Where have all the Big Chiefs gone?

Haldia, Jan. 15: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today sought to address questions on big projects by calling out the names of public sector companies' chiefs at Bengal Leads but drew a blank.

Mamata mentioned SAIL, NTPC and the railways as evidence to demonstrate that large investments are taking place in the city. "Are they cottage industries? It is some wrong rumour being spread. Some propaganda is going on," she added.

The chief minister said that when she was the railway minister, she realised the need for big industry and had kicked off as many as 13 projects.

The acknowledgement is an undeclared shift from the stand adopted in public by senior ministers who have been advising the media not to be "obsessed" with big names. Big projects are considered a barometer for industrial development because of their ability to spawn smaller downstream units, create a large number of jobs and impact socio-economic environment.

After naming various railway projects to make coaches, wagons and components ' the fate of some of which are uncertain after her party left the Centre ' Mamata turned to SAIL.

"SAIL is making second biggest investment in Bengal. May I know if the SAIL chairman is here?" she asked.

Mamata repeated her question a couple of times, only to realise that SAIL chairman C.S. Verma was not at the venue.

Barnali Mitra, a senior public relations officer of SAIL in Calcutta, stood up.

Mamata, who ensured that a mike reached Mitra, said: "Tell us about new projects. You have a proposal to make the second biggest investment. The SAIL chairman has told me when he met me. They have an agreement," she said.

Mitra stood up to say that a project was being conceived in Bengal with Kobe Steel in Japan at Durgapur and that SAIL was making over Rs 20,000 crore of investments in the state.

The PSU has been making the investment mainly in the modernisation of IISCO at Burnpur over the past seven years ' much before Mamata came to power ' and is on the verge of completing them. The Kobe project was also announced during the Left regime.

Appearing to be relieved at the SAIL statement, the chief minister went on to ask if anyone from NTPC was at the venue. She did not look for the chairman of NTPC though, quickly moderating her expectations.

However, none from NTPC was to be found.

The chief minister said NTPC would build power plants at Katwa, Adra and Alipurduar. "Who said big industry is not coming?" she asked.

Sources said there was little scope of the Katwa project taking off unless the government amended its hands-off land policy and acquired at least 150 acres, a demand the chief minister has rejected so far.

The Adra proposal was announced during Mamata's tenure as railways minister. It will depend on the UPA government at the Centre whether the project will take off. NTPC sources said they were not aware of a proposal for Alipurduar at present.

Mamata then turned to the audience and referred to Sanjiv Goenka's CESC power project at Haldia. The 600MW plant, now under construction, was conceived and proposed during the Left regime.

Mamata also referred to NRI businessman Prasoon Mukherjee's power project on Nayachar Island, though the proposal is facing a stiff challenge on the environment grounds from the central ministry.

However, the chief minister did not mention Jindal's Salboni steel power project while listing the big projects. The government could not keep the promise made 16 months ago to clear hurdles before the project in 15 days.

"The chief minister is living in denial as far as most of the projects mentioned today (are concerned). But it is good that she has at least realised the importance of big industry," said a veteran industrialist present at the meeting.

NRI investor Prasoon Mukherjee spoke of an "Anil Ambani plan to build a steel plant here". A government official wondered if Mukherjee was referring to a cement plant proposal mooted last year.

The Anil Ambani group did not comment.

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