On 3 October, 2008, nearly 28 months after announcing their Singur project and subsequently pumping in Rs 1,500 crore, Tata Motors chairman Ratan Tata announced he's pulling out of the state, praising Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and laying the blame entirely on Trinamool's door.
“The chief minister was very persuasive in his desire for us not to move. We faced agitation not from the government, but from the opposition….You cannot run a plant with police protection. We cannot run a plant with walls broken. We cannot run a project with bombs thrown. We cannot run a plant with people intimidated."
The embers had not died even six years later. The TMC, now in power, launched a scathing attack on Ratan Tata when during a visit to the state the Tata Sons' chairman emeritus had said he could not see much of industrial development.
State finance and industries minister Amit Mitra said Tata was suffering from delusion and advised him to indulge in his hobby of flying, while urban development minister Firhad Hakim said he might have "lost his mind" after retiring as chairman of the conglomerate.
Bengal as a business destination sounded almost like an oxymoron.
So on Friday when the Bengal Global Business Summit kicked off with a glitzy short film that painted a rosy picture of the state, it required from all concerned a willing suspension of disbelief.
For her part, Mamata Banerjee left no stone unturned to woo the biggest captains of corporate India yesterday as if in penance for having single-handedly driven the Tatas out. She launched a passionate defence of her tenure and rolled out countless statistics to show that the much-touted 'poriborton (change)' is indeed here.
In the battle against historical perception of Bengal as a business-unfriendly state and her own past as a leader whose path to power was paved with anti-business rhetoric, Mamata laid out claims after claims.
With the BJP's central ministers seated on the dais, the TMC chief was also careful to avoid any discord.
"In a federal structure, if the state grows, the country also grows," she started, adding "it's a joint venture."
Touting that "Bengal is ahead in all parameters of business friendliness," the CM said: "We far exceeded India in growth of GVA, industry and agriculture.
"Our per capita income is double that of India. Our revenue generation has increased by 200% in four years, capital expenditure (asset creation) has increased by 600%.
"Our agriculture and rural development expenditure has increased 547%, planned expenditure has increased by 311%, spending on physical infrastructure has increased by 330%.
Pitching the state as a regional hub, the CM said Bengal can not only serve as the gateway to the 'seven sisters' (the north-eastern states), it can lead to the growth of entire region.
"A footprint in Bengal helps you to extend operations in the North-East, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and entire south-east Asia,” she said, reminding the industrialists about the upcoming network of Asian highways that will pass through the state.
"We have a new airport at Andal which offers tax free fuel and has already shown 40% growth," she said.
Industry needs land, and in an attempt to preempt the sensitive issue, Mamata Banerjee sought to assure investors that she has reserved enough of it.
"How much land do you need? We have a land bank, a land map, and land use policy. There are 5000 acres available for industry right now.”
That’s a staggering change in stance from her ‘maa, maati, maanus’ election slogan suggesting that Mamata has learnt her lessons the hard way. But industry will still be wary for a long time because not much has changed on the ground.
TMC's Singur protest hinged on the Left Front government's decision to "forcibly" take land from the farmers. It was followed by thousands of activists and party members laying siege at the factory site. Even in power, the chief minister had always maintained that her government will never go for "forcible acquisitions" and had, on countless occasions, claimed that she had been able to complete various projects through direct land purchase.
Bengal's inherent problem, though, lies in the reality that setting up of big industrial projects is a challenge because vast tracts of land are unavailable.
Sources in her own government reveal that almost 90% of the land bank is made up of small, scattered clusters which more often than not is mired in litigations or illegal encroachments. And even if there are big enough plots, these are unviable for manufacturing units in terms of infrastructure, situated as they are in remote areas.
In fact, during the last summit, the Chief Minister had reiterated her stand, urging the industrialists to go in for negotiation to purchase and acquire land directly from farmers, clarifying that Trinamool was not against land acquisition.
But the trouble is, few companies are keen on acquiring land on their own. The motive is not to deny the farmers a fair value but more a logistical issue of talking to and persuading hundreds of farmers and then collating the land. It becomes difficult to do so without government intervention. Delay in the project pushes up its cost manifold and ultimately results in abortion.
"Bengal is a power surplus state", said the chief minister on Friday. "We have a power bank. We miss loadshedding (power cuts) these days," she said, adding a touch of humour.
The fun evaporates though when one looks at data that reveal Bengal's power surplus is more the result of paucity of industries. The industrial demand for electricity has been growing only at 2-6% annually in recent years, compared to the 10-15% during 2001-2009, say power department officials according to a report in The Telegraph.
The TMC chief claimed that Bengal has a massive, unskilled and skilled workforce that is ready to be employed. She claimed that 'mandays' lost has come down to zero compared to the Left Front regime and there have been not a single day lost due to strike.
That is indeed heartening.
But underlying the gloss is the worry that Bengal's 'syndicate culture', where local musclemen and mafia, in cahoots with party leaders, have created a culture of extortion.
These rackets use an army of unemployed youths to arm-twist mostly construction business owners to accept materials on unreasonable terms.
So acute is the problem that Mamata Banerjee, during the recent inauguration of Sajjan Jindal's proposed Rs 800-crore cement plant, told "local people" in Salboni that they should behave themselves and not make life difficult for the JSW Group chief.
“Be good to the Jindals. Let them do their work. We must not interfere in their internal business... Don’t ask them for contracts and jobs,” Mamata said last Wednesday.
Add to that Bengal's old scourge of militant trade unionism which has worsened due to squabbling among Trinamul factions.
What would bring relief to Mamata ahead of the April-May Assembly polls, however, is the blank cheque signed by all business captains, praising her as an agent of change who has turned around a moribund state into a hopeful one and has ushered in an era of business-friendliness through ease of doing business, single-point e-window for licenses and hands-on intervention.
Despite their large-hearted praise though, the captains of corporate India were rather thrifty in committing fresh investments. Instead they delivered figures that either included announcements made last year or projects that are still under way.
It is telling that the biggest proposal of fresh investment came not from the private sector but from the Centre when shipping minister Nitin Gadkari announced an investment of Rs 53,000 crore in ports and roads.
According to statistics from the state ministry of industries, between 2011 and September 2015, Bengal saw an investment of Rs 6,871 crore, working out to Rs 1,374 crore per year. It isn't the worst but in contrast, Gujarat received investments worth Rs 22,576 crore in the same period per year.
If there is no dramatic uptick in investment announcements today, the concluding day of the business summit, it can be safely said that it was high on rhetoric and low on numbers. Mamata did seem to have changed her stripes. And India Inc. will be mildly interested in West Bengal. But it’ll take a while before they will be invested in it.
Grand and glitzy as the event was, the carpet that was rolled out was in Mamata’s favourite colour, blue. India Inc. will wait for it to turn to red.
First Published On : Jan 11, 2016 08:48 IST