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Can Salim fulfil Bengal's dreams?

August 05, 2006 14:47 IST

It's brave of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to break with Bengali sentiment and come to grips with his state's daunting problems. But aspects of last Monday's agreement with Indonesia's $30-billion Salim Group need clarification. First, the Indian intermediary, Prasoon Mukherjee, apparently a Jakarta-based NRI, and his company Universal Success, do not evoke instant recognition.  Second, Salim's unproven capability to execute such gigantic tasks. Third, the likelihood of resistance confirmed by significant absentees from the July 31 MoU signing ceremony. Fourth, scanty media coverage compounding a general sense of mystery about the deal.

No one can logically disagree that in principle the MoU is of historic significance. West Bengal desperately needs jobs. It needs manufacturing industries. Therefore, it needs investment. Bhattacharjee's nonagenarian predecessor, image-conscious and still interventionist, ignored these tasks.

The agreement to build expressways, flyovers, bridges, townships, medical centres, economic zones and a new port could mark a bold bid to regain undivided Bengal's economic primacy. It is also a far-sighted effort by a relatively inexperienced chief minister who sometimes seems carried away by emotion to reinterpret Marxism regardless of doctrinaire diehards in Delhi or local vested interests. Yet many wonder if Bhattacharjee is being taken for a ride.

Greater public knowledge of Salim's Indonesian and foreign (if any) operations, as well as of Universal Success's credentials and stake in this gargantuan scheme, would remove misgivings. One reason for ignorance is, of course, the media's obsession with glamour. The MoU ceremony clashed with the cricket board of Bengal's exciting election. Naturally, that mix of celebrity, power politics and big money pushed mere development into obscurity.

But it can be said in mitigation of this failure of the media's responsibility to inform and advise that, incredibly, the Detailed Project Report for a Rs 200-billion outlay over 15 years on 40,000 acres of land is still not available. Negotiations have been going on for two years. There has been much coming and going between Calcutta and Jakarta. Yet, we are not sure of details. Townships, a 96-km expressway that will need 2,500 acres and cost Rs 4,000 crore, an industrial growth centre at Uluberia (cost Rs 6.5 crore), the Haldia special economic zone on 12,500 acres and a chemical industrial estate and economic zone (10,000 acres) in east Midnapore district are mentioned.

There is talk, too, of a new 11-km road in Calcutta's southern environs, and of health, housing and manufacturing projects. Who will foot the bill? Presumably, the newly-created New Kolkata International Development Pvt Ltd that will acquire the land for Salim has done some costing. Presumably, feasibility and environmental studies will back the promised a Rs 3,430-crore outlay on social infrastructure and improving land productivity.

It sounds dizzying, dazzling and a little too glib. The chief minister says that only single crop land will be acquired and that cultivators and sharecroppers will not only receive cash compensation but will also be rehabilitated professionally. How many cultivators and sharecroppers? Will the proposed 20,000 shops/stalls suffice? Can peasants overnight become shopkeepers? Do they want to? What will they sell? Will there be a market for their wares?

Will Salim/Universal Success create jobs or will others be invited to set up job-generating industries? If so, who and with what inducements? Is there an estimate of how many jobs are needed? The businessmen Bhattacharjee's predecessor favoured set up only housing complexes, not manufacturing industries. Have low-cost housing needs been studied to prevent residential complexes on more than 10,000 acres becoming vertical slums?

Many other questions must be asked and answered. Land auctions are always controversial, and prices can be set artificially. The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, which will hold overall charge, became the butt of Bengali jokes because of its useless MoUs.

Obviously schooled in acceptable jargon, Benny Sentoso, Salim's director who signed the MoU, says though profit is the motive, "We have to balance profit with social needs." More pertinent, did Salim choose its projects or did Bhattacharjee identify needs and then find a supplier?

Bengal's armchair Communists, apologists for Soviet and Chinese purges, complain that Salim supported Suharto's dictatorship. It doesn't matter two hoots if it did. No Indonesian business house that didn't survived. What matters is whether Salim's record signifies an ability to venture beyond trading to plan and construct on this massive scale, and whether it has ever worked outside Indonesia.

Finally, Trinamool Congress might instigate a campaign of land resistance with the tacit support of West Bengal's land and land reforms minister, Abdul Rezzak Mollah, who was absent from Monday's ceremony. He complains that conversion of agricultural land to industry and urbanisation will aggravate food shortage. Other Left Front leaders fear the loss of rural votes. Jyoti Basu seldom loses a chance to snipe at Bhattacharjee.

Ultimately, it boils down to two questions. Can Salim deliver? And what is the role and record of Universal Success and its Delhi-based associate, Unitech?

I can only hope the chief minister, an honest man steeped in Bengali and Communist culture but with little experience of the world, has not been carried away by enthusiasm. His blueprint deserves to succeed.

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Sunanda K Datta-Ray