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East looks west, at Bengal
- After Salim, another Indonesian group set to meet Buddha

Calcutta, Feb. 4: Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s initiative to bring in foreign investment for projects in Bengal appears to be drawing a particularly good response from Southeast Asia.

A measure of Asian conglomerates’ current interest in Bengal is evident from Bhattacharjee’s meeting slated for February 6 and 7 with the scion of one of the continent’s super-wealthy families controlling the Jakarta-based Bakrie group.

Anindya Bakrie, 32, director of the Bakrie group (gross net worth approximately $5.5 billion or Rs 27,000 crores), and his team of executives are scheduled to fly into Calcutta via Bangkok on Friday and hold talks with Bhattacharjee around 4.15 pm at Writers’ Buildings on how best Bengal and Bakrie can do business in the days ahead.

Bakrie’s father, Abu Rizal, the group patriarch, is currently running for the Indonesian presidency on a ticket from the Golkar party. He also heads the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the country’s only industry lobby.

Today, the chief minister’s backroom strategists were busy stitching up an agenda for Thursday’s talks with Bakrie, which will be rounded off with a presentation in the evening.

Next day, Bakrie and his team will travel to Haldia, the industry hub that Bhattacharjee has showcased to give the foreign investor a perspective on a resurgent Bengal.

Chief secretary Ashok Gupta and a few key bureaucrats tasked to implement the chief minister’s Mission Industry worked through the best part of the day preparing the agenda in conjunction with Prasun Mukherjee, the Calcutta-born, Jakarta-based industrialist.

Mukherjee has been seeding the grounds — at the behest of Bhattacharjee — to enable the government to mount an aggressive campaign to market Bengal in Southeast Asia. Mukherjee himself has put forth hefty investment proposals relating to setting up of townships and information technology hubs.

According to officials connected with Bhattacharjee’s bid for foreign investment, the Bakrie group has expressed interest in setting up a palm oil refinery for which the oil would be sourced from Indonesia and, after refining, sold in the Indian market.

This apart, it wants to enter the Indian coal sector, privatisation of which is on the cards. In fact, the group has a worldwide coal business, the annual turnover from which is pegged at $1.7 billion.

Having kept in mind the scale of Bakrie operations in diverse fields, Bhattacharjee plans to explore the possibility of also getting the group to invest in in tourism, plantations, townships and the like.

Bhattacharjee’s plan is easy to comprehend if viewed in the light of the fact that the conglomerate owns Asia’s largest resort — Nirvana, spread across 1,800 acres in Bali and complete with four golf courses — and the largest township in Jakarta, runs a 50 strong-chartered aircraft company, operates a countrywide television channel, manufactures pipes and controls huge plantations across Southeast Asia.

Interestingly, the Bakrie visit comes in the slipstream of heightened Southeast Asian interest in Bengal, for which Benny Sentoso, the chief executive of Indonesia’s Salim group, can claim to have played a role.

After concluding his October 22 visit to Bengal, during which he discussed ambitious investment proposals with the Bengal government, Sentoso, who is virtually chased by governments the world over for investments, went back to describe Bhattacharjee as “a visionary” in many a Jakarta forum.

With a figure like Sentoso showering praises, the media exposure seems to be heightening the interest of the conglomerates in Bhattacharjee and Bengal.

Sentoso and his team are due to return to Calcutta towards the end of February with firm investment proposals, contingent upon the government fulfilling its role in acquisition of large tracts of lands and allotment of the same to Salim.

Sentoso has proposed investments in development of phases II and III at Rajarhat and of townships at Dankuni and West Howrah.

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