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Bengal: Industrial evolution?

kolkata Updated: May 15, 2011 10:31 IST
Indrajit Hazra

It may seem odd, but Mamata Banerjee won't have a tough time selling industrialisation to the people of Bengal. What she is likely to find difficult - notwithstanding Trinamool leader and probable state finance minister Amit Mitra picking up the phone to call his Ficci contacts - is to sell the idea of setting up shop to industries.

To find out the challenge she faces, the best place to start is from where the Trinamool juggernaut started rolling in late 2006. On either side of the Durgapur Expressway in Hooghly district lie Singur and Haripal. Everyone knows about Singur and the Tata Motors episode. Less familiar is Haripal, site of a gleaming steel structure that is one of the largest coal tar pitch and enamel manufacturing factories in the world, Himadri Chemicals and Industries.

This factory, literally opposite the vacant walled plot that was to be the Tata plant, was set up with the blessings of the Left Front government in 2003. This was a success story for the government both in terms of showcasing industry as well as providing jobs to locals. But then, somewhere down the line, there was a problem: villagers in the adjoining Mohishtikari village started complaining about a 'bad smell' coming from the plant. This was followed by complaints by farmers finding a layer of 'black carbon ash' covering their fields and ponds during the mornings.

With the Singur agitation becoming a full-fledged political issue for the Trinamool, it was only a matter of time before the then main opposition party picked up the matter of Himadri Chemicals being an environmental hazard. Uday Patra, 38, a daily wager and resident of Mohishtikari, remembers: "People had started getting sick and were breaking into rashes and having headaches. It was then that Jayashri Mondol, the Trinamool candidate for the 2008 panchayat polls in Chandanpur village, made it a pre-election issue."

Along with the Singur phenomenon, the Himadri Chemicals 'agitation' gathered force. The local media highlighted the polluting plant and its effects. Ultimately, the issue played its part in the panchayat polls victory in the block for the Trinamool in 2008.

But after that victory, everything went quiet. The Trinamool may have figured that this was not purely an 'anti-industrialisation' issue that could be stapled to the larger anti-government narrative. Bhaskar Dhara, 28, then Trinamool Congress panchayat president of adjoining Chandanpur village, decided to bring the issue to the notice of the Trinamool leadership again. The party wasn't interested and kicked him out of the party.

"It was weird," says Dhara, who along with a group of other villagers in the area adjoining the factory, boycotted the assembly elections. "The report from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board validated our fears. The lab report pointed out the need to shut a unit and replace a flawed system so that the carbon dust emission could be controlled. But no one was interested."

The lab report was sent to the Hooghly district magistrate. Dhara sent out letters to the state environment minister, to Trinamool leader Partha Chatterjee and even one to the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj. The plant managers continue to insist that there is nothing wrong with the factory.

With Mamata Banerjee now ready to woo industry in Trinamool-ruled Bengal, will she look into a people's complaint that the previous government didn't want to bother about? Or will she, in her bid to correct her 'old' anti-industry image, just let the matter slide? As Dhara says with a sigh, "And it's not even as if we want to shut down the factory."