Thursday, December 17, 2009

Minister Mamata Banerjee and the labyrinth of Singur

In a recent public announcement Union Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee has proclaimed that her ministry is ready to start up the ‘world’s biggest coach factory’ at the abandoned Tata Motors site in Singur “if the state government gives us the land”. As soon as she became Railways Minister for the second time following her most conspicuous success in the 2009 parliamentary polls, she has taken up numerous ‘new’ programmes, floated several ‘innovative’ proposals and started introducing various ‘development’ works. From the typical ‘Kalpataru’ syndrome which has affected many Indian politicians time and again, she is right on her track publicizing ‘big plans’ for Bengal on a regular basis through trusty media bulletins. From the bouncing Railways Minister’s continuous announcements of innumerable Bengal initiatives, it seems that the Bengal voters have at last voted a leader who is capable of satisfying their unfulfilled wishes – just like the mythological wish-fulfilling tree which came out during churning of the ocean. Her railway strategists are doing a commendable job to link her ministerial offerings with the Trinamool party agenda. But the people of Bengal need to be cautioned about one thing. Desiring something from the ‘Kalpataru’ could turn dangerous in the long run because, according to the myth, the tree fulfills all wishes regardless of good or bad outcomes.

The Railways Minister's juggernaut

Within a short period of time, Mamata Banerjee has launched many ‘new’ trains, ‘new’ stations, ‘new’ railway line extensions, ‘new’ railway connections, ‘new’ computerized reservation offices through a nonstop inauguration extravaganza and bombarded project after project. To accrue advantageous publicity and score political points over her bête noire CPI(M), she has flagged off old trains in new names, introducing new trains by taking out coaches from existing trains and re-laying foundation stones of old projects which were inaugurated long back. Recently she had laid the foundation stone of the New Jubilee Bridge over river Hooghly in North 24-Parganas, and renamed it as ‘Maitreyee’ bridge. The farcical part is, during her first tenure in 2001 she had laid a foundation stone of this same bridge!

Keeping track on all her Bengal centric projects and promises is not going to be an easy task. Her railway budget has proposed the takeover of the wagon units of Burn Standard and Braithwaite. Both units under the Ministry of Heavy Industries and both are based in Bengal. From the 375 ‘ideal’ stations that her budget has promised to create all over the country, 216 stations are in Bengal alone! Assuring the commuters that the progress of this project will be ‘personally’ monitored by her, she had declared to sanction “Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore for each of these stations”. In presence of representatives from national auto majors, she has inaugurated an automobile logistics hub at Shalimar which will “provide employment to scores of local men and women” and has also chosen Singur for the Rs 3 crore perishable cargo storage unit under the "Kisan Vision" scheme where “Singur’s farmers can store their excess products at this unit free of cost”! It is highly interesting to note the locations of her bombastic projects – most of them are carefully chosen on the merit of their political significance.

Her budget proposal also include the Rs 900 crore project of a new coach factory at the Kanchrapara-Halishahar railway complex in North 24-Parganas, a component factory at Dankuni in Hooghly district, and a high-speed bogie casting unit at Majherhat, South 24-Parganas. Though the same Mamata Banerjee and her party is fervently opposing a power plant at Burdwan district’s Katwa in the pretext of ‘forceful land acquisition’ by the state government, she found no problem to propose a 1000MW power plant at Purulia’s Adra in her budget as it will “create jobs for local tribals” and bring “the tribal people into the mainstream”. Though critics have pointed out that the Railways have to acquire additional land if they truly want to set up the proposed power plant in Adra since they do not possess the full amount of land required for the project.

There are other Bengal projects in her kitty such as extending the Metro rail network to Dakshineswar, Barrackpore and Barasat, connecting Kolkata by a ‘ring-railway network’, and laying new rail lines at Canning, Bakkhali and Nandigram. Her ministry is also thinking to set up new coach factories in Burdwan, Nadia and other Bengal districts. She has also announced that the Railways have planned several industrial projects in the state that would generate ‘employment for lakhs’ and has expressed her desire to revive the jute industry in the state. “There are many closed jute mills in and around Kanchrapara. The jute industry will be revived and there are other plans as well” she has assured. To pour honey into people’s ear she has proclaimed, “Many more industries will be coming up and there is no need for you to leave Bengal.” It occurs awesomely bizarre when we recall that it was this same industry friendly and ‘changed’ Mamata Banerjee who had forced Tata Motors a year ago to shift the Nano plant from Bengal to Gujarat’s Sanand by spearheading the Singur siege.

The myopic Railways Minister has also reached a new low by refusing to invite the state government at her inaugural ceremonies. Relishing her act of disregarding democratic protocols as a fitting response to the ‘high and mighty’ Left Front government, one of the client scribes has gone to the extent of declaring that, “her individual acceptability with the people of the State is more than what the Left Front as a whole”. A highly pretentious statement follows: “the Union Railway Minister has appeared as a titan in State politics” in front of pygmies “like Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee”. (Source) Her Railways functions have also been converted into TMC party events where invitees are categorically selected according to their loyalty. Mamata Banerjee really gets a sadistic pleasure by publicly ignoring the State government. Over the years, she has induced a new kind of political hatred into the polity which has greatly assisted to lumpenize Bengal’s political culture.

