Mamata Banerjee Versus Sajjan Jindal
“I get the feeling that something is being hidden from us. Do you know what it is?” Krishna Chandra Hansda asks, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. The 80-year-old farmer is squatting on the ground outside his crumbling mud hut in Salboni in West Bengal’s West Midnapore District. “We are getting impatient. They told us that if we give up our land, they would build a factory in this area where my three sons would get jobs,” he says. “But all of them are unemployed now. I regret letting them take over the two acres I owned. I cultivated paddy and potatoes. It didn’t pay well, but it was a livelihood. Now I feel that the factory will never come up.”
Hansda’s hunch may not be far off the mark. In 2007, one of India’s largest private sector steel companies, the Sajjan Jindal-run Jindal Steel Works, entered into an agreement with the then West Bengal government to construct two mega projects in the area: a 10-million-tonne steel factory and a 1,600 MW power plant. But seven years later, all that has come up in the vast 4,300-acre stretch fenced off by a towering brick and cement wall with meshed-iron is a tiny, manicured garden overgrown with ivy and other foliage, housing the foundation stone that was laid in 2008.
Will the factory ever really come up, ask the villagers. The two parties responsible for seeing the project through—JSW and the Bengal government—are now locked in a battle over exactly who is going to take the projects forward, if at all. The state government has given the company an ultimatum—act, or else the land will be taken back. JSW claims that the state government is doing nothing to make it possible for it to start work, including not helping it procure iron ore, the raw material for manufacturing steel.
Outlook took the villagers’ concerns to JSW officials, who failed to respond to a set of questions. There was silence from the state government too. It’s a prickly subject, given Ratan Tata’s recent attack on Bengal’s industrial policy. But it’s clear that Salboni is turning out to be CM Mamata Banerjee’s Singur (the symbol of the Left Front government’s failures).
It all started in 2006, a year before JSW thought of setting up shop in West Bengal. “Immediately after assuming power for the second term, then Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya went on an industrialise-Bengal drive. The JSW plant was among his three high-profile projects, including the Tata Motors Nano factory in Singur and a chemical hub in Nandigram,” explains an official of the former industry ministry. The then Opposition, led by Mamata stirred up an agitation of local people, driving the Nandigram and Singur projects away. But in Salboni, land acquisition had been completed without bloodshed.
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
In fact, according to West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation officials, when land was taken over by JSW, it had not yet obtained the requisite permissions, so the government annexed the land summarily in order to be able to lease it to the company.
So what caused JSW to drag its feet and not initiate work? The immediate provocation to halt work was the Maoist threat in the area of West Midnapore district near Jangalmahal. For proof, consider the inauguration of the Salboni plant on November 2, 2008. As the convoys of Buddhadeb and then Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan headed back to Calcutta, they narrowly missed two landmine explosions—an incident which was taken as proof of the area being under rebel control. “The threat involved in setting up business in the midst of a Maoist-affected area was a powerful deterrent,” a JSW official confided on condition of anonymity.
But other problems continued to plague the JSW-state government contract (see box), snowballing over the last seven years into an impasse of such a proportion that it has now turned into an acrimonious conflict threatening to plunge the project into an uncertain future. The villagers are in the dark and can only speculate. “There are rumours that the project will be a no-show. We don’t know what to do,” says Parmuni Hansda, wife of Krishna Chandra. “How can the company do this to us? And what about the state government?” Local villagers and tribal folk who have lost land are beginning to doubt if the factory will materialise at all. That’s why there’s a uniform demand echoing through the villages of Salboni: “Please don’t keep us in the dark. Tell us the truth.”
By Dola Mitra in Salboni
The story on the stuck Jindal project in West Bengal (Storm Over Steel, Sep 1) was familiar reading. It shows the industrial climate of Bengal, which vitiated during the long Left rule, has failed to pick up under tmc. The jute industry, which employs around 75,000 people, is finding it hard to survive. Ditto with the tea industry. Incidents like the one in which a senior jute mill executive was beaten to death only send a horrible signal. And the Coal India plant at Jhanjhra stopped production as workers were protesting the introduction of a biometric attendance system aimed at weeding out bogus attendance. According to reports, over 90 industrial units have closed down, rendering thousands of workers jobless. Mamata has won a huge mandate; she must encourage industrial development.
M.M. Gurbaxani, Bangalore
Well, Bengal might be staggering under the continued flight of industry from the state, but, on an aside, I was aghast at seeing the latest advertisement of the department of tourism of West Bengal. Created on the theme of Durga Puja to attract tourism, the main picture in the ad shows an unfinished idol of Durga, in mud and clay, sans any clothes! Does the tourism department want to send out the message across that the state is so poor that it can’t even dress Ma Durga?
Sanjay Kapoor, Delhi
Two points, one specific to this column, the other generic. 2. The world has changed since 2008 and the commodities cycle has turned. The industrial landscape is littered with projects that will likely not be completed, because they are no longer viable, or commissioned even after completion because, say, gas is not available as fuel for a power plant. The collateral damage is huge sums of money lent by public sector banks, which will turn into NPAs. 2. The new land acquisition law is dead in the water. Private industry will have to be told to catch its own fish, with government authorities, at best, facilitating the transaction. There is a lot of wasteland. Even if its location is far from ideal, it will have to be used for industry, even future urbanisation. There are a hundred smart cities waiting to be built. India will be unable to spare rich, three crops a year land for non agricultural use for very much longer.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT