essay
Shonar Bangla, again?
13/11/2008  |  The Economic Times

Recent readings: India lost ground as the world's economic superpower to China in 1725, and at the time of the Battle of Palashi (Plassey) in 1757, bullock cart convoys were being used to send the annual revenue of one crore gold sikka from Bangla Subah to Delhi Durbar. "Shonar Bangla" was very much there.

The British sucked out prosperity from India. In the decades of independence, few states are regaining (relative) prosperity. West Bengal is in the majority of the states sinking in the politics of poverty. Nothing grows in the saline silt of the Hooghly - "Nona Bangla".

We have spent ages blaming the Centre, braving McNamara and other demons, revelling in Satyajit and Shah Rukh. All on the pitiful earnings - from farms or firms - of our fathers. After years of global activism - "biswajay" and "adda", we celebrate landing an 11 to 5 job and 'settle down' i.e. get married and beget progeny.

Wealth can only be created by unlocking the value inherent in all assets. Land obviously is the prime fixed asset; this is also a one-time asset since the territorial boundary is not negotiable. What is the value being created per acre of land in West Bengal, by agriculture or by industry? How much of the potential value is being realised? How does the value obtained per acre compare to that in other states, other countries?

Let's take the easy one first: how much of the land owned by the state and central governments and their undertakings is being productively used? Arguably, the fastest escalation in land price in recent years was in the plains of Uttarakhand after ND Tiwari, then chief minister, managed to obtain the special incentives for industrialisation of hill states. The local economy boomed overnight. To augment availability, Mr Tiwari persuaded Bhel to release several thousands of acres at Haridwar, without affecting their current activities or plans. Isn't every tram depot in Kolkata an ideal site for an IT/ITeS Park, a medical complex, a business centre or a hyper market?

West Bengal perhaps leads all states in the number of closed factories, mostly in the private sector, and mostly in the sunset industries. This is a ready opportunity to redeploy these sites, with useable infrastructure, for state-of-the-art technologies. Example: machine tools by CNC or high technology castings and forgings. These sites can be categorised for major or SME establishments; the marginal cost of site redevelopment will significantly reduce capital investment, and ready availability of licences..etc for an existing factory site will cut down the lead time.

The entire Hooghly riverfront is yet another ready opportunity. The river is irrevocably dying as far as ocean-going trade is concerned. In Kolkata port, the buildings are collapsing, the structures are rusty. Back to the original question: What is the value being generated per acre? This huge area, on both banks, can be used for an unprecedented urban renewal, incorporating zero-emission high technology industries, commerce & services and quality-of-life activities.

One can list more such possibilities, but let's break for a story. Few weeks before the famous 'swagatam' SMS, one had called on Mr Narendra Modi as a strategy adviser to an investor. We presented a business case that would require a prized resource - waterfront at a particular location. We left the CM's chamber around 3.30 pm, and by 5 pm on the same day, the concerned secretary had located me to make a serious, time-bound proposition. One had referred to the special incentives for hill states; Uttarakhand made the most of it but the impact in some other states is marginal. The lesson: in the winning states, the ministers and bureaucrats stop finding problems to every solution.

Growth is not a question of industry versus agriculture; growth is an issue in totality. Industry or agriculture, manufacturing or services - all these are just processes to create growth. All the feasible processes must be integrated into a bankable scheme for growth where the goals are specified not only by outputs and incomes but also by differentials in the Human Development Index.

Heavy industry: In a globalised market for inputs and outputs, cost-effective logistics often make the difference. West Bengal does not have a deep water anchorage but a PCPIR (Petroleum, Chemicals & Petrochemicals Investment Region) at Haldia-Nayachar has been approved in principle; the reverse is true for neighbouring Orissa. Why can't both these under-performing but high-potential states with enlightened leaderships politically integrate a Haldia-Paradeep PCPIR?

SME: There are myriad opportunities for revival using state-of-the-art technologies; the state must transform itself into a genuine business promoter like Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh. Setting up state undertakings with ministers as chairmen and career bureaucrats as MDs is not the answer. It's a mindset issue, the true leadership challenge.

Agriculture: Increasing the yield per acre is important but the bonanza is in multi-season storing, processing, packaging, marketing and controlling waste. Agriculture must be supplemented by agro-industry. Why is Alfonso an international brand and not Fazli or Langra ? One recalls a study by IIT-K that the processing capacity is barely one-fourth of the mango crop.

Industrial complexes: Multiple industries need to be housed in proximity to facilitate cost efficiency in logistics, just-in-time and lean manufacturing, optimisation of infrastructure, utilities and services, and health, safety & environmental safeguards. Durgapur is not a patch on Hazira, Kalyani never took off, Howrah and Asansol-Burnpur are moribund, Haldia is stagnating and Siliguri is a slogan. What fraction of the 8% plus GDP growth in recent years came from these acreages? With land for industrial use at a premium in all coastal hinterlands and non-backward areas, why can't the idle sites be repackaged and marketed? Many of these sites can be readily converted into SEZs on raze-&-rebuild basis.

Trade unionism: In government, public sector and most SMEs, the ground reality for organised labour is contract overtime, false claims and blackmail on output, besides casual indiscipline and utter unconcern for productivity. The union leaderships, however, are often cordially indifferent to profitability in privately-owned big business. It's time for West Bengal to take the lead in reorientation of trade unionism, and include Six Sigma and Stock Options in the vocabulary.

People: Vocational education at ITIs and polytechnic levels is an inherent opportunity but the prevailing obsolescence has to be swept clean and a fresh start made with political resolve.

Responsiveness: Mr Somnath Chatterjee, as WBIDC chairman, had earned the nickname of 'MoUdada'. The point is that those potential investors did travel to Kolkata and sign those MoUs. What is the scoring rate? Good intentions are fine; the devil is in the details of implementation.

Totality: The focus must go beyond the plains of south Bengal. What are the opportunities in the Dooars of the north, the marshes in the south, the rocky terrain in the west? These are grand opportunities for innovation.

Every state has a set of given resources but the opportunities are limited only by imagination and implementation. Earlier, one had raised the possibility of a Haldia-Paradeep PCPIR. Is there a case for an Eastern Economic Development Zone, comprising West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, to synergise the many strengths to overcome the many weaknesses, and build on the many opportunities?

Can "Shonar Bangla" come back? Yes, if we work together, consistently, honestly, long enough. As things stand, CPM and TC may win or draw but WB will keep on losing.

(The author was former Chairman, ONGC Group Companies and is now Chairman, Team Raha Ideation Pvt. Ltd.)
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