Mamata and the Centre: Friendly business?

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with state Finance Minister Mitra during closing day of Bengal Global Business Summit in Kolkata
It pays to be friends with the Centre. The who’s who of India Inc, who turned up in large numbers last week at the Bengal Global Business Summit, had visited Kolkata before. That was about a decade ago, when the state was ruled by the Left front, which happened to be the second largest constituent of the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee concluded Bengal Global Business Summit 2016 saying it was an “excellent, fabulous and superb” conclave. That rang true, given that some of the most prominent faces from the business community such as Reliance Industries’ Mukesh Ambani, JSW group’s Sajjan Jindal, and Bharti Enterprises' Rakesh Bharti Mittal — who had given the last few editions of the state's annual investors’ summits a miss — had turned up. Yet, there is a sense of déjà vu about it.

A government-level meeting in Kolkata for Ambani dates back to 2006 when he came down to meet the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and industry minister Nirupam Sen to discuss a range of projects including state-wide agri hubs, retailing chains, and piped natural gas. Jindal’s mega steel plant and power project was first announced in 2007, while the Mittals of Bharti have been taking an interest in West Bengal from around that time. There were many other industrialists who stopped by between 2005 and 2008 — including ArcelorMittal’s L N Mittal — when the Left front had 59 members of Parliament and had extended external support to the UPA government.

In 2006, at a seminar organised by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, Sunil Mittal who shared the dais with Bhattacharjee, had said, “This is my third visit in the past three months to the city, which shows the interest the region and the state has invoked.” West Bengal was then part of Bharti's plans for back-end retail. By then, Wipro had come and Nano had been announced; others were queuing up. Many of the investors have, however, modified their business interests with time.

Reliance has invested Rs 5,000 crore in creating next generation digital broadband and over the next 24 months, it would connect every single rural and urban school, 2,800 colleges and hospitals with high-speed internet. JSW has just laid the foundation stone for a Rs 800-crore cement plant and promised projects worth Rs 10,000 crore, while Airtel would be investing Rs 3,500 crore in the next three years.

The state government has said that a total of Rs 2,50,254 crore of business announcements, business documents exchanges, expressions of interest and investment proposals were received at the Bengal Global Business Summit.

JSW’s investment is also part of this list of projects, although a much bigger project from the group was part of the Left’s investment proposals of Rs 2.37 lakh crore it had bagged between 2005 and 2008. So is Deocha Panchami that accounts for Rs 20,000 crore of the Rs 23,300-crore investment in the mining sector. Projects such as Deocha Panchami or JSW, which had been in the slow lane all these years, are now gaining traction.

For instance, ITC Infotech had been wanting to set up an information technology facility since 2004. ITC chairman Y C Deveshwar said at the Summit that the company was undertaking a 3.5-million sq ft project of ITC Infotech and related service infrastructure. The investment will be Rs 1,650 crore.

Plus, the state now has an example in Haldia Petrochemicals to showcase what the Centre can do for it.

The Central government recently exempted the joint venture company from a tax demand in excess of Rs 2,000 crore, paving the way for a pending share transfer between TCG’s Purnendu Chatterjee and the government. Chatterjee has committed a Rs 20,000-crore refinery going forward.

But, the Left front is crying foul. “The investments that the state government is talking about are just stories. This government is anti-industry,” said Surjya Kanta Mishra, opposition leader in the West Bengal Assembly. Mishra and his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is sure to make lack of industrialisation in West Bengal an election issue. The party will lead a protest march from Singur to Salboni over the weekend to showcase the industrialisation drive initiated by Bhattacharjee.

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