Two unconnected incidents on Tuesday served as a reminder of the tragedy and farce of industrialisation in West Bengal. One was the death of Thomas J Bata, head of the Bata empire, at the grand old age of 93 and the other was a development that captured yesterday’s headlines — Tata Motors announcing that it would withdraw from Singur.
The experiences of both corporations in Bengal represent the political contradictions that make industrialisation in Bengal such a contentious affair.
Thomas Bata’s connection is tenuous but significant. The Indian operations of the footwear empire he inherited from his father were located on the outskirts of Kolkata. Batanagar, the sprawling complex that expanded into a suburban town, represented the lavish industrialisation of an era when competition was limited — much like Dunlop’s Sahagunj factory or, indeed, the tea estates of the Dooars (in north Bengal).
In the bad old days before the Left Front strengthened its grip on Bengal, Batanagar’s New Year’s parties were very ton — as much for the quality of the entertainment provided as the gossip they generated. On the business side, its Naughty Boy lace-ups, plaid sneakers, Keds and Pathfinder school-shoes were all hot sellers.
The allure of Batanagar’s social life diminished after foreign exchange controls saw its expat managers — faithful upkeepers of social traditions — exit. But more critically, the reservation of footwear manufacture for the small scale sector saw Batanagar’s pre-eminence decline — it suffered broadly the same problems as the integrated textile mills out in Bombay.
The increasing need to outsource production to small scale players, depriving it of the obvious benefits of economies of scale roughly coincided with a growth in militant trade unionism — fuelled by the Naxalite movement — from the late sixties onwards. For those of us in Kolkata proper, Batanagar seemed to be perpetually suffering lock-outs owing to labour troubles or its management was being gherao-d (literally, surrounded). The labour outlook was strongly manifest in the showrooms where the heavily unionised sales staff displayed such patent disinterest that those who could took their custom to the Chinese shoe-makers instead.
Despite this, Bata managed to stay mostly in the black and its management periodically tried to perk up the company with new ideas — its teenage shoes and clothing brand North Star being one brief but notable example. But by the late eighties, chronic labour troubles kept it teetering. This was a circumstance that proved the gain of popular and profitable regional brands like Khadim’s, Sreeleathers and Liberty, which began to outsource at low cost to the numerous outfits in this shoe-manufacturing town rendered desperate by the frequent shut-downs of its major customer.
By the time it dawned on the Left Front that its labour unions weren’t doing it any favours, Batanagar had become a shadow of its former self. The company has shifted headquarters to Gurgaon (though Kolkata remains its registered office) and has taken advantage of liberalisation to import the latest fashions from its global network. Batanagar itself has been earmarked for real estate development. Its story is true of hundreds of other big corporations once centred in the state.
By the time Tata Motors responded to a reformist Bhattacharjee’s overtures, state government-sponsored trade unionism had pretty much abated. The Left Front under Jyoti Basu had learnt a harsh lesson in the mid-nineties when Congress-led unions stalled the sale of the Great Eastern Hotel to the Accor group.
This was a major embarrassment to both Basu and Somnath Chatterjee, current Lok Sabha Speaker and then chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation. Both had started holding high-profile road-shows in the US and Europe — a la Andhra’s Chandrababu Naidu — to assure investors that labour unions were well within their control.
As the Great Eastern incident showed, Basu (whom the wags called “Mou-da” for his proclivities for signing MoUs that never came to fruition) had not considered the fact that the revolutionary embers had been transferred from Citu and Aituc — controlled by the two major Communist parties — to Congress-controlled Intuc.
And Mamata Banerjee, it may be recalled, was originally a Congress worker. She hogged the limelight in a state slipping into the ennui of stagnation by virtue of her antics — she cashed in on police violence against her person — but more importantly, by hijacking the Left’s old revolutionary agenda. “For the peoples, (sic) by the peoples” is her favourite slogan in English.
Seen from the perspective of those with wider exposure, her protest at Singur looks grossly illogical. But in a state in which the “demonstration effect” of industrialisation is thin on the ground it is not surprising that unemployed, educated youth and dispossessed farmers facing the insecurity of limited employment options flock to her support.
Tata Motors’ Nano factory complex was supposed to have reversed the kind of decline that Batanagar represented. But as Mamata Banerjee has shown, the Left Front is paying the price of the negative revolution it started 31 years ago.
6 months ago