West Bengal has an unenviable record of running into controversial industrial projects. No decade passes by without a lot of song and dance over a new project that is expected to change its economy and the lives of its people. And almost invariably, this euphoria is followed by a period of deep anxiety and disappointment over delays and the uncertainty about the implementation of that project.
In the 1970s, Bakreshwar offered a ray of light and hope for the people of West Bengal, which was then reeling under long hours of power cuts as the total available electricity in the state was not enough to meet its demand. While Santaldih (where the West Bengal State Electricity Board had set up a few power generation units) was a national shame having recorded one of the lowest capacity utilisation levels in the country, Bakreshwar, with the proposed power plants, held out the hope of meeting the increasing power shortage.
The thermal power units in Bakreshwar were initially proposed to be set up with central assistance. But there were delays of all kinds — bureaucratic and political. In short, central funding was not forthcoming, in spite of the West Bengal leadership making frequent representations in New Delhi.
Once the Left Front formed its government in 1977, Bakreshwar was in deeper political trouble. The delays over providing central funds for the project were cited by the Marxist leaders as another instance of the Centre’s “step-motherly” attitude to West Bengal.
For several years, the Bakreshwar project was held up because the Soviet Union was requested to provide financial assistance. The Soviet funds never came even after several years of wait and negotiations. Politically, though, Bakreshwar was useful for the Left Front leaders in West Bengal. Whenever they wanted to illustrate how the Centre had been indifferent to the state’s genuine needs, Bakreshwar was cited as an example.
The Haldia petrochemicals project was another such case. In 1977, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, petroleum minister in the Indira Gandhi government at that time, visited Haldia to start the process of evaluating the viability of the project. It was touted as a project that would speed up the pace of industrialisation in the eastern part of India. But several evaluations later, the Centre gave up the project. During the 1980s, the Left Front’s efforts to get the requisite funds from the Centre to start the project went in vain.
Both Bakreshwar and Haldia finally got their projects, but they were not set up by the Centre. Bakreshwar’s three power units with a total generating capacity of over 600 mw were commissioned between 1999 and 2001 by the West Bengal Power Development Corporation, a state government unit.
The Haldia petrochemicals project was commissioned in 2000 by the state government with private sector help. Projects that should have been commissioned in two to three years took almost two decades. The Left Front took political advantage of the delays even though the government and the state lost a big economic opportunity.
A third high-profile project which too suffered from similar delays was the second Hooghly bridge, a few kilometres south of the famous Howrah Bridge. This was a project for whose delays the Left Front government could not have put the blame on the Centre. Nevertheless, the unfinished bridge was often cited as an example of the Centre’s apathy to the state.
The project was conceived in 1978; however, work on the bridge remained suspended for several years during the mid-1980s for a variety of reasons. The construction of the bridge was important to link Kolkata with the industrial suburbs of Howrah. But it took 14 long years for the bridge to be completed.
Soon, Singur may be added to the list of names that connote political controversies, delays and lost opportunity. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has come close to admitting his failure to keep the Nano project in Singur. Attempts will still be made to work out some formula by which the West Bengal government’s offer of enhanced compensation becomes acceptable to the Trinamool Congress leadership.
As of now, it seems unlikely that the Tatas will make Singur their main plant to produce the world’s cheapest small car. They might like to put the Singur plant to some use for the Nano project later when protests are over and the controversy dies down. But nobody in Bengal should now dream of Singur becoming the new Jamshedpur or a Gurgaon.
Industrialisation in the whole state will suffer. The same farmers in Singur on whose behalf Trinamool Congress claims to have fought such a long battle may ultimately lose out in the long run. The Left Front might even reap electoral dividends from such popular disenchantment with Trinamool Congress.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the suspicion that Singur too is a victim of political opportunism by the state’s politicians will continue to linger.