Calcutta, March 17: A touch of normality has replaced the impulsive responses that marked the Mamata Banerjee government’s interactions in public with those associated with AMRI.
Industries minister Partha Chatterjee today attended a mass wedding initiative supported by the Emami Group, some of whose owners were on the board of AMRI Hospitals when the Dhakuria unit caught fire and were eventually kept in custody.
Such a courteous gesture at a social event would not have drawn much attention but for the way the state government had been reacting to public events with some tenuous connection or the other with AMRI.
On March 3, the chief minister had cited preoccupations to skip the centenary celebrations of the Marwari Relief Society Hospital, passing up a chance to send a reassuring signal to the business community. R.S. Agarwal, among the important patrons of the Burrabazar hospital, was supposed to be on the dais there.
Today, R.S. Agarwal, his son Aditya, and R.S. Goenka and his son Manish came face to face with minister Chatterjee at the Sri Laxmi Narayan temple on Sarat Bose Road, during the mass wedding programme organised by a trust patronised by the Emami group.
The Agarwals and R.S. Goenka’s family are co-owners of the Emami Group. The four were on the board of AMRI Hospitals when 91 people were killed in a fire at its Dhakuria unit on December 9, 2011.
Chatterjee underscored a point that appeared to have been overshadowed by some of the public pronouncements the government had made while the AMRI fire accused were trying for bail.
“Ora to chor-dakat noy. Katha bolbo naa keno (They are not robbers. Why shouldn’t I speak to them)?” the minister told The Telegraph tonight in response to a question.
A summer the swallow of one event does not make but the way Chatterjee fielded questions on his attendance suggested the political leadership had not opposed it.
Chatterjee pointed out that Emami was involved not in health care alone “but also in other sectors”.
Three days ago, the Emami management had issued a statement iterating “our commitment to the state of West Bengal, of which we are a part”. Responding to a report in a business daily, the statement said: “We deny that we have any plans to shift from Kolkata.”
The Goenka and Agarwal families have a 66 per cent share in AMRI. Shravan Todi’s Shrachi Group has a little over 32 per cent stake. Todi, too, was present at today’s programme but not when Chatterjee was there, said a source.
R.S. Goenka, R.S. Agarwal and Manish were arrested immediately after the fire and Aditya was declared a proclaimed offender. They have been given bail and are awaiting trial.
“The Emami directors were not the only ones present. There were members of the CII and other industrialists. Where there are industrialists, I’ll have to go,” Chatterjee said.
The Vishwa Jagriti Mission Trust, which organised the event, has 4,000 members and the Emami Foundation provides funds as part of the group’s corporate social responsibility activities.
The trust had invited Chatterjee to bless 52 newly-weds. The minister arrived at the ceremony around noon and shook hands with all the Emami directors. “It’s a good programme,” he told them.
The contrast between the reluctance of ministers till now to be seen in public with the then AMRI directors and Chatterjee’s matter-of-fact statement today stood out.
The March 3 centenary event that Mamata did not attend had helped mirror what was seen as the then prevailing mindset in the government. Trinamul Congress MP Sudip Bandopadhyay, who had initially consented to attend that programme, did not turn up, citing the death of an associate’s relative in Delhi.
Chatterjee’s attendance today appears to have been taken note of by industry. “Although it was a social event and not a business or industrial meet, minister Chatterjee’s presence suggests that, perhaps, the government is changing its negative attitude,” an industrialist said.
When several AMRI directors were in custody, business chamber Ficci had publicly appealed to the government to release those not responsible for the day-to-day operations of a business.
The government could then have tried to calm the fears of discrimination by saying it was just following legal orders. Instead, the chief minister had said: “I want industry but not killer industry.”