Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Worsening Wasteland of West Bengal

Murdered Noor Ali Molla, a supporter of TMC in Shasan, N 24 Pgs on 27.10.09

Wasteland of West Bengal

Shikha Mukerjee

The State is losing the fight to gain a place among the locations that will power India towards fulfilling its potential as an economic power. Along with the Nano, other possibilities too have fled and the return of the Maoists shows West Bengal is an inhospitable place for investors.

The right to agitate to wrest concessions from an inert and insensitive authority is legitimate. The legitimacy of agitations that convert busy places bustling with new activities into wastelands is questionable.

Travelling down the Durgapur Expressway that links up with the National Highway, once upon a time the Grand Trunk Road, the desolate enclosed factory lands with sheds that are waiting for the ravages of time and climate to grow rusted is a painful reminder that West Bengal is losing the fight to gain a place, however modest, among the locations that will power India towards fulfilling its long delayed potential as an economic power. If the loss were confined to just one factory — the Tata Motors manufacturing facility for the Nano car, the waste would have been less visible and less painful.

Along with the Nano other possibilities too have fled. The busy expressway is reverting to a sleepy expressway. The dhabas and the restaurants, the parking lots for trucks and the burgeoning housing projects have all dwindled, waiting to die a natural death. Everything is there, but there is nothing to sustain the investments in eateries, parking lots, housing, godowns. Even the stands displaying garish buntings that truckers buy to adorn the behemoths have declined. There are fewer of them now than before.

All of this is a reminder that West Bengal had a future and that future has been killed off by competitive and ultimately destructive politics. Thirty years ago, there was a rust belt in West Bengal that stretched from Kolkata across the lush green acres of Hooghly, Howrah, Burdwan, the undivided districts of Midnapore and 24 Parganas. The rust was from factories that had shut down because the investors had decided that West Bengal was politically too volatile for comfortably doing business. During those years, the tea gardens too witnessed a slide. The jute industry limped, the engineering industry rusted.

The slow climb out of the deep well of despair took decades, hampered by ideological barriers against computerisation and modernisation that required the obsolete to be discarded and new machines and new ways to be adopted. Small engineering fled to several places including Pune, Ludhiana, Jalandhar. Policy ensured that the big public sector investments and the so-called big private sector investments were made in less developed places. West Bengal’s economy

Post 1977, there was land reforms that released productive energies in agriculture. For West Bengal that was consolation because economic activity picked up some pace, even though that pace was obviously slow. There were cautious efforts to lure back investors. Even after 1994 and the brand new industrial policy resolution that adapted economic reforms and liberalisation to fit the rhetoric of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), there was little forward movement.

The one big success was the Haldia Petrochemicals Limited and the almost stealthy entry of the IT sector. Possibilities began emerging, albeit hesitantly.

Then with a bang, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee launched his successful mission to bring in the investors. Tata Motors came and Singur despite the land row started off with the certainty that West Bengal would become a global destination since the Nano would be manufactured here. The Rs 1 lakh small car that challenged every big car maker in the world was all set to transform West Bengal’s image even if not every segment of the State’s economy.

The anti-land acquisition movement threatened and then killed the Nano project. It also produced a spectacular political revival of the Opposition, led by the Trinamool Congress and its leader Mamata Banerjee. The contested land located on the Durgapur Expressway is now a series of sheds awaiting the onset of corrosion. Beside the contested land other sheds too seem to be similarly unemployed. The traffic on the expressway is lighter. The numbers of trucks trundling along are fewer, and far fewer of them are waiting to move either up or down the road. Instead of hectic movement, if the Nano plant had survived the politics of West Bengal, there is a sluggish movement of goods. The toll gates look underused and there are fewer police manning them, because the traffic is light.

And now there are the Maoists. Even if the Maoists are spread across some 180 odd districts of India, even if the purpose of the Centre’s crackdown on them is as Arundhati Roy claims to clear the way for international mining interests, the connection between violent ultra Left politics and West Bengal is special. The original Naxalite movement started here. The return of the Maoists is a reminder that West Bengal is an inhospitable place for investors.

Sweeping down the expressway two years ago, there was a lot of activity around Dankuni. Branded as the new Kolkata west of the original city, a township was in the making. The ugly sculpted horses on top of a gate that led from nowhere to nowhere marked the beginning of a brave new world. The horses and the gate remain, the housing project has slumped and DLF’s investment has disappeared.

The wasteland is beginning to creep back and soon West Bengal will revert to its rust belt status. All activity will be political. For those who want to or must because they need to earn a livelihood, the multiple new train connections will speed an army of low cost labour out of West Bengal. Those who get left behind will constitute the miserable proletariat, ripe for political manipulation.

Courtsey : Sikha Mukerjee||

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