The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Japan speaks for Bengal to diplomats

New Delhi, Sept. 29: Questions were asked about Bengal’s financial health and the chief minister was quizzed inevitably about labour relations, but there were the British, the Danes and, above all, the Japanese who stood up for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

At his first meeting with diplomats from countries with large overseas investments, the chief minister and his team tried to sell Bengal as a peaceful state with a politically stable environment.

Industries and commerce secretary Sabyasachi Sen made a presentation during the session with diplomats from some 15 countries, including the US, UK, Germany and Japan, and the European Commission.

Industry minister Nirupam Sen and West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation chairman Somnath Chatterjee helped Bhattacharjee make his case, buoyed by data that the state was second in attracting domestic investment in the last financial year.

Foreign investment is pitiful and today’s exercise was the first serious effort to go to the people that will carry tales to investors in their countries.

The Japanese representative issued a glowing certificate: “West Bengal is the most progressive state in the country.”

It was also disclosed that the Japanese were backing up this conviction with hard cash. Mitsubishi, already operating at Haldia, will make more investments.

There were uncomfortable questions — the like of which the chief minister may not face from businessmen. The French representative asked: “What’s the fiscal deficit of the state' Is it capable of carrying on with development activities with its state of finance'”

State finances are in a mess, which is hardly a secret. Nirupam Sen blamed that on the Centre, which was predictable.

“We hear so much about labour trouble. What’s the true state of labour relation in Bengal'” asked Mark Runacecres, British deputy chief of mission.

Bhattacharjee replied: “We have made it clear that irresponsible behaviour won’t be tolerated.”

Most of the diplomats were guarded in their response. While some simply made perfunctory remarks like “very good” and “highly interesting”, others wanted more clarifications from the government in terms of incentives before making a statement.

Bhattacharjee mingled with the diplomats for a while after the meeting.

Information technology, food processing, leather, chemicals and infrastructure were some of the areas where he sought foreign investment.

The Danish ambassador, Michael Sternberg, expressed trust in Bengal’s future. “We are confident about the state’s potential and want to offer soft loans. But we can’t do it because of central government guidelines.”

The British, too, were not happy with Delhi’s attitude in the backdrop of a dispute Bengal is having with the Union finance ministry over development funds.

“We are not interested in loans. If the central government permits, we will offer grants,” the British representative said in another expression of faith in Bengal.

Delhi is treating a large portion of the grants given by a UK development finance institution as loan and, therefore, carrying interest, to which Bengal has objected.

Bhattacharjee said he had met finance minister Jaswant Singh today and discussed the problem. “He promised to look into the issue and clear the decks for accessing these funds.”

The Indian Chamber of Commerce had organised the evening’s session with the state government. “I think after this, they will have a different image of West Bengal,” Sen said later.

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