State of madness

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT in Calcutta
  • Published 23.08.08
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Calcutta, Aug. 22: Ratan Tata today said he would “exit” Bengal if violence continued at the Singur small-car plant site.

Tata told a news conference his company would not want to be in an area where it felt “unwanted”, sounding a warning that, if carried out, would be a huge setback to Bengal’s industrial plans.

An undeterred Mamata Banerjee, however, said she would not buckle under “any sort of blackmailing” and would go ahead with her indefinite siege of the Nano plant from Sunday.

“I don’t want anyone to go back from Bengal. But no one can blackmail us into calling off our Singur dharna. Our peaceful August 24 agitation stands as scheduled,” the Trinamul Congress chief said.

Tata scotched any idea that he had invested too much in Singur to now pull out midway. “If anybody is under the impression that, because we have made this large investment of about Rs 1,500 crore, we will not move, then they are wrong. It is not a hypocritical investment…. We would move, whatever the cost, to protect our people (employees),” he told journalists at a city hotel.

Tata, however, said he had no “Plan B” ready about where Tata Motors might shift its project. Nor did he set any deadline for a possible pullout.

The industrialist said the Tata Motors managing director, Ravi Kant, had agreed to meet Mamata and discuss Singur, a fact Trinamul has not yet made public.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee appealed to Trinamul to honour its promise to eschew “violence or any untoward incident” and keep the Singur dharna peaceful, and declined to rule out clamping prohibitory orders.

Tata made it clear that what worried him was the violence, tension and disruption at the project site, where a mob beat up a Shapoorji Pallonji engineer with steel rods last month. He said government protection alone was not enough — it’s the people of Bengal who must decide if they wanted the factory in their state.

“I have to applaud all the people who have been working at the site; they are working under tremendous tension. Our compound walls have been broken, people have been coming in, and materials are being stolen,” Tata said.

“We can’t open and operate a plant with police protection. If that is the way it is to be before we start, you can well imagine our concern (about) what will happen if we try to operate.”

State industries minister Nirupam Sen had said last night, after a meeting with Tata, that the industrialist had no intention of moving out of Bengal “unless forced to do so” because he had made a huge investment.

Today Tata said: “But if the state, for any reason, or any segment of the state, feels that we are exploiting them — first of all it is totally untrue, but if that is the feeling — we will exit.”

Such a move would jeopardise any future investment in Bengal by India’s largest industrial house with interests in steel, power, software, automobile and telecom, among other sectors. Tata warned: “I don’t know how many Rs 1,500-crore investments would come to Bengal.”

He described the decision to set up the plant in Bengal, widely perceived as lacking an industry-friendly environment, as a “big leap of faith”. But he said he did not regret it.

“We came to Bengal at a time when many people considered us mad (to be investing in the state). There had been very little development in Bengal, there had been very little investment. And Tata Motors decided they would locate one of their prime and most unique factories in Bengal. Everybody had great apprehension about us making this investment in Bengal.”

He, however, was confident that the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, would roll out in October if violence did not disrupt the plant’s working.