An unconventional Railways Minister!

The talented Railways Minister has also indicated that she does not want to stay restricted into the conventional Railways Minister’s cocoon. In fact, she has attempted to put forward a unique idea; that it requires only one minister to gratify almost every requisite of the voters. Surrounded by film stars and the intellectual glitterati of Kolkata during the flagging off ceremony of the Tollygunge-Garia Bazaar Metro Railway extension, she had announced to set up a 75-bed hospital near Tollygunge in Kolkata, and promised to upgrade the existing South Eastern Railway Hospital into a well-equipped medical college. In the “next two-three years” she had proposed to set up more hospitals, schools, cold storages, flyovers, museums, theatre complexes, stadiums and what not? Her ministry has sanctioned Rs 17 crore for a stadium at Bongaon in North 24 Parganas. “If we get land from the state government” she had said while offering to construct another stadium at Canning in South 24-Parganas and bragged that “we can construct it in seven days”! Scrapping off a similar sports complex project in neighboring Howrah which was approved by the former Railways Minister Nitish Kumar during the NDA regime, the Eastern Railway will now have to spend Rs 57 crore to build an ‘world class’ indoor stadium to Behala, a part of the Railways Minister’s South Calcutta constituency because she simply “does not seem to be interested” in the Howrah project. Instead she has sanctioned Rs.3.5 crore for an amphitheatre there to “develop it as a platform for cultural interaction” and “to nurture cultural activities in our state”. Naming the amphitheatre after theatre personality Sambhu Mitra, she had appointed Sambhu Mitras’s daughter Shaoli Mitra as the chairperson of the advisory committee. Shaoli Mitra is one of her client intellectuals who were in the forefront of Nandigram-Singur agitation demanding a political ‘change’ in Bengal. Mitra also chairs the newly formed Heritage and Cultural Committee of the Railways and draws Rs. 50,000 per month of public money as allowance along with other perks. Many of the Bengali intellectuals considered close to her were also rewarded with plum posts in various Railways committees.

The Basumati fiasco

During her budget speech, Mamata Banerjee had also offered to take over the state-run printing press Basumati Corporation Ltd, a 128-year-old historic publishing house associated with the freedom movement. The corporation is presently a sick unit with an accumulated loss of Rs 100 crore. Mamata Banerjee’s announcement in the Parliament that “if the state government agrees, we will take over Basumati and modernize it” was promptly welcomed by the Bengal government as a “very good proposal” and had generated huge hope among the 200 doomed Basumati employees. The jubilant Bengali media also created a lot of hype around the proposal. But the lofty offer turned into a damp squib and subsequently ended the hope of the employees when the Railway Board wrote to the state government that it will take over the PSU but ‘would not accept the liabilities’. Mamata Banerjee’s Basumati flop show is a premonition of what is really going to happen with her Singur proposal.

The Singur labyrinth

From the day Mamata Banerjee and her friends has forced the Tata’s to leave Singur; the humiliated Bengal government is keenly trying to bring in new investors to ensure industry in the abandoned land. After negotiations with the Chinese automobile manufacturing company First Automobile Works (FAW) failed to materialize, the state government opted for the central government PSU Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) to set up a power plant. Keeping a careful watch on the developments “whether BHEL is really coming” and calling the state government’s initiative a joke, Mamata Banerjee was quick to float her counter proposal of setting up a railway coach factory on the same day the BHEL officials has visited Singur to assess the site. Informing the media that her proposal has already received the blessing of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, she went on further to disclose that the affectionate Finance Minister “told me to go ahead”. After all, who can dare to oppose a vital Union Minister’s “dreams regarding Singur”? Keeping in mind the present political clout, it would have been a real surprise if the central government PSU had agreed to go ahead with the project on this ‘dream’ site. Inevitably, BHEL refused to go ahead with the project on ‘technical, commercial and environmental grounds’.

To a certain extent Mamata Banerjee was taken aback when the Bengal government agreed to her proposal. The state chief secretary’s announcement before the media that “The state government, in-principle, is agreeable to hand over the entire land at Singur to the Railways for setting up a coach manufacturing factory” caused panic among the TMC think-tank. Receiving instructions from the above, familiar Trinamool face Partha Chaterjee has to plunge in with the musty old demand of returning ‘400 acres’ of land (This figure is a blatant TMC lie. The actual figure is 254.36 acres, where the owners have either refused to accept compensation from the state government or unable to claim the compensation due to legal problems) to the unwilling landowners. Accordingly the Railway Board chairman wrote back to the Bengal government echoing the TMC line that “The railways want to set up a world-class coach factory in Singur on the entire land (600 acres) after returning 400 acres to the unwilling farmers/landowners.” (Emphasis added)

There are enough reasons to be skeptical about the proposal. Mamata Banerjee and her band of cohorts are not so stupid to recognize the fact that once acquired for public purpose, no land can be returned to the original owners until the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 is amended. She knows very well that it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to keep her promise and return the so called ‘400 acres’ to the unwilling farmers after removing the legal obstacles. In addition to legal problems, it is also impossible to fish out and rescue 600 acres for the coach factory as the disputed lands are scattered in the form of small plots all over the site. They are definitely not stupid but wicked to the core. Their aim is only to recur into the same vicious politics that they had played with Singur just a year ago. For her own interest, the deceitful Railways Minister wants to keep Singur as a labyrinth where the destiny of numerous ordinary people will be captivated.

