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Chamber poser stumps minister

Calcutta, Nov. 21: Bengal industries minister Partha Chatterjee today faced some uncomfortable questions on the lack of big industry, haziness about the creation of a land bank and a rise in the crime graph because of unemployment in the state.

A seminar organised by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which otherwise could be dubbed as routine, came alive when BCCI president Kallol Datta decided to pose questions to the minister, skipping the beaten path of delivering a mundane introductory speech.

“There had been no big ticket investment in the last few years,” Datta said at the award ceremony for excellence in manufacturing practices of medium small and micro enterprises.

Chatterjee was the chief guest at the function.

Datta, who is also the chairman of Andrew Yule, a central public sector undertaking (PSU), said the majority of investment that had come from the private sector could be called only “medium” size.

He highlighted the lack of interest of central PSUs in Bengal, attributing the absence of big investments to the “large land requirement” for such projects.

The Mamata Banerjee-government’s stated hands-off policy on land acquisition has made industry wary of setting up large capital and people-intensive projects. Average land holding in Bengal is one of the lowest in the country, and industry has to negotiate with hundreds of people for land.

“Why don’t you publish a land bank?” Datta said. He said it would help investors to find out the amount of land that was available at any location in the state.

The state government has promised to publish data on available land to negate the impact of its hands-off policy. The book will help companies to identify land and negotiate with owners directly.

The chamber chief also expressed concern about the rising crime graph in Bengal, pointing out that instances of “dacoity and snatching” were going up and could be linked to the lack of employment.

“What is required is jobs that will only come with industrial growth,” he said. Moreover, with the migration of workers from agriculture, unless more jobs are created, people would indulge in such activities, he added.

Minister Partha Chatterjee was taken aback by such pointed questions at a programme meant for the micro, small and medium sector. He also wandered from his long speech to come up with suitable answers.

On lack of public sector investment in the state, Chatterjee tried to justify by saying, “Most of the central PSUs are becoming sick. They are reducing their manpower.”

He added there were “litigations” on PSU land and the state, therefore, “can’t give land taken by the PSUs to fresh investors in the state”.

Chatterjee, however, did not comment on the amount of land that was locked up because of such litigations.

On the land bank, the minister said it was “ready” but Datta later said nobody was aware of the details of such a bank. “I have not seen it,” he said.

The minister claimed that over 43,000 jobs had been created in the SME sector between April 2011 and February 2012.

“The state government is working towards providing incubation infrastructure and support for human capital and skill development,” he said.

Industry observers said the interaction underlined the growing restlessness of the business community over the state of Bengal’s industry.

Despite the government claim of over Rs 1 lakh crore investment proposals, little has got off the ground.

A number of large projects, including Jindal’s steel and power plant at Salboni or the airport city project at Andal, which were incubated during the Left Front era are still mired in procedural and bureaucratic delays.

There have also been instances of militant trade unionism led by the ruling party across the state.

The BCCI has been vocal about the recent law and order situation at Haldia that forced cargo handler Haldia Bulk Terminal to pack up their operations there. It was the only chamber that came out with a strong statement on the incident.

 
 
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