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Calcutta 2006

Poll Toll

Will the chief minister's industrialisation drive, the CPM's cadre base and an Opposition in disarray return the Left Front to power for a record seventh successive term' Democracy will have its say when the state goes to the polls this year.

Last time around ' in 2001 ' the Left Front had bagged 199 of the 294 Assembly seats, with the CPM grabbing the bulk (143 seats) and the rest carved up among allies Forward Bloc (25), the RSP (17), the CPI (7) and others.

The result, for most, is a foregone conclusion. The matter of interest lies merely in the margin.

Whatever be the issues, this will be Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's election. Having emerged from the colossal shadow of his predecessor, Buddhababu is now very much the man in charge. And with the CM also wearing the hat of CEO, the grins and the glares are both growing.

If the CPM wins and wins big, it will silence Buddha's critics within the party and without. If the margin narrows, blame-it-on-Buddha could become the political anthem for some time to come.

Struggling to grab some of the spotlight is Mamata Banerjee, whose 2001 effort to unseat the Left, with help from the Congress, had flopped badly. The Trinamul Congress had managed only 60 seats and the Congress a mere 26.

The 2004 Lok Sabha polls saw the Trinamul losing eight MPs, with only Mamata managing to retain her Calcutta South seat. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation polls were no better as the CPM-led Left Front wrested the board from a divided Trinamul.

With the doors to Delhi, via the BJP-plus route, now virtually shut for her, Mamata will try other permutations and combinations to make a mark in Poll 2006. Will she or won't she ' opt for an open alliance with the Congress, that is ' is the question in the election countdown.

Infotech Trek

If Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee proudly proclaimed that Bengal's information technology (IT) industry was growing at 72 per cent compared to the national growth rate index of 35 per cent, he kept silent when goons from his own party-backed trade union held the city ' and his treasured tech bastion ' to ransom.

If N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys praised Calcutta for its infrastructure and knowledge base, Wipro's Azim Premji balked at the prices at which he was offered land for BPO operations.

Contradictions in the IT arena is what 2005 was all about.

But the big gain, feel industry players, lay less in the growth graph and more in the change of the perception about Bengal not being a good place for business.

'In 2006, we want to maintain, if not up this tempo of growth,' says G.D. Gautama, state IT secretary. His safe estimate for 2006 is an addition of 35,000 employees to the IT and ITES sector.

Where big players setting up shop is concerned, Satyam and Hinduja TMT are certainties for this year, while expectation runs high for Infosys finally coming to Calcutta.

'We expect a team from Infosys to come down and hold talks with us any time,' says an IT ministry official.

This year will also see the state's ITES sector making a move from business process outsourcing to knowledge process outsourcing services.

'2006 is going to see Bengal establish itself as a leader in the ITES space. The biggest advantage the state has is that development in the IT sector is going to happen in a much more planned manner than Bangalore,' feels Sanjoy Sen, partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Indu Khattar, head of Wipro's operations in Calcutta, says: 'In 2006, we will build on some of our newer service lines such as infrastructure management services and testing. We would also look to leverage the latest acquisitions, NewLogic and mPower.'

But to make 2006 the year when Bengal poses a real challenge to the tech hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad, that continue to control nearly 55 per cent of India's total software exports, the emphasis should be on attracting new players.

As Bikram Dasgupta, chairman and CEO of Globsyn Technologies, points out: 'Base levels are still small and we need many more companies and clients to come in, in order to increase volumes rather than percentages.'

One positive move in that direction is the deadlock in the rate row between IT and housing being broken. The government has earmarked 630 acres in New Town and Rajarhat for the IT and ITES sector, allowing the sale of IT land at competitive rates, as sought by Wipro and ITC Infotech, rather than at the Rs 2.16 crore per acre demanded by Hidco.

Business Boost

The biggest business buzzword of the year is the west bank invasion of the Salim group. Work on the West Howrah township project (see page 18) and groundwork for the two-wheeler unit in Uluberia would be the highlights of 2006.

The other highlight is Mitsubishi starting work on its second unit in Haldia. The conglomerate's Rs 1,665-crore commitment is the largest Japanese investment in India.

The year also brings hope for the workers of a beleaguered tyre major and the oldest star hotel of the country. Dunlop might reopen its Sahagunj unit if the new owner manages to negotiate the wage pact with workers and settle dues with lenders and creditors.

Great Eastern Hotel, under Lalit Suri, is set to make the transition to Grand Great Eastern. A section of the new hotel could be thrown open to the public towards the end of 2006.

Watch out for major investments at the proposed chemical hub in Haldia as Indian Oil Corporation and Reliance Industry firm up plans to set up petrochemical units. Tata Motors is to seal expansion plans in India, with Bengal being in prime focus.

ONGC's offshore drilling for gas in the Sunderbans may bring some cheer. Coal bed methane will be commercially produced from the Raniganj coal belt by Great Eastern Energy Corporation Ltd. Besides being supplied to units there, a part of the produce will be converted to CNG, which can find a large market on the smoke-filled streets of Calcutta.

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