Uncaging the Bengal Tiger

Written for Times of India's North America Bengali Conference :Dekhi Banglar Mukh in Baltimore

Uncaging the Bengal Tiger

Roopen Roy

(Views expressed are personal)

Bengal is at the cusp of a profound transformation. We all hope it is for the better. Businesses are often perceived to be fair weather friends in any state. Not because they are fickle or untrustworthy but because they are accountable to their stake-holders which include investors, customers, lenders and employees. The flight of capital in a state takes place whenever there is instability, shifting of policy goal-posts, failing infrastructure and the perception that it is easier to do business and make money elsewhere. Businesses first vote with their wallet, then with their feet.

The distinguished nineteenth century politician Lord Palmerston once said Britain had no permanent allies - only permanent interests. Industry and businesses do not permanently support or oppose any government. Their permanent interest lies in their ability to expand their businesses and make profits in a sustainable manner. The new Bengal could do well to remember this home truth.

What does industry and commerce expect in the new Bengal that wants to look forward and not behind? Firstly it expects stability, peace and harmony. If the tribal areas remain disturbed, if the hills continue to be in flames and party clashes bring death and destruction, then new investors will remain gun shy and old investors will look for greener pastures. I have advocated consistently that we must have an all-party consensus on certain “Golden Goose” rules. Bengal is the golden goose and no political party or faction should be permitted to wring its neck in order to usurp the last golden egg. In a democracy, political parties will differ and oppose each other but on a small set of issues they must agree to put Bengal First and above all partisan interests! It is not Utopian thinking. After much debate, all political parties did agree not to paralyze a 7 by 24 global industry like IT with strikes and bandhs. We should continue the process and have consensus on certain core issues.

Second, we need high quality infrastructure ---and fast. The expansion of the airport in Kolkata is underway. When it is completed early next year it will be a great relief to air travelers. The Bengal Aerotropolis near Durgapur should be fast-tracked. We have been talking for a long time the need for a deep-sea port as the Haldia port may become unnavigable because of silt deposits. The deep-sea port work must be started and completed on a war footing. The metro network needs expanding. Now is a moment in history when the Railway Ministry and the West Bengal government are both being run by the same party. In the footsteps of Delhi, we must create an efficient and widespread network of metro and link it to our suburban railway services. Our roadways need improvement to cut logistics costs.

Third we need to make investments in agriculture: better seeds, planned cropping, improved irrigation and model farms to train farmers to boost productivity. In lock-step with such investments, we must also focus on post-harvest infrastructure, cold chain and agro-processing industry. We can achieve this by creating public/private partnerships or by opening up the retail sector to global companies who have the know-how, technology and investment capacity to revamp our post-harvest infrastructure and reduce wastage.

Fourth, we need to create land banks and create infrastructure around these land banks. This will enable industries to take fast decisions and hit the ground running.

Fifth, industries expect a quick turnaround of their proposals. We should create service-level agreements (SLAs) to back the promise by action. In too many states the “one window” clearance is stymied by a single window and a confusing maze of multiple doors. This adds to the exasperation of the entrepreneur. In some states notably Gujarat the SLAs work effectively and perhaps there are some best practices in other states that Bengal should adopt.

Sixth, we must beautify and leverage our waterfront on both sides of the Hooghly River. Many studies exist on how this can be done. Canary Wharf in London is a shining example. We need rapid implementation-no more studies, please.

Seventh, we should restore our Heritage buildings and sites in Kolkata. The best way to finance this project would by setting up a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) similar to the one in the UK. Since 1994, HLF has supported more than 33,900 projects, allocating £4.4billion across the UK. Website: www.hlf.org.uk

And finally, Bengal has many inherent strengths in knowledge industries, culture and tourism, iron and steel, tea, jute, engineering, agro-processing and petro-chemicals. But the Bengal Tiger has been caged for far too long. A new ring master or a better whip in isolation will not conjure up the magic, the Bengal Tiger needs to be unshackled and uncaged.