Perception versus truth
The likes of business barons such as R V Kanoria, Ranjan Bharti Mittal, Y K Modi, Sidharth Birla, Harshavardhan Neotia, Jyotsna Suri and Puneet Dalmia have shared their wonderful experience of doing business in West Bengal with fellow members of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) at a state government led investment road show in Delhi. Therefore, those who continue to view West Bengal as a state torn by political and industrial strife are naturally in for a pleasant surprise. For a change, it was the business community, who ventured to invest heavily in West Bengal, batting for it before other fence-sitting investors. No state industrial investment road show in the country is known to have witnessed such a positive response from entrepreneurs doing business in a state.
West Bengal tops all other states in e-governance. It would probably lead the rest of the country in the ease-of-doing-business. Project clearance has to be granted within a specific time limit. If any government department fails to accord clearance within the scheduled period, the project is ‘deemed’ cleared. The system impressed even the diplomatic representative of Japan, which has the largest green-field investment in West Bengal through Mitsubishi Corporation.
The investment road show at FICCI on September 7 received a thumping applause from business persons present. Young Puneet Modi, whose business empire has a presence in 14 Indian states, said his West Bengal project, a Rs.600-crore cement plant at the so-called Maoist infested West Midnapur district, was the only one that faced no time or cost overrun. Dalmia is particularly happy about his decision to invest in Bengal, where demand for cement grew by 11 percent last year. Cement sales were flat in the rest of the country, following a slowdown in the construction sector. Contrary to perception, Y K Modi is busy sinking tube wells to provide drinking water in the Maoist-prone districts of Bankura and Purulia. He was most impressed by the government and police aid in the region.
The only thing about which entrepreneurs doing business in Bengal have something to grumble about is the high power tariff charged by fellow business person Sanjiv Goenka’s CESC Limited, enjoying a distribution monopoly in Kolkata and its industrial belt. The power tariff in the CESC distribution region is among the highest in the country despite its thermal power plants being located close to coal supply sources. R V Kanoria, who has a large jute mill in West Bengal, wanted state incentives to set up a solar power facility in the factory or ‘open access’ to power. Electricity generated and distributed by the West Bengal Power Development Corporation, NTPC and DVC in the state are a lot cheaper. Sanjeev Goenka, former president of the rival Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), was conspicuously absent in the state investment road show. Interestingly, CESC has, for years, made a massive investment to grow its retail business under the brand name of <g data-gr-id="126">Spensers</g>, which until recently was a heavy loss-making enterprise. Such an investment is unusual for a utility company anywhere.
Rajan Bharti Mittal, leading a Rs. 10,000 crore investment and employing some 1.3 lakh people spoke about his mega plans in the services sector and participation in the Digital India programme in the region. Jyotsna Suri, who took over Kolkata’s iconic Great Eastern Hotel, wants to set up another venture at Shantiniketan. “I had been through the state several times. And, as always loved to be there again,” she said. Similar sentiments were expressed by several business persons that made the day for Amit Mitra, West Bengal’s minister in charge of finance, commerce and industry, information technology and electronics among others, leading the roadshow along with senior state officials.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee occupied the centre stage even in absence as most of the presenters showered accolades for the industrial transformation of the state. Dalmia, Birla and Suri were all praise for the chief minister who visited their establishments and encouraged their ventures. Surprisingly, none of the participants had any law and order concern. “The state is investing a lot in infrastructure. The labour situation is better in Bengal than most other parts of the country. The availability of power, though expensive in the CESC supply region, was good. The demand in the local market is encouraging,” said the business person based in Delhi.
Many feel that West Bengal, located in the heart of India’s steel and coal belts is most strategically situated to serve the markets not only of India’s seven northeastern states, but also close to the business hubs in Asia, with international connectivity by road, sea and air. Its hinterland is connected with mineral-rich Jharkhand and Odisha.
West Bengal occupies the top position in human development index, social sector and women empowerment. In the last four years, the state made massive investments in the industrial and social infrastructure. Expenditure in agriculture and allied services grew by nearly 550 percent, capital expenditure by 600 percent and plan expenditure by over 300 percent. The per capita income in the state is double the national average. The investment road show obviously projected the state in a totally different light than what is perceived from media reports. West Bengal beckoned investors with most industry-friendly policies and programmes.
(The views expressed are personal)