While answering the question about how the so called 400 acres could be returned, a stupid TMC source has revealed the true intention: “In all probability, the entire rail coach factory project will start rolling post 2011, when we come to power.” This comment shows the sly cunning face of Mamata Banerjee’s Singur initiative. It is neither the coach factory, nor the future of Singur but ‘coming to power’ that is important. This vicious political game will never encourage industry in Singur but simply evoke utter hopelessness and despair.

Plotting the Bengal line

Mamata Banerjee propagandists embedded with the media are asking: why she is blamed for being blatantly partial to her State when she has initiated national projects like spreading the Railways network in Kashmir, launched ladies Special EMU trains connecting metro cities with suburbs and has introduced trains like the Izzat – intended for the poorest of the poor, and the Duronto – India’s ‘fastest’ non-stop trains? Applying Railways Minister’s status for pushing forward the party agenda has been made an established norm in this country by all her predecessors. There is nothing wrong if she is doing the same. To defend Mamata Banerjee’s biased Bengal initiatives, the client scribes has premeditated an aggressive attack on the Marxists, blaming them for deriding “various development works of the railways”. The Railways Minister herself has provided them the tip: “The CPI(M) is constantly conspiring against the railways. If any accident takes place in the railways, they CPI(M) will be solely responsible for that”. Haunted by the CPI(M) specter, the client scribes are cautiously trying to obscure the dark truth. Mamata Banerjee actually cares a damn for the development of the Railways infrastructure throughout India. Her interest on the few national projects is only because they have the potential to generate wide publicity in the national media. Her real interest lies in making the most of the Railways infrastructure projects to mesmerize the Bengal voters for the next one and half years till the 2011 Bengal assembly polls. The ‘privileged’ voters in return will pave her way towards supremacy and make her the Chief Minister. It will also ensure a long-term reverie of the anti-left spin doctors – to end the CPI(M) rule in Bengal.

Who is going to finance the hogwash list of Railways Minister’s ‘inventive’ proposals? Obviously it is the Finance Ministry under Pranab Mukherjee. The Finance Minister has sanctioned Rs 15,800 crore budgetary supports (Rs 5,000 crore more than the Rs 10,800 crore promised in the Interim Budget for 2009-10) for the Indian Railways and has also exempted transport of goods by Indian Railways from service tax. This abrupt exemption is startling when transport of goods in railway containers were already under the service tax net from 2008 and in July this year the Finance Ministry had further proposed to extend the levy of service tax. Pranab Mukherjee’s fishy U-turn again indicates a desperate political ploy. To dislodge the CPI(M) in Bengal, it is a joint venture between the present patriarch of the Bengal Pradesh Congress and the TMC chieftain, under the watchful eyes of the enigmatic Sonia Gandhi. The farsighted Congress president appears to be confident about the return of the prodigal daughter as well as the state of Bengal into her fold.

Our friendly neighborhood Railways Minister is notoriously greedy for power and authority. The parliamentary poll results and its subsequent ambiance have made her so overconfident on winning the 2011 assembly polls that she has valued the Railways Minister job only as a booster for her approaching encounter with the Marxists. By assimilating a five year agenda into one and half year, she wants to exploit her ministerial position and reap maximum advantage from it. Therefore, it has become relatively easy for her to go on ‘gifting’ an endless list of unrealizable projects and promises regardless of any responsibilities about the consequences. On this matter, her conscience is as clean as a white piece of paper. Munawer Tehseem, the Railways Minister’s complaisant media manager from the ministry has recently boasted about how the dynamic minister has “fulfilled 70% of the promises she made in her budget speech in 56 days”. (Source) Unfortunately, the word ‘promise’ has lost its significance long back – particularly if connected with a special brand of Indian politicians turned ministers.

Like the other deceitful and reactionary politicians of this country, Mamata Banerjee is also cut from the same piece of cloth. Hence it is difficult to digest the ongoing cant that she has ‘changed’. How much the myopic vision and short time objectives will help the Railways Minister to grab political power in Bengal will be manifested in the near future. But one thing is for sure. If her cunningly plotted political gamesmanship succeeds, then Bengal will change; but possibly for the worst.


Sources: Unless stated, all news sources used in this post are from the websites of The Hindu, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Telegraph and DNA.

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