieving, much to Nabanna's embarrassment, the special investigation teams of their assignment. Syndicates, which force builders to procure cement, sand, and other building materials, remain very active. So is the practice of extortion.