January 14, 2013

What we will achieve at Bengal Leads

Since so many of our religious traditions are defined by the lunar calendar, only two festive occasions in West Bengal are constant every year. There’s Poila Boisakh - the beginning of the New Year in April, and Makar Sankranti - January 14, which signifies the hope of a better harvest.

It is fitting the second edition of Bengal Leads - our state’s leading business and investor meet, opens in Haldia the day after Makar Sankranti. It too signifies a constant: the firmness and resolve of the Trinamool Congress government to revitalise West Bengal’s economy and restore to it the industrial robustness that made it a leader till as late as the 1960s.

What will we achieve at Bengal Leads? Will tycoons fly in and out in their private jets? Will 100 countries be represented? Will there be photo-ops with one billionaire after another? No. In that sense, those complaining and groaning about Bengal Leads vis-à-vis Vibrant Gujarat are right. Point conceded, my friends, argument over. You are welcome to relegate us to second place in a race we aren’t even running.

I’d like to make one submission though: the legacy Vibrant Gujarat 2013 can build on and the legacy Bengal Leads 2013 is saddled with are extremely different. Give Gujarat – or Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu for that matter – 34 years of Communist rule and see where things stand.

The Mamata Banerjee government has been in office for 18 months, in the first lap of a long, long marathon. Yet, it is important to understand and appreciate renewal has begun. As a political party, we are not ideologically blinkered. As a government, we fully understand and welcome the role of private capital and businessmen in making investments, setting up factories and industrial facilities and ushering in employment and growth.

We believe the government has a part to play in facilitating this and where required in setting up independent regulatory mechanisms. The business of government is not business. The business of government is development. This is the message underpinning Bengal Leads.

How have things changed in these past 18 months? For a start, there is greater social stability in the state, and simply much less violence. When we came to office, West Bengal faced two law and order challenges. There was a Maoist problem in Jangalmahal and an autonomy movement in Darjeeling. We have managed to amicably resolve both.

A few days ago, in Parliament, the UPA government released some statistics. In 2010, 300 people were killed in West Bengal in Maoist violence. In 2012, only one person was killed – only one. Will industrialists and potential investors not be happy the Maoist challenge is being neutralised without causing upheaval?

The Trinamool government has taken a number of decisive policy steps. Section 14Y of the Land Ceiling Act has been prudently deployed to bring various new categories of businesses into the exemption list. It has improved tax collection. This has gone up by over 30 per cent in one year simply due to better administration and an improved work culture. Do note the government has not raised tax rates.

West Bengal has made notable progress in e-governance, including e-commerce, to improve transparency and efficiency. The government is working towards a system where public procurement will be increasingly online and absolutely transparent. There has been a simplification of e-governance procedures – from tendering onwards.

In the past year, West Bengal’s SDP has grown at 1.5 per cent above the national average. This gap will expand as the infrastructure projects the Trinamool government has launched start to mature. A deep-sea port is being planned at Ganga Sagar to again make the Kolkata metropolitan area the international trading hub it once was.

In the coming days, Kolkata will finally get a world-class airport, with the rebuilding of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport. Bagdogra airport, the gateway to north Bengal, is getting night landing facilities. This will be a boon to the upper half of our state. A green-field airport is also coming up in Durgapur and a modern convention centre in eastern Kolkata, in Rajarhat.

Friends from near and far will hear these stories at Haldia. They will absorb the news and take their own call. Some will invest immediately, others will bide their time. That is fair enough, but at least they will take a business call – not a call forced upon them by a coercive government.

That is the spirit of new Bengal. Come, join and share it in Haldia.