At Haldia, Mamata leads

Haldia, Jan. 14: Sceptics who wondered if Bengal Leads, the investment summit, could draw big names should prepare to eat crow. Smiling from several corners in Haldia is the biggest name of them all: Mamata Banerjee.

So omnipresent are the government-sponsored hoardings welcoming the leader that the chief minister, whose state is hosting the event from tomorrow afternoon, appears to have become the main guest.

"Welcome Mamata Banerjee" and "Mamata Banerjee swagatam," read the billboards put up by two government organisations, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation and the Haldia Development Authority, the joint organisers of the three-day investor meet and exhibition at Helipad Ground.

"I didn't see any board welcoming the delegates. Is Bengal Leads about Mamata Banerjee or the investors?" asked the representative of a company based outside Bengal.

The representative reached Haldia by road ' a drive of around two and a half hours from Calcutta ' this afternoon.

The Telegraph did manage to spot some banners welcoming the delegates but they were far fewer than the ones welcoming the chief minister.

Such banners are not unusual at political meetings or government programmes but Bengal Leads is being positioned as an event to showcase the state's industrial opportunities.

Mamata's overwhelming presence is not the only factor that will catch the outsider's eye. "The exhibition hangars are full of stalls run by state government departments and PSUs. Where is private industry?" asked a representative of another company.

Industries minister Partha Chatterjee had said yesterday that out of 67 stalls, 39 were put up by private industries. "Most of these companies have units in Haldia. They had little choice but to set up stalls as the government is organising it," said an industry department official.

According to him, in its desperation to get occupants at the four exhibition hangars, senior officials had called some company heads late last week and urged them to set up stalls.

"I received a call on Saturday asking us to take up a stall. We have obliged. Last year, we had a bigger presence. But nobody contacted us this time till Saturday. All I had received was an invitation card from the chief secretary written 'admit one' on it," said the head of one company. He would not be attending the programme tomorrow.

Till this evening, there was little clarity on how many owners and chief executives would travel to Haldia. Government sources said they were expecting delegations from Singapore and Russia.

The Indian Chamber of Commerce is organising a ferry trip to Haldia from Calcutta, by which 10-12 city-based industrialists are scheduled to reach the venue. They include RP-Sanjiv Goenka chairman Sanjiv Goenka, Apeejay Group chairman Karan Paul and Duncan chairman G.P. Goenka. The India head of Goldman Sachs, Sanjoy Chattopadhyay, will also make the river trip.

Minister Chatterjee had yesterday asked reporters to wait till tomorrow for the big names at the event.

Trinamul MP Derek 'Brien posted in a blog today: "Will tycoons fly in and out their private jets? Will 100 countries be represented? Will there be photo-ops with one billionaire after another? No."

He listed "greater social stability", "much less violence", "decisive policy decisions" and "e-governance" among Bengal's achievements.

At the other end of the social media, a less reverential debate was under way. "Asked someone in Kolkata about Bengal Leads event. He said it was Bengal Pleads. Must have pulled my leg," said a tweet from the handle @bibekdebroy. The responses included more play on the word "Leads".

The Bengal Leads organisers were racing to finish the stalls amid signs of work-in-progress this afternoon.

Some exhibitors complained that the rate was steep. "The organisers are charging Rs 1.16 lakh for a 3-metre-by-3-metre stall, which means around Rs 1,250 per sqft. This is very expensive," said an exhibitor.

Usually, the government provides discounts to exhibitors if they go out of the capital. However, sources said rates in Calcutta were comparable with that at the venue. An official said that charging the exhibitors was natural as the event involved expenses.

This newspaper had reported that a list had been prepared with amounts ranging between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 1 lakh being mentioned against local companies' names. "The money was not collected from the companies after the plan became public. But the organisers have collected money from local contractors for the show," said the HR head of a Haldia-based company.

Lakshman Seth, the CPM satrap, used to collect subscriptions from companies for Haldia Utsav during Left rule. "Seth has been replaced by a Trinamul leader but things haven't changed in Haldia," said the HR head.

Many believed that the reason for holding Bengal Leads at Haldia was an attempt to show that all's well in the port town, especially after the exit of private cargo handler HBT. The firm had blamed high-handedness that spun out of control and led to the alleged abduction of three employees.

The apartment where the alleged abductions took place is a stone's throw from the Helipad Ground. Around 200 employees of the cargo handler who lost jobs plan to hold a demonstration at the venue.

"Bengal Leads is being held in Haldia to deflect attention from the HBT pullout. I don't know what they can achieve as this government doesn't have a focus on what it wants," said former industries minister Nirupam Sen.

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