The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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US diplomat strikes out at bandh culture

Calcutta, June 3: Welcome, Mr Investor, declares the red carpet rolled out by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Watch the bandh, whispers the small print.

So, US consul-general GeorgeSibley asks: “If an American investor came to me and said, ‘the government told me there are never any work stoppages in West Bengal. Is this true'’ then what do you think I would tell them'”

He did not answer the question because it was so evident: he would have to tell them it’s not true.

In a rare moment of criticism of a host-country government, Sibley said efforts to draw foreign investors to the state were being seriously damaged by the sheer number of strikes.

On the day after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee returned from a trip to Mumbai dedicated to attracting investment, Sibley spoke of the role of the state as a “salesman moulding perception”, and rounded on the government’s “poor management of opportunities for the welfare of the economy as a whole”.

“The problem here today is that the rules are changing too slowly. The second generation of economic reforms, designed to improve transparency and competitiveness, has been hindered by political impediment. The government’s interest should lie in increasing investment, jobs and prosperity for the people of the region.”

Sibley was speaking at a conference on risk management organised by the Calcutta Management Association.

Moderating his stand somewhat, he told The Telegraph: “It is a mixed picture. There have been occasions on which I have seen serious labour problems. Discussions with the government have produced clear results. The government is working hard, but it’s not true to say there are no industrial problems here.”

He asked the government to step up efforts to curb industrial action. “I believe the purpose of organised labour is to protect workers’ rights, not to protect workers from work. The protection has gone too far, and the pendulum in West Bengal needs to swing back.”

Outgoing American Center director Rex Moser singled out the closure of Hindustan Lever’s detergent manufacturing plant in the city as a direct consequence of “work culture” problems.

“If labour protests too much, it ends up losing all the jobs,” he said. “Everybody says there’s a problem with the work culture here. I never even knew the term ‘work culture’ before I came to Calcutta. If eight working days or more are lost each year, this impacts significantly on productivity.”

Moser recalled the words of Sibley’s predecessor Christopher Sandrolini. “I remember him telling me of a US businessman who came to Calcutta, after great efforts. The day he arrived, there was a bandh, and he couldn’t do anything. He just turned right around, took the next flight home, and never came back.”

Today was the second consecutive day the government came under attack from American officials. In private remarks to visiting American students yesterday, Moser had spoken out against the poor health-care delivery system and strikes.

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