Haldia crowns Basu 23-year reign
Wanted, a corporate hub
Pak ahead in Saraswati resurrection
Centre floats exit policy trial balloon
Fab Three to tell Beatles’ untold tale

 
 
HALDIA CROWNS BASU 23-YEAR REIGN 
 
 
FROM SUTANUKA GHOSAL AND SUMIT DAS GUPTA
 
Haldia, April 2 
At 12.18 pm, under a shamiana bedecked in Haldia’s sunrise colours of red and gold, chief minister Jyoti Basu lit the traditional lamp to make a 23-year-old dream come true.

“This is the most important and visible symbol of success of the state government’s policies directed towards rapid industrialisation. For us, it is truly the millennium project,” said the chief minister, into his 23rd —and, possibly, last — year in office, after dedicating the Rs 5,170-crore Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd “to the state and the nation”.

But the question-mark over the project’s viability looms larger than ever before. “All the effort and the money that have gone into HPL will be wasted if this plant is not converted into a great business,” warned partner Purnendu Chatterjee.

For the great Eastern Indian hope to be fulfilled, the great downstream dilemma must be resolved.

During Sunday’s gala opening, however, the troubles of tomorrow were swamped by the triumph of today. The flare and smoke rising from the naphtha cracker plant under the scorching April sky provided a vibrant backdrop to what industry minister Bidyut Ganguly called “the biggest occasion in 200 years of Bengal’s industrial history, and the last 10 years of India’s industrial history”.

Led by HPL partners Purnendu Chatterjee and Ratan Tata, the two-hour ceremony turned out to be an unabashed tribute to the 86-year-old chief minister, whose uninterrupted 23-year reign had begun with the Haldia promise in 1977.

“This will come as a surprise to many, but my relationship with the state government can be summed up in one word: excellent. The government has been most professional and pragmatic in its dealings. It is thanks to Jyoti Basu that this dream has become a reality,” declared the Tata group chief.

“When I left India in 1971, Jyoti Basu was fighting a political battle on the streets of Bengal. He then went on to become India’s greatest chief minister,” gushed The Chatterjee Group (TCG) boss.

HPL chairman Tapan Mitra, managing director A. Krishnamurthy, WBIDC chairman Somnath Chatterjee, finance minister Asim Dasgupta and Haldia Development Authority chairman Lakshman Seth, all harped on “the honourable chief minister’s personal, unflinching commitment” to the project.

Basu turned the HPL dedication dais into a pre-poll platform. Blasting the Centre for its continued neglect of the East, he said “as long as the love and blessings of the people” remained with the Left Front, it would “remain in power”.

Basu was confident HPL “will bring about a real turnaround of the industrial scenario of West Bengal by triggering off a chain of new investments in the downstream segments”.

Despite Basu’s euphoria, there is no escaping the viability question. The company, where the WBIDC, Chatterjee Petrochem and the Tata group are shareholders, has a non-sponsored equity component of Rs 969 crore and debt portion of Rs 3,191 crore.

According to Tapan Mitra, the price of HPL products will be “competitive” compared to other producers. “Moreover, technologically some of the product grades are better than other manufacturers. We want healthy and fair competition and we know our points of strength,” he said.

But a section of the industry gathered at Haldia felt that “price-cutting is a short-sighted strategy”. The current plan is to market 35-40 per cent of HPL’s production through direct trade sales and divert the rest to downstream projects. The target is to raise sales to the downstream to 80 per cent in the next four years.

“If HPL seeks my advice on downstream projects, I would say that it’s better to bring in some 10 big toy manufacturers than to encourage 1,000 balti- makers,” said Purnendu Chatterjee.

The partner, credited with giving the “much-needed push” to the project, also laid down five goals for HPL to make it a success story — customer loyalty; management agility; asset productivity; rapid growth; and single-minded drive.

As of today, HPL aims to achieve 80 per cent capacity utilisation in the first calendar year of its operation. The products will be intensively marketed in the eastern and southern parts of the country, including eastern Uttar Pradesh. “Export is a key option and Bangladesh a likely destination,” said senior officials of HPL.

The plant will produce 1 million tonnes of “world-class polyolefins and associated liquid co-products”. Only an adequate number of downstream projects can absorb this huge capacity.

