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Industrialisation: Bengal Left opts for 'standstill' policy

Last updated on: May 22, 2009 12:11 IST

A 120-acre city centre in Kharagpur, about 100 km from Kolkata, became the first casualty of the CPI-M-led Left Front government's poor showing in the recent general elections. More such projects are likely to be cancelled as the four-party Left coalition, which has ruled the state since 1977, decided to opt for a "standstill policy" on industrial projects.

The city centre, which was to have been developed on farm land, was on the agenda before the elections, but was put in abeyance, because of the model code of conduct that prevented the government from taking any policy decisions for the duration of the election.

Today, at the Left Front's first cabinet meeting after the election results were out on May 16, it was Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who withdrew the proposal. The retraction is significant, given the vehement land acquisition protests that the Left Front has faced over the past few years and the strong perception that this is what cost the Left votes in the general elections.

First, there was the failed attempt to acquire land in Nandigram, a three-hour drive from Kolkata, for a vast chemical hub to be set up with an Indonesian conglomerate. The heavy-handed approach to local protest there -- including police firing on unarmed peasantry -- did much to damage the Left's reputation in what was once its rural bastion.

Then came protests over land purchases in Singur, an hour's drive from Kolkata, for Tata Motors' Nano factory. Protests led by Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which gained 18 seats in this election from one in 2004, eventually saw Tata Motors relocate its car project to Gujarat. 

West Bengal accounted for more than half the 60-odd seats that the four Left parties held in the previous Lok Sabha. In the 2009 elections, Left Front won just 15 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, against 35 in 2004.

Traumatised by the worst showing in more than three decades, some ministers have decided to keep important files in abeyance until the government and party can achieve more clarity on the reasons for the defeat.

Abdur Rezzak Molla, in charge of the land and land reforms department, is at the forefront of the wait-and-watch brigade. The Kharagpur city centre project was conceived by the department of urban development. In veiled criticism against Ashok Bhattacharjee, the minister in charge of the department, Molla pointed out at the meeting that the nature of the land had not even been mentioned in the proposal papers.

Other ministers said the proposal was a "hasty job" that did not take the political consequences into consideration. They also pointed out that after the Nandigram and Singur fiascos the government had declared its intention of acquiring only fallow land or land under single-crop cultivation.

Meanwhile, the state cabinet today also decided to hand over the responsibility of creating a "land bank" to Molla. Earlier it was Nirupam Sen, the minister for commerce and industry, who was asked to do this. The idea of the land bank was to avoid acquisition-related difficulties for industrial projects.

The decision to take away the responsibility of creating a land bank from Sen, who was the pro-industry face of the government and hand it over to Molla, a minister who has been resisting the state's acquisition bids, is not without significance.

Sen has already expressed concern about the future of West Bengal's dream project: the chemical hub at Nayachar, a relocation from Nandigram. Nayachar is part of the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat which has gone to the Trinamool Congress' Shubhendu Adhikari.

Adhikari had threatened to obstruct the chemical hub at all costs. Since TC is now a partner in the Congress-led government at the Centre, the future of the project looks uncertain.

Such was the bewilderment in the cabinet on Thursday, that during the meeting, a number of ministers wondered how the government could continue to function for the next two years (Assembly elections are due in 2011).

Public Works Department Minister Kshiti Goswami, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a junior constituent of the four-party Left Front, stressed that the government had been criticised for poor governance. He pointedly asked the chief minister if there was an action plan to improve its functioning.

Bhattacharjee said he would prepare a note and circulate it to the ministers as a guideline. Immediately, a number of ministers, mostly Front partners of CPI-M, objected to this. Goswami and Nandagopal Bhattacharjee of the CPI suggested that the guideline should be discussed by the cabinet first. Bhattacharjee  yielded at once and agreed to place it before cabinet for discussion.

As a CPI-M minister put it: "The defeat not only created political hurdles in terms of the strong political opponents in state and centre, it has also destroyed the moral courage of the government to function."

And it's not going to get easier. As Manas Bhuiyan, the leader of the Congress legislative party, observed: "The government with 234 MLAs in the 294-strong state Assembly, has already lost its moral authority to rule. We will ensure that its remaining days in power will be as troublesome as we can make it."

Rajat Roy in Kolkata