The West Bengal Cabinet cleared the formation of West Bengal Industrial Promotion Board (WBIPB) on Monday to expedite investment proposals. The 16-member Board, which will be led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, consists of ministers and secretaries of industry, MSME, finance, land and land reforms, IT and tourism.
WBIBP is Mamata’s second big decision concerning industries after she have the charge of the commerce and industry ministry to her trusted colleague Partha Chattopadhya, who had held the portfolio in the first Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in 2011, to relieve an ailing Amit Mitra.
The quick decisions come as Mamata realises that she has little to show in terms of industrial progress in the last 10 years of her rule despite several investment summits during which industrialists showed interest in investing big amounts in the state.
Secondly, Mamata thought that her involvement in the board will give a big push to industrialisation and ensure close coordination among the ministers and officials of various departments that are part of the board.
Thirdly, Mamata had promised 1.5 crore jobs during her election campaign this year should the TMC come back to power. But generating employment on such a large scale is impossible without large investment in the manufacturing, MSME and services sectors. With economic activity already slowing down and a massive loss of jobs during the pandemic, Mamata opted for an early start.
Mamata has to take follow-up steps early to prove to prospective investors that the government is serious about industrialisation this time. The 2017 West Bengal Incentive Scheme expired in 2019 and hasn’t been renewed. Had there been a spate of job-generating investment proposals, the state would have relaunched it in the last 23 months.
The government also has to spell out its land acquisition policy clearly and assure big-ticket investors that it will act as a facilitator in acquiring land should circumstances arise.
Mamata’s fierce agitation against the Tata Nano project in Singur had forced the promoters to abandon the venture despite 80 per cent completion. She also fiercely protested the land acquisition for a special economic zone in Nandigram and a 10,000 MW nuclear power project to be built with Russian collaboration at Haripur, both in East Mednapore district. She protested the nuclear power project for environmental reasons but had promised to set up an eco park in Nandigram, which is yet to materialise.
Mamata’s repeated assertion that land is not an issue in investment has not helped dispel the doubts of industrialists. Taking a clean break from the past, the government should publicise details of locations and the size of land already available for acquisition.
Mamata also forced the Centre to part with the Tajpur deep sea port project, in West Medinipur, contending that it was not serious about implementing it. Two years have passed since the Centre accepted her proposal.
The state is also silent on the proposed 1,600 MW NTPC thermal power plant near Katwa, in Purba Bardhaman, for which 55 per cent of land had been acquired by the erstwhile Left Front government. Subsequently, the capacity was scaled down to 1,320 MW.
The chief minister should also abolish the ‘syndicate raj’, the preserve of TMC activists, who force investors to purchase building materials, often of inferior quality, at higher prices.
Mamata’s top priorities to generate investment should be to launch a new incentive scheme, remove all doubts regarding the availability of land and eliminate the syndicate raj.
Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, Rajya Sabha member from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says the WBIPB is a “gimmick”.
“With her ill-conceived agitations against land acquisition at Singur and Nandigram and the subsequent hands-off land policy, she has destroyed hopes for setting up of job-generating manufacturing units which could have thrived along with the services sector. After winning an election, she talks about industries but little happens,” he told Newsclick.
“With 213 MLAs, the party cannot find a temporary replacement for Mamata (who lost the election at Nandigram) and a substitute for ailing Amit Mitra to handle the finance portfolio. Given her negative attitude, a new board won’t change the situation,” he added.
Professor Surajit C Mukhopadhyay, who teaches sociology at Amity University at Raipur, Chhattisgarh, has a different take. “I welcome the setting up of the WBIPB. She, perhaps, feels the state government must be active about industrialisation to boost revenues and create jobs. With several cash transfer schemes weighing heavily on the exchequer, the government may find it difficult to sustain them. Increasing revenues is important. Populist policies can’t be continued indefinitely,” he told Newsclick.
Mukhopadhyay said that “since people’s expectations have risen considerably, avenues for revenue generation have to be explored. Job seekers from West Bengal have been heading to other states for a pretty long time”.
‘Earlier, we had trainloads of students headed to Pune, Chennai, Bengaluru and other states as our state lacked educational institutions of their choice. That situation improved in recent years. Similarly, we need to create jobs for the youth. The answer lies in industrialisation,” Mukhopadhyay argued.
The chief of Indian National Trade Union Congress, West Bengal Unit, Qamarujjaman Qamar too supported the initiative and hoped Mamata would revive the interest of prospective investors. “Sajjan Jindal was committed to setting up an integrated steel plant at Salboni, West Medinipur district. But the group set up a cement plant instead since sourcing iron ore from Odisha was difficult. The investment was a fraction of what a large integrated steel complex would have entailed,” Qamar told Newsclick.
Asked about the proliferation of IT units, Qamar said, “Many of them are glorified call centres with their owners sitting in the US. The picture is depressing. Therefore, if the WBIPB does its job, it will mark a welcome change.”
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. The views are personal