WBIDC sources said HPL has not yet received any major downstream proposal. Only three companies, Supreme Industries, Neelkamal Plastics and Marcus Oil, have made a commitment.

Bayer of Germany, which had earlier shown interest in a downstream project, seems to have backed out.    


 
 
WANTED, A CORPORATE HUB 
 
 
BY SUJAN DUTTA
 
Calcutta, April 2 
Haldia Petrochemicals, formally inaugurated by Jyoti Basu today, is house-hunting.

The company’s management has been making intensive but discreet enquiries that have Calcutta realtors guessing which property it will home in on.

Management representatives have visited several properties and sounded brokers for a single building to house HPL’s corporate offices. The company is looking for upwards of 25,000 square feet but it will choose the size of its new home after deciding if the price suits its budget.

HPL’s offices are now located on three floors of 1 Auckland Place. But once commercial production begins in three months, more space will be needed.

Among the properties seen by HPL’s representatives is a highrise on the Park Circus connector to the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass and a shiny new structure just off Park Street. While the first was thought to be “not prominent enough”, the second, on which a senior manager of the company had set his heart, offered more than 50,000 square feet, and was too pricey. One realtor said HPL was talking of around Rs 15 crore.

One property offered to the company was a sprawling 45-50,000 square feet on the first three floors of an old highrise on Chowringhee Road. But the company’s management is not happy with the upkeep of the building.

The management is now examining a new building in South Calcutta that is mortgaged to a financial institution by the company housed in it. Apparently, the company has defaulted so many times on loan repayment that the financial institution could attach the property. HPL has shown interest in leasing or buying the property.    


 
 
PAK AHEAD IN SARASWATI RESURRECTION 
 
 
FROM DIPTOSH MAJUMDAR
 
New Delhi, April 
Pakistan has beaten India in the rediscovery of the Saraswati river. While Indian hydrologists are still working on its palaeolithic channels under the Thar desert, Pakistan, already drawing water from the river on its side, has handed over the job of extracting more water to a German firm.

Saraswati finds several mention in ancient Vedic literature. Seventy-five shlokas in 10 mandals (books) of the Rig Veda refer to the river. Hymns extol the virtues of the river in both Yajur and Atharva Vedas.

Saraswati is mentioned as one of the Sapta Sindhu (seven rivers) flowing towards the south-west. Five of these, now tributaries of the Indus, flow through undivided Punjab. Hydrologists, though not historians, insist that both Saraswati and Yamuna flowed westward till Saraswati’s bed was covered by the desert.

The Mahabharata mentions the disappearance of Saraswati. The river also finds a reference in Vamana Purana and other puranic literature like Srimadbhagavat, Skandha, Markandeya and Vayu Purana.

Indian hydrologists working with the Central Ground Water Authority have taken up the “Saraswati Project” to trace the “hidden courses” of this “mythological river”. The Rajasthan State Ground Water department, the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre and the Regional Remote Sensing Centre are also working on the project.

The palaeolithic channels, which at some places go deeper than 10 km below the surface, cannot be dug open. But water can be pumped and millions benefited. Three Pakistani districts are already benefiting from the palaeochannels.

The Pakistani Army at Tharpurkar, Cholistan and Windervalley forced the administration to find water for the army encampments strategically set up in the arid stretches. At some places in Pakistan, the channels are only 20 metres deep.

More importantly, Pakistanis have found that the water is fresh and sweet although it is buried under sand. According to Indian sources, the German firm, BGR, is working for the Pakistanis to bring up more water. An initial survey has shown that the palaeochannels on Pakistan’s side can yield a fresh potable water supply for a population of about 1.6 million for nearly 125 years.

Work is proceeding fast on the Pakistani side which is keen to reduce the hardship of its soldiers even more than benefiting the local population.

Only after the Pakistan government made a headstart, the Indian government, especially water resources minister C.P. Thakur, showed keenness in a project that has not been funded properly.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that water is available from several palaeochannels flowing under the desert in Rajasthan. But since very little extraction survey was conducted through boring, there is not enough data to indicate if the cost-benefit ratio would allow commercial exploitation of the water.    


 
 
CENTRE FLOATS EXIT POLICY TRIAL BALLOON 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 2 
In a bid to facilitate retrenchments, lay-offs and closures, labour minister Satya Narain Jatiya has reopened the debate on exit policy.

