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Bengal’s labour pain cracks Coalition of the Willing
- American diplomat repeats misgivings on industrial climate, British counterpart begs to differ

Calcutta, June 4: They agreed on Iraq but can’t agree on Bengal.

The Coalition of the Willing came unstuck today when ambassadors of George W. Bush and Tony Blair pulled in different directions on the controversial question of labour relations in Bengal.

“A hangover of ideology persists, and unions need to change their attitude. It doesn’t seem to be changing fast enough,” said George Sibley, the US consul-general, who for the second day today spoke critically on the issue, though he cluck-clucked that the media reproduced every negative comment but glossed over all the good things he said about Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government.

Here’s what Andrew Hall, the British deputy high commissioner, had to say on the subject: “I tell investors back home if you manage your business well, you should not normally have any problem with labour in West Bengal. A number of British companies operate out of Calcutta. None of them has had any trouble with labour of late.”

It so happened that today itself the British revealed their intent to grant £452 million for three large projects in Bengal — for healthcare, improvement of services for the urban poor and decentralisation of powers in rural areas.

The perceptions diplomats send back home do have a link with the money that comes in — public or private — it would seem.

Speaking after the two diplomats — and after a second day of criticism from the US consul-general — Sabyasachi Sen, the principal secretary to the state’s department of commerce and industries, stepped with caution at the seminar organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry. “I would not like to react to impressions, but welcome criticism. It opens our eyes. Whatever the government had to say about the state, the chief minister said on his visit to Mumbai,” he said.

Maybe, Bhattacharjee should have taken along Hall, who blamed bad management in equal measure as trade union militancy and cited a presentation made by the Bengal labour commissioner recently before the business council of the British deputy high commission.

“He gave us an impression that man-days lost as a consequence of lockouts and bad management policies are five times man-days lost due to labour disturbances. So it’s not really a one-way street, and the situation differs from sector to sector,” Hall said.

Numbers are one thing but the numbness of a complete shutdown quite another. For Sibley, the strike on May 21 is top-of-the-mind recall.

The consulate here could not participate in a videoconference because of the strike but its counterparts in other Indian cities had no trouble logging in. “None of our employees could attend office that day,” Sibley said, revealing his annoyance.

Kenji Shimizu, the Japanese consul, listed labour relations as only one of the issues that need to be addressed, the others being transport facilities and law and order. He clarified that these were his personal views, and not that of his government.

All of the half-a-dozen diplomats who spoke were in complete agreement that the big push to trade and investment would have to come from an improvement in infrastructure.

They did acknowledge the initiatives taken by the government. “West Bengal has started late and is now playing the catching-up game. In information technology, for instance, it’s way behind the southern states,” Sibley said.

“I don’t see why the state should not do well — it’s got fantastic human capital — but there aren’t enough success stories in West Bengal as yet,” he added, explaining that “success stories” best promote a state.

Charlotte Seymour-Smith, the India head of the Department for International Development, the British development aid agency, obviously believes “success stories” can yet be scripted here.

She met the chief minister yesterday to discuss the three projects for which the agency is lining up the funds. Work is expected to begin next year and completed in five to seven years.

“The chief minister finds our efforts most productive and we found a very strong commitment towards poverty alleviation. We hope the projects in partnership with the Bengal government will take off next year,” she said.

The £102-million project on urban services for the city’s poor that will start first will involve improvement of governance and civic amenities in the Calcutta Metropolitan Area outside the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.

On the drawing board is a £200-million project on health-care services, which began in discussions on replicating the urban model in rural areas but is now sought to be made more broadbased.

Also in the works is a £150-million rural decentralisation project intended to create more empowered, accountable, participatory and pro-poor panchayati raj institutions.

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