Deterring development

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

A wall under construction at the Tata Motors project site at Singur in West Bengal.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

A wall under construction at the Tata Motors project site at Singur in West Bengal.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The last hurdle to the industrial development of West Bengal is the existence of a clutch of parasitic politicians without a vision.

SOME years ago, a small company that started in Kolkata, and with which I am associated in an honorary capacity, opened a branch office in Mumbai, and, later, another in Delhi. Soon the Delhi branch grew in size and in turnover and then they decided to close down the office in Kolkata.

It seemed to me to be a tragic thing to do and I said as much; but those who had started the company made it clear to me that they would have been the last persons to take such a decision, as they were born and brought up in that city, which they loved. But, they said, they really had no option. It was not that there was unrest and chaos in the office, or that it had become a great liability. "There's just nothing happening there," they said.

This was in the quiet years, after the decades of tumult, almost never-ending demonstrations, chaos in offices and factories, bandhs and strikes galore that reduced the once great citadel of economic power to a shabby, seedy mouldering area of urban blight, littered with closed offices and factories. Kolkata was a symbol of what was once; you looked at it and instantly thought of the past, never the future.

But then the tide seemed to be turning. The Left Front government left slogans concentrated seriously on trying to bring back to the State, and the capital, the economic prosperity it once seemed to be heading towards. `Bringing back' is perhaps not very accurate; they wanted economic prosperity ushered in all right, but in circumstances they could control and have a say in.

The government's efforts to alter the rural environment is too well known to recount but, having set that in motion, and having achieved a remarkable degree of success - the wheat crop in the State, to take an example, is said to be the second largest in the country - they turned to the city of Kolkata and the once great industrial structure that sustained it. Some amount of rebuilding was done, and one sees evidence of this in the flyovers, the new buildings, malls, residential complexes, and in the return of some of the more contemporary retail brands of consumer items. A showpiece is the information technology complex in Salt Lake City, as every resident of Kolkata will proudly tell you.

To some, who wish the State well, and always will, it seemed that at last the State was turning the corner. The assessment of those in the company I had mentioned was wrong; something was happening there, or was about to happen. And what greater symbol of this could there be than in Tata's announcing that their `people's car that would cost Rs.1 lakh would be located in Singur, in West Bengal?

And, when other States were busily announcing numerous Special Economic Zones (SEZs) it became common knowledge that West Bengal would have one in Nandigram.

To a State that had once been the economic hub of India, a great financial centre equal to, or almost equal to, Mumbai, to those who had seen it as it was then, until the shrewd J.R.D. Tata moved the aviation centre away from Kolkata, until freight equalisation took away the basis of Kolkata's economic health, and until slogan-shouting became the work culture of every office and industrial workplace, it seemed that this was a State whose time had, finally, come.

But no, it had not. Singur and Nandigram became focal points of political violence, posturings, Mamata Banerjee's fast-unto-death and killings. This was not the ushering in of a new era of economic prosperity; it was the beginning of what promises to be a continuous campaign against it.

And who is paying the price? The people, quite naturally, who have patiently waited for many years for prosperity to come to the State, to the hapless city of Kolkata. A publisher I met told me that whatever one says about the level of knowledge of the reading public in Delhi, they bought books during the Delhi Book Fair; in the Kolkata Book Fair there are thousands more who throng the stalls, who know about the books, but buy very few of them.

But one can perhaps take comfort from the fact that the State has overcome some formidable hurdles in its time; a terrible shortage of power; what seemed like endemic violence and unrest; a lack of investor confidence and a determination in the State government that industrial development must be given prime importance. The last hurdle is the existence, like a parasite, of a clutch of petty politicians, who have little by way of vision or commitment to the prosperity of the State but a capacity for mischief and chaos - and they do not belong to any one party. They exist in clumps in different parties, sharing only the urge to seek some political mileage out of the process of development.

Perhaps these, too, can be neutralised by nothing other than the determination of the people of the State that they shall work to attain greater development and prosperity; it was the awareness of this determination that has altered the priorities of the State government. It may well alter the strategies of those who seek immediate gain by stalling the progress to a better life.

The one quality that sustained the people all through these dismal decades has been patience and an unfading hope; these must sustain them now, even as the State learns to eschew its Pavlovian reaction to using musclemen and violence, and works out rational and practical strategies that harness the qualities that they must see in the people of the State. The priceless advantage they have is that they, and the people at large, want the same thing; all that needs to be sorted out are the details, and to remove the devils in them.

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