“The government will identify areas where a policy of hire and fire can be applied and those that will be exempt from such a policy,” Jatiya said in Chandigarh today.

But the minister’s statement ran into opposition from trade unions who reacted angrily, saying they would resist any attempt to introduce the policy. “The whole exercise of the National Labour Commission is to change labour laws to facilitate retrenchments,” said a Citu leader.

The Industrial Dispute Act has a clause, Chapter 25, which lays down stringent conditions for retrenchment of workers and closure of industrial units.

“The government has been wanting to scrap Chapter 25 for a long time. But we have stalled the move,” a trade union leader said.

The demand for an exit policy came up during the Narasimha Rao regime, which kickstarted the process of economic liberalisation. Enthused by the opening up of the market and breaking down of trade barriers, industry looked for easier ways to streamline the workforce.

P.A. Sangma, who was labour minister then, landed himself in the middle of a raging debate, locking horns with trade union leaders who refused to agree to Chapter 25 being watered down.

Sangma had to retreat in the face of the trade union backlash.

The Atal Behari Vajpayee government has taken several hard economic and financial decisions, but the exit policy still continues to be taboo.

It was not part of the exim policy announced on Friday that allows special economic zones to be set up.

Labour ministers have time and again reminded — without result — Left trade unions of the easy retrenchment policies in a socialist country like China, where workers are fired at will in some special economic zones.

Trade unions are apprehensive that the terms of reference of the second labour commission are going to form the backdrop to framing an exit policy.

“The labour minister has said that labour laws will have to be amended keeping in view the requirements of liberalisation,” said a Citu leader, adding that “rationalisation” of labour means paring the workforce.

“Now that the government is going full steam ahead with liberalisation, it is only natural for it to renew a discussion on exit policy,” said a trade union leader.

The Union Cabinet has already amended the 1926 Trade Union Act, giving recognition to only those unions which have at least 10 per cent of the workforce with them. The labour ministry will preside over the annual labour convention beginning in Delhi from April 14.    


 
 
FAB THREE TO TELL BEATLES’ UNTOLD TALE 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
London, April 2 
This almost sounds like a day late April Fool’s joke but The Sunday Telegraph in London today ran a long front page story claiming that the autobiography of The Beatles will be published this autumn by the three surviving members of the world’s most famous band.

The report said the three authors have spent the past six years working on The Beatles’ Anthology, which is expected to earn them around £ 1 billion. An equal share of the proceeds will go to John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, whose husband was shot dead in New York in 1980.

The 360-page book, described as “the size of an edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica”, will cost around £ 50 and be published worldwide. It will reveal details of not only the rise of the band through the 1960s but also the Fab Four’s drug taking, sexual exploits, rivalries and jealousies. A total of 1,200 photographs, some unpublished, has been collected for the glossy hardback.

It is understood that the anthology will be published in London by Cassell and in the US by Chronicle Books. Both have been asked to prepare for a multi-million print run. The book will also be translated into many languages.

One aspect of the book will focus on the reason why the band split up 30 years ago. Although Sir Paul McCartney has been held responsible by many, the blame in the book will be pinned on Lennon.

It is not as though the band members need the money. According to estimates, McCartney is said to be worth £ 550 million, George Harrison £ 90 million and Ringo Starr £ 70 million.

The three have met to discuss the book at the headquarters of Apple Corps, their company in Knightsbridge, London, which has Yoko Ono as a director.

It is not known how much attention will be given to the band’s close relationship with Ravi Shankar. Many would argue that it was Harrison’s fascination with the sitar which helped to launch Ravi Shankar’s career in the West, though he would claim it was his genius which gave wider acceptability to The Beatles. The friendship between Harrison and Ravi Shankar endures to this day.

More than 400 books have been written about The Beatles but one offered from the inside is certain to be a best seller. The three apparently see it as an attempt to put the record straight.

Credit will be given to their manager, Brian Epstein, who was known as the “fifth Beatle” and who died in 1967 at the age of 32 from a drugs overdose. The book is written in the first person. Researchers have pieced together hundreds of statements made by Lennon and woven into the overall picture provided by the others.    

 

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