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Private retail with riders

Calcutta, Dec. 19: The Bengal government is not against private investment in retail but will prefer “severe” regulations to protect small stores, the Assembly was told today.

The clearest statement yet on the retail quagmire came because of a Trinamul Congress MLA’s private members’ motion seeking a ban on malls. The short-lived motion, meant to correct another Trinamul member’s “mistake”, gave the government a chance to speak its mind but denied it an opportunity to claim consensus.

Laying down the government’s position, housing minister Gautam Deb said: “We are opposed to multinationals like Wal-Mart in retail, even their backdoor entry through tie-ups with Indian companies. We also want severe restrictions on domestic players and would not like to give them any incentives.”

However, he cited an earlier statement by the chief minister that said at least 20 per cent of foodgrain and vegetables grown in the state perish because of lack of marketing infrastructure.

“In that case, if we have to develop markets with the help of the private sector, we will do it without harming the interests of small retailers and traders. We will ensure larger space for small retailers in such markets as well as facilitate bank loans for them. The government is considering a proposal to frame guidelines for private markets and shopping malls with that aim,” Deb said.

The minister said later the government preferred a three-tier policy: private investors, joint ventures where the government would collaborate with companies and malls developed solely by the state.

Municipal bodies would introduce a control mechanism by restricting the number of malls in an area either on the basis of population or size of the borough. The proposal is in line with a CPM document.

Private developers of markets and malls will have to seek licence from civic bodies along with an assurance to tackle traffic congestion and pollution.

In reconstructed and joint-venture markets and malls, 50 to 60 per cent of the space may have to be reserved for small traders. The break-up has not been finalised but if the government sticks to the window suggested by the minister, it will be higher than the 30 per cent tentatively mooted in the Reliance reconstruction of the Park Circus market.

Deb tried to persuade Trinamul to revise the motion in the light of his clarifications, offering to get it unanimously passed then. Municipal affairs minister Asoke Bhattacharjee, too, appealed to the party to accept the amendments.

But Trinamul, which moved the motion primarily to distance itself from its own leader Saugata Roy’s recent amendment that allowed panchayats to construct malls, refused. The motion was defeated but the Forward Bloc, which stalled Reliance’s retail entry in Bengal, voted with the government because of political compulsions.

Private members’ motions are largely symbolic but can be used to send messages.

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