Debating India

THE STATES

Stoking regionalism

Suhrid Shankar Chattopadhyay

Friday 2 July 2004

Minister for Coal and Mines Shibu Soren’s move to shift the headquarters of two public sector giants from Kolkata to Ranchi raises questions of economic logic, among other things.

WITHIN days of the formation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi, a situation has arisen that can become a flashpoint in the relations between the Centre and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government in West Bengal. All political parties and trade union bodies in West Bengal are protesting against the move of Minister for Coal and Mines Shibu Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) to shift the head offices of Coal India Ltd. (CIL) and the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) from Kolkata to Ranchi.

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Shibu Soren, Minister for Coal and Mines.

Left Front chairman and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Biman Bose said that such decisions should not be taken by an individual, but at the Cabinet level. "It is seen that whoever assumes the post of a Union Minister conveys the idea that all they are interested in is the development of their own State. Development is required in every State, but it should be done with a holistic view. It is important to realise that Ministers are first Indians and then representatives of their own States," he said.

Referring to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s comment that he does not go to New Delhi "shopping" for packages for West Bengal, Bose said: "Like all States West Bengal also has its own demands, but we do not seek them at the expense of other States." He feels that an expert committee should be constituted at the Union level to look into this demand. "Ultimately what will they gain by shifting the CIL and DVC headquarters from Kolkata to Ranchi? I do not think it will help them in their development work in any way." According to Bose such demands undermine the purpose of collective responsibility and encourage parochial sentiments, which is "pernicious for the development of the nation as a whole".

Former Coal Minister and Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC) chief Mamata Banerjee said: "I have nothing against Jharkhand wanting to develop itself industrially. It has a lot of potential. But if everything is taken away from West Bengal, then how will our State survive? This demand is not at all fair. Besides, Kolkata, because of its location, is strategically very important. It is the gateway to the east and northeast of India. We will oppose this move till the end."

In the same vein Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly Pankaj Banerjee of the NTC said: "This move will be stopped by any means. We want to know what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stand is on this. If these demands of Shibu Soren are met, then it will ruin West Bengal as far as the two sectors of coal and power are concerned."

Though the issue goes beyond State-level politics, the NTC does not want to waste an opportunity to point an accusing finger at the Left Front government. Even though the NTC and the Left are on the same side as far as this issue is concerned, according to Pankaj Banerjee, "the CPI(M)’s protests are hollow and insincere".

West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Manas Bhunia said: "Earlier also such demands were made, but they did not come through. From Shibu Soren’s standpoint, it is an exercise in State politics. It has nothing to do with the Union government. Besides, Coal India and the DVC are not State concerns; they are national companies." Manas Bhunia too drew attention to the fact of Kolkata being "the nerve centre" of eastern and northeastern India and opined that the headquarters of CIL and the DVC should remain in the metropolis. "All the political parties in the State are protesting against this. CIL and the DVC are here and will remain here," he asserted. The West Bengal Congress hopes that the dispute will not snowball into a prestige issue for Shibu Soren and Jharkhand.

Trade unions in West Bengal are united in their condemnation of the move. Kali Ghosh, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said: "Shifting of the coal headquarters from Kolkata to Ranchi cannot take place. This is a populist slogan that Shibu Soren has adopted and it is not at all practical. What about all the people who work here? Will they be accommodated in Ranchi?" The CITU has been opposed to this move from the start and is ready to launch an agitation to prevent it from happening.

Akshay Mukherjee of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), a veteran labour leader in the coal industry, feels that shifting CIL’s head office would set a bad precedent. "Any Minister from anywhere will then want to shift the head offices concerned to his own State. That would not be feasible. Besides, West Bengal would lose substantially in royalty and cess."

In 2002-2003, CIL registered a net profit of Rs.14.53 billion and a turnover of Rs.242.28 billion, as against the previous year’s Rs.5.19 billion and Rs. 227.46 billion respectively. This increase was particularly impressive taking into consideration the huge losses of some of its larger subsidiaries like Bharat Coking Coal Ltd. (BCCL) and Eastern Coalfields Ltd. (ECL). "If any change takes place, it might adversely affect the profitability of those coal subsidiaries that are operating successfully," Mukherjee said.

With the majority of the skilled and unskilled workers in the coal industry hailing from Bihar and Jharkhand, it is suspected that provincial or parochial sentiments are at work behind this demand. In West Bengal alone the total workforce in the coal industry is more than 1.4 lakh. Workers from Bihar and Jharkhand form the majority of this.

SHIBU SOREN, however, considers the demand "fair and legitimate". On the issue the Coal Minister has the full support of all political parties in Jharkhand. Although the CPI(M) is not supporting this demand, the lone Member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India (CPI) from the State, Bhubaneswar Mehta, is reported to have said that at a personal level he is not against it. The Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) units of Jharkhand stand firmly behind Soren on this issue, and Chief Minister Arjun Munda has assured his government’s full support. Munda has even gone to the extent of giving the Centre two months to give its approval before the State government launches an agitation. Jharkhand Pradesh Congress Committee president Thomas Handsa said the issue of shifting the head offices, is a sentimental one for the people of Jharkhand and should be looked into "seriously".

On June 4, the Jharkhand Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution demanding shifting of the headquarters of CIL and the DVC "in the larger interest of the State" and also to correct a "historical error". The logic behind the resolution, according to State Power Minister Lal Chand Mahto, was that more than 70 per cent of the total number of consumers of DVC power are in Jharkhand and the three main subsidiaries of CIL, Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL), BCCL, and ECL - are all based in the State. This is not the first time that such a resolution was passed in the Jharkhand Assembly. In 2002, during the tenure of Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, a similar move was made.

Before the resolution was passed, a section of the Assembly wanted to include Steel Authority of India Ltd. (SAIL) too in the list. However, the demand was turned down based on the argument that SAIL’s operations were more national in character and its inclusion might dilute the urgency of the first two demands. The demand to have the SAIL head office in Ranchi is also not new. According to Water Resources Minister Ram Chandra Kesri, it has been there since Karpoori Thakur’s tenure as the Chief Minister of undivided Bihar.

The CIL came into being in 1975 after the nationalisation of the coal industry. Around that time there was a move to establish the company’s headquarters in Delhi. However, that plan was dropped and Kolkata was seen as the ideal place for the head office, which would act as a lynchpin to all its subsidiaries. Logistically, it was also seen to be the most convenient place, as there were two railway headquarters in the State - the Eastern and the South Eastern - and the Kolkata port was the nearest port to all the important collieries.

Perhaps the hidden agenda of the Jharkhand government is to get a share of the cess and other revenues consequent on such transfer. But if this example is followed, it will have an adverse impact on the economy. For it is common knowledge that most of the metropolises act as magnets for the poor from neighbouring States and the financial burden of providing urban infrastructure devolves upon these metropolises.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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