Sep 13, 2008

India - Car hat trick for Bengal ?

Whether or not the Nano rolls out from Singur — the four-member land committee is supposed to finish its investigations today — no one can snatch away West Bengal’s laurels in pioneering car manufacture in Asia. Some might attribute the Ambassador’s easy birth to politics in the 1940s meaning more than vote-mongering. Others would argue that today’s agreements and announcements — by and between the CPI(M), Trinamool Congress and even Tata Motors — obfuscate rather than enlighten. Whatever the reason, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee should shout from the housetops that Tata’s dinky one-lakh job is chickenfeed for a state that gave India its sturdy warhorse of our potholed roads.
B M Birla started Hindustan Motors in 1942 in Port Okha but moved in 1948 to a 743-acre facility, said to be the biggest in South Asia, at Uttarpara, 30 km from Calcutta, where multi-utility vehicles (Trekker, Porter, Pushpak) were also produced. I remember as a small boy the proud thrill when the Hindustan 10 hit the road. An older politically-minded cousin claimed the name reflected British insistence on restricting Indian car production to an annual 10. As a young journalist, I was allotted a Landmaster. Though the Amby might be reeling under pressure of competition from sleek new brands, the Hindustan Motors factory, 60 years old this year, still turns out several thousand cars every month. Its remarkable freedom from labour trouble prompted whispers of the Birlas handsomely funding Communist politicians.
Congress strategists must be laughing up their sleeves at frustrated Ratan Tata’s threat to withdraw from West Bengal. With elections round the corner, it is in their interest to incite Mamata Banerjee to drive nails into what they hope will be the Left Front government’s coffin. For Manmohan Singh, it would be sweet revenge for four years of bonded slavery, especially since many in West Bengal blame Prakash Karat rather than the chief minister for the Nandigram bloodshed that preceded the furore over Singur.
There is some reason for Tata to feel “unwanted” in West Bengal because, as this column pointed out earlier, the project has been so thoroughly mishandled that there is a strong public perception of haste without planning. Our Mamata could not have gone on the rampage if Tatas had bought their own land through the market mechanism. Invoking a century-old acquisition law reinforced charges of colonial arbitrariness. The government is accused of hypocrisy mainly because of Bhatacharjee’s fanciful promises about acquiring only one-crop land. It tied itself up in knots by denying forcible acquisition, then confessed that not 400 acres, as Banerjee claims, but 167 acres (the figure has since been revised many times) had indeed been so acquired.
Application of the Centre’s rehabilitation package would have blunted the edge of criticism somewhat. So would greater publicity for Tata’s promise to generate 10,000 jobs as well as train dispossessed peasants with no idea of manufacturing. It’s a mystery, too, why the government will not disclose details of its agreement with Tatas. Secrecy fuels rumours about hidden construction and other deals for the Tatas that will handsomely benefit the CPI(M) as well as individual Marxist notables. It also encourages rampant land speculation.
Reason plays little part in the dialogue. Indeed, despite Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s heroic efforts, there is more demagoguery than dialogue. Every player grinds a private axe. The Centre seeks to discredit the Left Front, Banerjee to mobilise voters, and Bhattacharjee to retain the loyalty of the next generation of Bengalis. But as the recent CITU bandh demonstrated, the populist forces the CPI(M) has stoked for three decades can explode in its face and destroy its dream of the future.
Our Amby is the sole survivor of Britain’s glory when BMC was the world’s fourth largest car manufacturer. When Shanti Swarup Dhavan, high commissioner to Britain in the late 1960s, patriotically demanded an Ambassador, he was told that Londoners would think poverty-stricken India had resurrected a 1957 Morris Oxford Series III for its envoy. But Bengalis can take time off from fighting the East India Company to gloat over an export version of the Amby being the favourite cab in London’s trendy Notting Hill.
As the controversy rages, I wonder whether the Amby’s success or rivalry between two great industrial houses influenced Tata’s choice of location. It seems too much of a coincidence that Singur and Hind Motor should be in the same district. It only remains for Bhattacharjee to persuade Rahul Bajaj to make the Bajaj Lite also in Hooghly. That would be a hat trick for decrepit-but-ambitious Bengal.

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