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Singur enters Beijing class

Beijing, Nov. 23: There were 18 students — all mid-career business journalists of Xinhua, China’s official news agency. The teacher: Martin Mulligan of the Financial Times, London. Lesson for the day: Identifying winners and losers: Tata Motors in Bengal.

That was last week in the Xinhua office in Beijing. At the end of the day, the students write “a business/trade feature of at least 500 words about Tata Motors in West Bengal”.

The Nano didn’t roll out of Singur. But the controversy over the stillborn project seems to be rolling far and wide. Just last month, Mulligan used the same model in another workshop for journalists he conducted in Sofia, Bulgaria. The contrasts between the responses of his students in Beijing and Sofia could surprise both Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee.

In communist Beijing, the journalist-students had more sympathy for Mamata. The consensus in Mulligan’s class was that higher compensation to landlosers in Singur at an earlier stage could have saved the project. In other words, the communist scribes didn’t think the Marxist government in Bengal had done enough to carry the farmers on its side.

In Sofia, the response was “more sophisticated”, Mulligan tells me over cups of green tea at the lounge of a Beijing hotel. The Bulgarians were more sympathetic to the Bengal chief minister and blamed Mamata’s “cynical politics” to exploit Singur in order to regain lost political ground.

But why did he choose the Nano story for his workshops? Mulligan says he had two broad reasons. One: the international focus on Nano, slated to be history’s cheapest car. “Here is a car that’s on offer for just the price of the stereo system of a Mercedes. That’s simply fantastic.”

The other reason is the widely varying kinds of reporting of the story in the international media. In his class in Beijing — he’s at Xinhua on a Thomson Foundation assignment — Mulligan gave the examples of three British papers — The Guardian (“sympathetic” to Singur farmers), Evening Standard (“absolutely Right-wing, pro-business”) and Financial Times (“more balanced”).

There’s a third reason that the Lex column’s story on Singur mentioned back in August. “Tata Motors’ difficulties in West Bengal, a state of more than 80m people,” it said, “reflect the real obstacles to industrialisation in many densely populated and poor regions.”

The Bengal story resonated with Mulligan’s Beijing students more than it did with the ones in Sofia. The Chinese students found two things particularly relevant to their own country. First, China’s vehicle market is the second largest in the world after the US. Even as top executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler beg the US Congress for a $25 billion bailout, GM’s China sales grew by 10.2 per cent in the first nine months of this year. Last year, vehicle sales in China soared by 22 per cent to 8.8 million.

Little wonder China’s automobile industry watched the Singur developments with interest. Actually, the curiosity over the Nano’s fate went beyond the industry. Two weeks ago, a travel agent at Datong, the city in central China famous for its 1,500-year-old Buddhist grottos, asked me about the Nano when he learnt I was from India. His enthusiasm turned intense when he learnt I was actually from the land of the Nano’s aborted birth.

But to get back to China’s other reason for intense Nano-watch. The country has been facing increasing, larger and often violent protests by farmers against acquisition of farmland by the government or property dealers. Only last week, one such protest led to a mob attacking government office buildings in an eastern city. Although land belongs to the state in China, farmers enjoy “contracted” rights over their plots. The contracts which lasted 30 years were extended to 70 years under the new rural reforms initiated by the government last month.

Mulligan, however, had another lesson for his Beijing students. Supplementary to the first lesson was another project — he asked his students to write a “company results report” for Tata Motors a few years after the Nano actually rolls out of its new factory in Gujarat. That futuristic story, hopefully one of success, could make Singur, and Bengal, rue the loss yet again.

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