Bengal’s Tech Buddha



Even at 60, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya manages to lend
a modern, youthful face to a left-leaning state that’s traditionally been
considered hostile to industry and progress. Unlike his predecessor who kept a
distance from technology, Bhattacharya has been fully involved in driving the
knowledge-economy areas in his government, and in inviting investment, since
becoming CM in November 2000. He’s been in politics right from his days in
Presidency College in the 1960s, joining the government in 1977, when the Jyoti
Basu-led Left Front ousted the Congress in West Bengal. In an hour-long meeting
with Dataquest group chief editor Prasanto K Roy, Bhattacharya explained why IT
is so very important for his government-and how the state has really, really
changed. Excerpts:

West Bengal’s been down the IT road before, in the 1990s. What’s
different now?
Earlier, we failed for so many reasons: for lack of our vision, our
understanding of these 21st century disciplines, IT and biotech. Since 2000,
things are moving. We were the second state to announce our IT policy in 2002,
after Andhra Pradesh. The proof is in the vote of confidence by major investors
who are coming in, or growing their presence. IBM is expanding its services
business to 4,000, and participating in our education initiatives, including a
300-school computer training pilot that will now go to 2,500 schools. Wipro is
growing rapidly, aiming for up to 5,000 seats in its new facilities, and plans
to use up 50 acres of land. Cognizant is expanding. GE Capital has finalized on
Kolkata. And HSBC, Satyam, Reliance, ITC Infotech are coming in.

“I know the services sector fears bandhs. That’s why we’ve given utility status to IT services-they are now “essential services”, working 24×7, and we provide security through bandhs”
Buddhadev Bhattacharya

Who are you missing?
I am waiting for Infosys! Narayana Murthy told me about his visit ten years
ago…he had come here and spoken with our officials about our IT policy…he
was so discouraged, he went to Bhubaneswar. I told him, please forget the past,
and come here! Now, we are in touch regularly.

Does the Andhra experience scare you? Perhaps IT is not so
“politically correct” now?
The Andhra model failed-not in IT terms, though-when the government got
defeated for its one-sided view, taking care of only Hyderabad, and the IT
industry. They ignored the rural sector. It’s a different story in West
Bengal. We started with the rural sector. Over 70% of land belongs to the poor.
Our villages are better off than most others in India. We top the production of
rice, vegetables, potato, fish. We have to consolidate and build on that. But
without IT and biotech, we cannot move ahead in the 21st century. Therefore, IT
is still my top priority, but not ignoring agriculture. In fact, on my visit to
Hyderabad during the last election campaign, I told (then CM) Naidu jokingly, I’m
going to beat you in the IT sector in three years. He said, all right, let’s
see!

Some companies have met your very enthusiastic IT department to discuss a
project, which then goes to another department like education, and fizzles out…
I don’t see this as a major problem any more. Major companies today start
discussions from my office. Either I meet them personally, or my special
secretary for IT, in my Secretariat, does. And our IT department is very serious
and progressive. Yes, other departments have been reluctant at times, they’ve
resisted e-governance projects. But that is mostly behind us. We’re the only
state with a state-level WAN, WEBSWAN, with direct connectivity with district
magistrates. I hold video-conferences with them for most things. All our
treasuries are computerized, a first in India. So are areas like transport and
vehicle registration, land records, and our police departments and criminal
records. When we face problems (with techno-phobic departments) I intervene.

It looks like you’re inviting FDI in the state, and fighting it in the
Center?
That’s a misconception! The situation at the national plane and the state
level is so different. We oppose their disinvestment policy. There is a round of
discussion on this issue…but I must thank the Congress, for seriously
discussing this problem with our party. With the Common Minimum Program, we have
consensus in the rural sector, agriculture, education, health…now, they have
to implement (the CMP). But we have some differences in regard to public
undertakings, and labor law-they have accepted that they should not go in for
a hire-and-fire policy; it won’t work. Our position is we should not disinvest
in the profitable PSUs, which are the backbone of our national economy:
IndianOil, ONGC, GAIL, Railways, Telecom. But for sick units, we have to find a
solution… we cannot keep running them when sick.

You have many of them here in West Bengal.
Well, those 54 include private companies, government undertakings, PSUs…but
they were mostly not set up by government funds, but were private companies.
They got sick, and asked us to take over. Foolishly, we say in hindsight, the
government took them over! Some of those factories have no future. Now, we have,
after 25 years, agreed that we have to do something, restructure these
factories. We’ve engaged PwC as our consultant, and are going one by one, and
going through the details of their sickness and how to revive them. We have
completed 16 units, and within 2005 we’ll complete these 54 units. That’s
our policy. We are not earning anything from these sick units, just giving
salaries from government funds. This cannot work.

The IT services sector is a 24×7 industry and it worries about “bandhs”
and agitations, like the one on August 2.
I know. That’s why we’ve given a full utility status to IT services-they
are now “essential services”. I know they have to work 24×7. We give
them stickers, and provide security, and make all arrangements so that there is
no impact on the IT sector. Just like any other essential service like power and
hospitals.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I want to consolidate agriculture, and then move on to value-added agri-businesses.
I want to speed up industrialization, particularly the modern industries,
including petrochem, chemicals, plastics, and the knowledge industries. We have
5% of India’s technology services exports, and we want to reach 15-20% by
2010. And finally, and most important, I want to improve the quality of life for
the 27% people here who still live below the poverty line. That is the single
most important task as far as I am concerned. As I say in Bangla, (let’s keep
our feet firmly on the ground, with the poor, and keep our head in the sky, the
IT and biotech sky).

Text and pictures by Prasanto K Roy Next issue: “Bengal’s Second
Coming”

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