July 19: The Trinamul Congress today suspended two activists accused of extortion and intimidation by officials of a private steel plant in Burdwan — an uncommon response that coincided with renewed pressure on Mamata Banerjee to send a positive message to industry.
But questions remained whether police would act against Alok Das and Chanchal Banerjee, who have been named in a complaint by Shyam SEL Power Ltd in Burdwan’s Jamuria. The alleged intimidation is said to be linked to a Trinamul faction feud driven by a spoils-sharing system in the jobs-starved state.
The action against the small fry came after months of foot-dragging on several Trinamul leaders who have found themselves at the centre of one controversy or another.
The chief minister today said the guilty would not be spared but added that the issue was being “blown out of proportion”.
“A small incident has taken place, that too merely an altercation…. If somebody, somewhere has done something unjust, we will take action. We always do. But what has taken place is being blown out of proportion in a uni-dimensional manner,” she said. “There is no touch of reality in this. I have looked into this. Other things are attached to this incident.”
Mamata then referred to a “land-grab” attempt, though she did not take names. “Somebody had tried to grab government land. How anybody could have tried to take government land without informing the government is being probed. When the probe results are out, we will let you know.”
After Shyam SEL lodged the police complaint on Wednesday, the Burdwan administration yesterday began probing a complaint of encroachment against the company on a complaint by some villagers. The company denies the charge.
The police complaint from company general manager Sumit Chakraborty, which says Das and Banerjee issued threats and demanded money, accuses “anti-social elements” of “disturbing our plant operation and influencing the localities to create nuisance inside our plant”.
Police sources said company officials had been asked to come to the police station and submit a detailed complaint.
“We must know specifically when and where they were threatened and how much money was demanded,” Jamuria OC Arup Sarkar said. Shyam SEL sources said the company was “seeking legal opinion” on this.
Trinamul all-India general secretary Mukul Roy today refused to be drawn on possible police action. “We have taken steps as a political party. What the administration will do has got nothing to do with us,” he said.
Sources said some party leaders had told Mamata that sparing the duo would send a wrong signal to industry at a time big-ticket investment has stayed elusive and the closures of Jessop, Hindustan Motors and Shalimar Paints units have deepened the crisis.
“The land hurdle remains a big problem. Several big industries have closed down recently. If complaints of extortion and threats are not contained now, nobody would invest in Bengal,” a senior party leader said.
No action had been taken when private port operator Haldia Bulk Terminal Ltd accused a Trinamul trade union leader of assault and threats in October 2012. The company walked out of the port soon after.
Mamata is also aware that the state BJP, which plans a movement against “Trinamul-sponsored terror in industrial units”, is breathing down her neck. Asansol MP Babul Supriyo is to visit the Jamuria plant tomorrow.
“The extortion threats to Shyam SEL are not a stray incident. Instead of attracting investment, the ruling Trinamul is driving industrial units out by resorting to terror tactics,” state BJP chief Rahul Sinha said.
Unlike Birbhum Trinamul chief Anubrata Mondal and MLA Manirul Islam, who have faced no action despite being accused of grievous crimes and incriminating speeches, Das and Banerjee are small fry and seem to hold no official party designations.
They were showcaused last night and suspended, pending an investigation by the party, this evening.
Like many controversies involving Trinamul, the current one carries the whiff of a faction feud. Das, a youth leader, and Banerjee are said to be loyal to labour minister Malay Ghatak, an intra-party rival of Trinamul trade union wing chief Dola Sen.
Company sources say the problems began after Shyam SEL appointed a new contractor, said to be close to Sen, for loading and offloading at its railway siding. They say Das, who used to call the shots over the hiring of local labour for loading and offloading, began disrupting operations with Banerjee’s help.
Hours before the suspensions, Ghatak had shared the dais with Das and defended him.
“Some villagers went to seek jobs at the railway siding of the factory and Das went with them — as a local and not a political leader. He did not threaten anybody,” Gatak said.
After the suspensions, Mamata tonight tried to paint a rosy picture of the industrial scene in Bengal through a Facebook post.
“NASSCOM has offered to build the first ever incubation centre for young and aspiring IT entrepreneurs in Kolkata. We have heartily welcomed the proposal and have already offered 10,000sqft space for setting up of the Centre immediately with provision for another 10,000sqft for future requirement,” she posted.
“Top 18 exporters in engineering and manufacturing sectors from eastern region of India, of which 16 are from Bengal, who have exported goods and services worth more than Rs.11,000 crore.… All these developments will certainly create more jobs and more opportunities for our youth and our entrepreneur friends.”
Last month, state industries minister Amit Mitra had claimed that projects worth Rs 17,732.01 crore had either been implemented or were under implementation, and that the cumulative figure for proposed investments in Bengal, as of January 2014, stood at Rs 112,769.36 crore.
The state government’s last major event on the industry front came almost a year ago when Mamata interacted with corporate A-listers in Mumbai on August 1 last year. The 2014 edition of Bengal Leads, an investor meeting started by the Trinamul government, is yet to be held.