When Buddhadeb Bhattacharya took over as chief minister of West Bengal two years ago, few had doubted his abilities as an administrator. But no one could have predicted that West Bengal would stage a remarkable economic recovery under him. Suddenly, investors seem interested and industrialists who had fled the state are slowly flocking back. Says senior columnist Tarun Ganguly: "Without a doubt, this is the best news in 26 years of Marxist rule in Bengal and I am amazed that no one is talking about it."
Last financial year, West Bengal was second only to Gujarat vis-a-vis domestic investment, which doubled from Rs 714 crore in 2001-02 to Rs 1,422 crore. Projected industrial investment went up from Rs 6,111 crore in 1996 to Rs 7,845 crore in 2002-03. The IT sector has also showed promising growth—exports rose from Rs 700 crore in 1999-2000 to Rs 1,100 crore in 2002-03. This year's Economic Survey notes that West Bengal's average annual economic growth rate of 5.4 per cent was second only to Karnataka.
There's little doubt Bhattacharya's clean image and hands-on approach has made a major difference. Though a seasoned Marxist, he appears to have come to terms with the virtues of 'glasnost'. So much so, he summoned enough courage to challenge the fabled stranglehold of the apparatchiks. Despite protests from various quarters of his own party (CPI-M), he has reined in the trade unions and lent a patient ear to the business houses. Says former Japanese consul in Calcutta Ryuzo Kikuchi: "We never faced any problem in Bengal. The government ensured there was never a strike in Haldia where Mitsubishi has made the largest investment in India, of Rs 1,500 crore." Now, the Japanese are considering their biggest overseas investment, about Rs 4,000 crore, in West Bengal's second underground rail project between Howrah and Calcutta.
Bhattacharya's efforts have even the harshest Left-bashers crowing that there's a perceptible change. In fact, some of his statements on liberalisation and work culture sound uncannily similar to those emanating from the bjp-led Centre. Not surprisingly, investors and their political friends in Delhi are impressed. Recently, Union disinvestment minister Arun Shourie said, "Bengal is changing, even the labour situation is different." Congressman Jairam Ramesh, an avowed neo-liberal, sees no reason why Bengal can't compete with Karnataka or Andhra in IT.
Says TCS head Ajoyendra Mukherjee: "Our company has always been active in West Bengal, we were the earliest to set up shop here." Wipro and Cognizant followed suit, along with ibm and other IT majors. All have sought or have been allotted larger working space at Salt Lake, Camac Street or EM Bypass. Among the old companies that left, J.L. Morrison has returned. Advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi is contemplating a comeback. Units of the Tatas, Videocon and other groups, are also quietly expanding their production capacities.
Strangely, West Bengal is still seen as a state where little happens. "The image of the state is a problem. We've to change that," says MP and wbidc chairman Somnath Chaterjee. The revival of its traditional industries could help here. Says a chamber of commerce spokesman: "Over 70 new iron and steel units, foundries, cement plants etc, have come up in the Asansol-Durgapur-Burdwan region, providing jobs to hundreds. Roads have improved. Now, with a new trading post coming up at Nathu La on the Indo-China border, north Bengal will emerge as a major economic base."
But, says Bhattacharya, "we've to address the urban poor, the jobless. There must be more private sector units.... We'll do something". With the party and the administration accepting his mantra, there seems to be some room for optimism.
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