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Mamata showers crores on coal

Calcutta, Jan. 29: Only a fortnight in office and Mamata Banerjee has unleashed a Rs 10,000-crore thunder, joining her cabinet colleagues in the pre-poll splurge.

After denying herself the privilege of announcing “packages” by quitting the railway ministry, Mamata — now the coal and mines minister — made up for lost opportunities with a Rs 10,000-crore plan for the coal industry in eastern India.

Bengal-based Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL) and Bharat Coking Coal Ltd (BCCL), of Jharkhand, will be the beneficiaries of the scheme that has several components. Both companies are sick and have been referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction.

According to unaudited results for 2002-03, ECL’s loss was around Rs 310 crore and BCCL’s Rs 357 crore.

At a news conference today, Mamata made her Calcutta debut as coal minister by announcing that revival plans would be sent to the Board, proposing investments of Rs 2,000 crore in ECL and Rs 4,000 crore in BCCL.

ECL will also receive Rs 2,000 crore by way of expenditure on upgradation and expansion of the Rajmahal mines, which are in Jharkhand.

The other big chunk of the package is a 500 mw power plant that she said Neyveli Lignite Corporation would set up in Bengal as a joint venture with ECL at an investment of Rs 2,000 crore.

Mamata said under the revival package, none of the 1.14 lakh employees of ECL and 92,000 of BCCL would be retrenched, a move that turns on its head an earlier decision to close down some 64 collieries under ECL. Work has been suspended in four mines already, but will resume, according to Mamata.

With the Prime Minister recommending dissolution of Parliament on February 6, Mamata has to move fast to get the package approved by the cabinet. The coal ministry will formalise the package quickly but doubts remain whether permissions, at several tiers can be obtained for such huge investments before polls are announced.

Officials in the finance ministry said that while approval in principle could be given, the actual spending would have to be spread over a long period of time. Any such investment is of long-term nature in any case.

Therein lies the catch, too. After the elections, assuming that the NDA returns to power, there is no certainty Mamata will get coal again. It is well known that she prefers the railway ministry. If she does not, it is a matter of conjecture whether her successor will pursue these projects, especially given the condition of the two companies, with the same vigour.

A coal industry source said the two Coal India subsidiaries were referred to the Board in 1994, but no acceptable revival package could be worked out until Mamata’s immediate predecessor, Karia Munda’s tenure.

Thanks to the cabinet reshuffle earlier this month when she was allotted coal after spending months in Delhi without a portfolio, Mamata got to announce the package.

She appealed to trade unions to accept the revival package, promising to protect workers’ interests.

In the 12-13 working days she has had since taking over, the coal ministry also decided to build a hospital for Coal India employees in Calcutta that will match the standards of Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

The Calcutta mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, who belongs Mamata’s Trinamul Congress, has allotted a 16-acre plot for the hospital, for which the coal minister will lay the foundation stone later this week.

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