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Small consolation for Bengal

Calcutta, Nov. 24: Mamata Banerjee today stopped just short of openly admitting that Bengal was failing to attract big-ticket investments as she extolled the virtues of micro and small-scale industries and a somewhat utopian world driven by artisans, folk theatre and films.

“Big ports, factories, electronics parks, IT are needed. But iron and cement are not the only industries. Small is beautiful. This is the real industry,” Mamata said at the inauguration of the annual state handicrafts expo.

What she did not say but was apparent from her remarks was more significant: this was probably the closest the chief minister had come to acknowledging Indian industry’s lack of interest in putting money in Bengal.

If the government’s hands-off land policy is seen as the main reason, arm-twisting by Trinamul-backed unions is also blamed.

“Industrialists should sponsor the artisans and see how much they earn…. They can buy the products cheap here and sell at a premium in the world market,” Mamata said.

Cost advantage indeed holds the key to success in a competitive world market, but trading alone cannot tackle the twin problems Mamata is saddled with: lack of industrial growth and joblessness.

“In the absence of industry, Bengal, especially Calcutta, has become a trading centre in the last few years. Without big industry, there won’t be jobs,” an industries department official said.

Big projects — such as Tata Motors’ Nano plant, aborted because of Mamata’s opposition before she came to power — create multiplier effects in the economy, resulting in overall growth.

Also, industrial activity adds to the state’s coffers through taxes. “Small and medium enterprises get several sops; so their contribution to the tax kitty is minimal. The chief minister needs industrial growth to fund her populist schemes,” said a city-based economist.

Manufacturing or service-sector companies with investments between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 5 crore are called micro and small-scale industries. “I will transform it into the No. 1 department in the world…. My target is to create employment for one crore people,” Mamata said.

The experience of countries like China is testimony that micro and small enterprises can indeed absorb labour at subsistence wage.

But even if Mamata reaches the employment target, these units cannot prevent a brain drain from Bengal, a trend she is keen to arrest.

Big industry was, however, not on her agenda today as she spoke for over 35 minutes explaining the need for “shilpa”, which can mean either “industry” or “art” in Bengali.

Some government officials in the audience — no prominent city industrialist was present — looked pleased as she promised to do everything for shilpa till the lines between industry and the arts got blurred after she announced plans for a haat (marketplace) in each subdivision.

“Villagers can sell the handicrafts they make. Plays, folk theatre, films will be shown,” Mamata said. “Shilpa can be of many kinds.”

As the audience tried to gauge whether she meant art has many forms or industry is of many types, Mamata appeared to reveal which shilpa she preferred. “Hollywood-Bollywood-Tollywood is the real business of Bengal. The Calcutta film festival earned a name across the globe,” she said.

The festival indeed had a packed opening with Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan the star attractions.

“But what’s the connection with industry?” asked a government official. The question remained unanswered.