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When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Mamata Banerjee publicly, while returning home from India recently, she was underlining the Trinamool Congress chief’s momentous achievement of ending the 34-year-long uninterrupted Left rule. A year on, for Bengal as much as for Clinton, the Paribartan at Writers’ Building, the seat of power, stands as Banerjee’s most important achievement.
But ask the chief minister, and she will rattle a whole list of accomplished tasks—Darjeeling, Junglemahal, industry, jobs, and what not! In fact, she ‘solved’ most of Bengal’s problems in the first 90 days. Governments usually celebrate the first 100 days in power; but not Banerjee. She raised the bar by releasing a booklet marking achievements of the government in the first 90 days.
For the first year in office, a full-fledged fair, (ironically) named as Pragati (progress) Mela, is being organised at the Milan Mela grounds off EM Bypass to showcase the achievements of the new government. If that’s not enough, hoardings have been installed along the city’s important roads to remind the people of and celebrate the first year of Paribartan.
“We don’t need celebrations, we want the government to perform. The villages need electricity and in the city there are safety issues,” writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, who led the Paribartan campaign recently, said. Her words pretty much reflect the mood in Bengal.
It is rare for a ruling team so much stronger than the opposition to score self goals, but Banerjee seems to have done so with unparalleled elan.
The achievements—primarily routing the Naxals from Junglemahal, restoring the glory of Presidency College and relative peace in Darjeeling—have been marred by a series of incidents--the Park Street rape which the chief minister thought was fabricated, the Katwa rape, which was labelled as a Communist Party of India (Marxist) conspiracy, the arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for forwarding a morphed picture of Banerjee, arrest of acclaimed scientist Partha Sarathi Ray, flip-flop on foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail during the Clinton visit, etc.
These events have turned many of Bengal’s intellectuals, once on her side, against the chief minister. Industrialists were not among the chief minister’s favourites, anyway. Much of Banerjee’s woes, however, emanate from lack of industrialisation in Bengal.
One of the first things she did after coming to power was forming a committee to draft a land policy that legitimises her pre-election stand of non-government intervention in acquiring land for industrial projects—a pay-back for the resurrection of her political career that centred around anti-land acquisition movements. Her stand on special economic zones is now threatening to add Infosys and Wipro’s proposed campuses in Bengal to an already significant list of scrapped or uncertain projects that includes the Tata Nano car factory at Singur, Bhushan Steel project, Videocon steel plant, Nayachar chemical hub and Haripur nuclear plant.
Flight of business is not new to West Bengal. The excesses of the Left prompted several companies to move their headquarters out of the state in the 1980s. This includes tea major Brooke Bond India, ICI India, Shaw Wallace, Singhanias of JK Tyre and electronics giant Philips India. Though the Left Front government under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee attempted to arrest that trend, it failed to do so. JSW Ispat Steel (formerly Ispat Industries) is now looking to move its registered office from Kolkata. Ispat’s corporate’s headquarters was moved to Mumbai in 1994-95.
“When the law of the street takes over the law of the land, investors are unsure of the safety of their investment,” Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry president and Tata Metaliks managing director Harsh K Jha said.
The new government, however, claims to have garnered proposals worth over Rs 100,000 crore, though bureaucrats say most of these proposals, save Railway projects, were from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s regime.
“If we keep counting the same proposals over and over again, then the investment proposals will surely multiply,” an industrialist said.
In a way, the land policy of her own government has left Banerjee at the mercy of the Centre for bailing the state out from a gargantuan debt of over Rs 2 lakh crore.
“The only policy that the state government has to reduce its debt is to knock on the Centre’s doors, it seems. The state must generate resources,” Tata Steel Processing and Distribution managing director Sandipan Chakravortty said.
But Banerjee’s policies are not just a stumbling block for investment in Bengal, it’s for the country as a whole. Even though she has shown some flexibility in giving the go-ahead for a hike in power tariff and milk prices back home, the same was not extended to the Centre.
“If there is a single party that has held the country to ransom and throttled its growth and policy reforms story, then it has to be the Trinamool Congress. Whether it’s FDI in retail, land policies or railway fare hike, Mamata Banerjee has always been a spoiler. But she should realise that if her heart beats for the aam aadmi, no one would benefit more from FDI in retail than the farmers,” an industrialist said, on condition of anonymity.