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5 Mar 2017

Bengal industry tea leaves

Pranesh Sarkar, TT, Calcutta, March 4: The Mamata Banerjee government has decided to merge the small enterprises department and the industries department, ending a half-a-century-old bifurcation and fuelling multiple theories.
Three theories are doing the rounds on the proposed merger that will bring all segments of industry, including MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises), under a unified industries department.
One, the government is acknowledging the ground reality that, given its hands-off land policy, the MSME segment may be a better bet than big-ticket projects, few of which have shown interest in the state.
Two, the proposed merger is further affirmation that the chief minister is taking a more proactive role in the affairs of the industries department headed by Amit Mitra.
After the merger, the industries department will have a minister of state in addition to Mitra who will continue to head the combined wing.
Three, the merger is merely a routine decision taken with the aim of making the administration slimmer.
"The decision to merge the two departments was approved by the state cabinet yesterday and the formalities for having a single department to look after all industry-related affairs would be completed within a few days," a government official said today.
Sources said the new avatar would be called "industries, commerce and enterprises department".
According to sources, the chief minister has zeroed in on Swapan Debnath, the minister of state (independent charge) for MSME, as the junior minister in the merged department.
The departments are being merged a little over a month after the chief minister described the annual business summit as "super, super, super successful". The MSME and industries departments have had separate identities since the early 1960s.
Focus on MSME
The stress on MSME was inevitable, said a government source. He pointed out that large industries needed large tracts of land, something not easily available in Bengal.
"We cannot provide land for big industries.... Our model of direct land purchase also has its limitations. So, it's better to promote MSMEs," the source added.
"Our performance on drawing big investors has been very poor. But there have been some achievements in the MSME sector. The merger of the departments will help the small and medium units, which were comparatively neglected," said a government official.
The bureaucrat said the state could attract only a handful of major investments in the past four decades, barring a few like Haldia Petrochemicals. "So it's better to focus on the MSME sector," he said.
Another official said that by merging the departments, the state government wanted to help small and medium enterprises grow as they can now use the district-level infrastructure of the industries department. "Focus on the MSME is a must because this sector has the potential to generate employment, which the chief minister wants in her second tenure," he added.
Stress from the top
Sources in Nabanna said the chief minister had decided to get more involved in matters related to the industries department. This remains a key area of concern and Mamata has been facing criticism over the past few years on the state's failure to attract big investments.
Although the Bengal government has taken delegations to London, Singapore and Germany to scout for investments and held business summits to showcase the state as an investment destination and the chief minister has hailed them as successes, the claims have often been contested.
"She has hinted that now she would take more interest.... She would drive the department and its affairs," said a source.
Recently, the chief minister had replaced Krishna Gupta with Rajiva Sinha as the secretary of the industries department.
One bureaucrat suggested that the chief minister did not consult Mitra while changing the secretary and deciding to bring in a junior minister but the version could not be confirmed.
The sources said the chief minister got involved with the department's affairs after it appeared that nothing much was happening in the large industries sector while the small and medium industries segment was performing well.
Routine label
A section of bureaucrats said the merger was a routine exercise. Many other departments were merged a few months ago to have a slimmer administration.
"A slim administration cuts down expenditure of the government. A few months ago, 63 departments were brought down to 52 through mergers. This is another such exercise," said an official.
The official added that the government would merge the corporations under the industries department, such as the WBIDC, WBIIDC and the WBSIDC, to have a slimmer organisation.
But another section of officials said the proposed merger could not be termed a routine exercise. They pointed out that the government had earlier decided to keep the MSME wing as a separate department even when others like public enterprises and industrial reconstruction were merged with the industries department.

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