Thursday, September 4, 2008

Industrialization in West Bengal: A Distant Dream

Two incidents on Tuesday served as a reminder of the tragedy and mockery of industrialisation in West Bengal. One was the death of T. J. Bata, head of the Bata empire, at the grand age of 93 and the other was a development that captured Tuesday's headlines - Tata Motors announcing that it would roll out their NANO project from Singur. The experiences of these corporations in West Bengal symbolize the political inconsistency that make industrialization in Bengal such a litigious issue.

T. J.Bata's connection is fragile but significant. The Indian operation of the footwear kingdom he inherited from his father were located on the outskirts of Kolkata. Batanagar, the expansive complex that stretched out into a suburban town, represented the lavish industrialisation of an era when competition was limited - Dunlop's factory in Sahagunj or the tea estates of the Dooars (in north Bengal). On the business side, Bata's Naughty Boy Lace-Ups, Plaid Sneakers, Keds and Pathfinder school-shoes were all hot sellers under the product line. The glamour of Bata's social life diminished after foreign exchange controls saw the exit of managers - faithful up keepers of social traditions and more critically, the reservation of footwear manufacture for the small scale sector saw Batanagar's supremacy decline – similar to the problems faced by the integrated textile mills in Mumbai. The escalating need to contract out production to small scale players, depriving it of the obvious benefits of economies of scale gave birth to militant trade unionism - stimulated by the Naxalite movement .Batanagar seemed to be perpetually suffering lock-outs , thanks to labour troubles or its other management problems. Despite this, Bata managed to stay mostly in the black and its management occasionally tried to perk up the company with new range of product lines or product mixes- its teenage shoes and clothing brand North Star being one brief but notable example. However the late eighties proved the growth of popular and profitable regional brands like Khadim's, Sreeleathers and Liberty, which began to outsource at low cost to the numerous outfits in this shoe-manufacturing town rendered desperate by the frequent shut-downs of its major customer. When the BATAs approached the Left Front that its labour unions weren't doing them any favours, it had lost its former charm. The headquarter was shifted to Gurgaon ( Kolkata remains its registered office) .

When Tata Motors responded to a reformist Bhattacharjee's proposition, state government-sponsored trade unionism had much subsided. The Leftist guided by the Grand Dad, Jyoti Basu had learnt a harsh lesson when unions backed by congress stalled the sale of the Great Eastern Hotel to the Accor group.

And now the idiosyncratic lady, Mamata Banerjee, who, was originally a Congress worker hogged the limelight in the state by virtue of her antics. Madam Banerjee is also known popularly for her favourite slogan in English "For the peoples, by the peoples." Her protest at Singur looks vilely illogical. It is matter of utter shame and disgrace that in an era when the entire world is marching towards advancement, technological expansion and economic progress, the developmental activities in West Bengal lies much behind. Today's tabloid carries the news of first victims of the roll out of the NANO Project and God knows, how many more shall follow….I would like to reveal to my readers (if any) that I am no political writer, but the present scenario prevailing in Bengal makes my heart bleed….I am a frequent visitor there and the state of affairs in the capital city…Kolkata(infrastructure, education, employment, etc) is in a pathetic condition and I sometimes ponder upon-in future will there be any entrepreneurs investing in Bengal?? Tata Motors' Nano factory complex was supposed to have reversed the kind of decline that Batanagar represented. But as Mamata Banerjee has shown, the Left Front is paying the price of the negative revolution it started three decades ago…

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