Saturday, April 21, 2007


Special Article


A proposal that Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee must approve if he does not wish to be accused of violating Article 14 of the Constitution.


I am planning to write a letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Here is a draft, which I offer to readers ~ who are, after all, the most important stakeholders in The Statesman ~ for comment.

Dear Mr Chief Minister,
I write this on behalf of The Statesman, a newspaper that is more than 130 years old and is directly descended from The Friend of India, founded 1818. In other words, we were born about half a century before the house of Tatas was founded as a trading firm, a reference that you may find mysterious but one that I promise to explain as I go along.
In February last year, we applied to your Housing Minister and head of the West Bengal Housing and Infrastructure Development Corporation for a two-acre plot of land in New Town, Kolkata. In October or thereabouts, some seven or eight months later, we received a letter from WBHIDCO that it had been decided to allot the land to us. But, curiously, there were no details furnished in the letter about the location, the cost or anything else. Thereafter, there has been no word from WBHIDCO.
I had indicated that we required the land for our own use, for production activities and for new business ventures, including software development, that we proposed to set up. While there were several locations available to us for the proposed investment, including in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, we felt that West Bengal, which has been our home for nearly two centuries, would be most suitable.
I must hasten to add, however, that I am not making a grievance of the fact that 13 months after our application, there is no sign of the land, much less the terms under which it is to be allotted. The wheels of government grind slowly, and bureaucracies cannot be hurried. I am sure, some day in the not so distant future, our file will be found in the WBHIDCO office and the land will be allotted.
The purpose of this letter is different. I am given to understand from reports of your Industries Minister, Mr Nirupam Sen’s statement in the West Bengal Assembly that your government is offering a better alternative.
I understand that you are offering land to investors, especially those who are considering other states, on lease at favourable terms, and I would like to urge you to use your good offices to make such an allotment to us.
The Statesman would be interested in acquiring on 90-year lease about 10 acres of land. We are prepared to pay an annual lease rent of Rs 80,000 for the first five years, calculated at the rate of Rs 8,000 per acre per annum. We are prepared to offer an increase of 25 per cent every five years thereafter for the next 30 years. Thus we will agree to pay Rs 100,000 per year from years 6 to 10, Rs 125,000 per year for years 11 to 15, Rs 156,250 per year for years 16 to 20, and so on. However, I understand that you will charge lease rent only for about 40 per cent of the land, so these figures will be proportionately reduced.
We understand that your government is offering several other incentives for investment in the state, and I would request you to confirm that we will be eligible for each of the following:
a) A loan of Rs 2 crore at 1 per cent per annum interest from the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation;
b) Allotment of 0.5 acre of land in New Town, Rajarhat, of which 0.2 acre will be at a cost of Rs 3 crore per acre and may be used for commercial purposes and 0.3 acre at a cost of Rs 2.5 crore per acre for setting up a housing project, to one of our subsidiary companies;
c) Five acres of land in the BRADA area; and
d) Refund of VAT (should it be applicable) for the first 10 years of our lease.
There are some additional facts that you must bear in mind whilst considering our application.
If the Government of West Bengal grants our request, we will be able to take up our expansion activities in the state and will not need to go to Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. In the strictest confidence I must tell you not only is our heart not in any of these states, it would be incredibly silly for us to consider any of them. A newspaper needs to be close to its readers; just as a car manufacturing company must be close to the source of its main raw material ~ steel ~ and to transportation links and markets. But of course, you can tell your political opponents that had you not offered these incentives, we would have gone away.
As a sagacious Chief Minister, I am sure you must be wondering if the business activities we plan to take up will generate jobs. I am sure they will. Unlike the automobile industry, which is extremely mechanized and uses robots in assembly lines (my brother-in-law who has a Ph.D in robotics from Stanford and who worked for many years with General Motors in Michigan tells me that nearly 90 per cent of assembly line jobs are done by robots), the newspaper industry is still quite labour-intensive. At the end of a long day spent covering police firings, clashes and bombings, we may look like zombies, however I can assure you we are human.
But let’s get down to specifics. I hereby assure you that for every 1,000 jobs the Tatas provide in their car manufacturing plant, we will provide 10. This is only fair, as we are only asking for one per cent of what they have got from you. Thus, if they give 10,000 people jobs, I assure you that The Statesman will offer jobs to at least 100 people.
That is not all, though. I believe that on the basis of the terms your government has offered, Mr Tata has promised to produce a Re 1-lakh car. As I am only asking for 1% of what you have given him, I ought to promise to produce a newspaper costing Rs 1,000. However, I am feeling generous, and so here’s my offer. If you give us what we have asked for, I promise to sell our newspapers at a cover price of Re 1 each, at least for the first year after commencement of production from the new facilities. You will appreciate that in this respect our terms are a thousand times better than those offered by the Tatas.
There are several other benefits to our proposal. First, as we are an impoverished newspaper and not remotely likely to be buying the world’s fourth-largest publisher at any point in the foreseeable future, no eyebrows will be raised at your government giving us a loan at 1 per cent per annum interest.
As we are seeking only 10 acres of land, you may not have to displace more than three or four farmers, of whom perhaps half will part with their land willingly. How many trenches can two farmers dig? And should they resist, you may not have to fire more than a bullet or two. Even if you have to do that, the repercussions will not be serious. I do not see Left constituents threatening a revolt over one bullet, much less the Governor feeling aggrieved enough to issue a statement.
Thus, you will appreciate that our proposal has much to commend it, and very few disadvantages. As such, I am sure you will approve it expeditiously, bearing in mind that not doing so might be deemed discriminatory and therefore violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. Do please let me know as soon as you start fencing our land, so that I can fetch up at Writers’ Buildings to sign the necessary papers and hand over a cheque for Rs 32,000 (40% of Rs 80,000).
I look forward to doing business with you.
With kind regards
Yours sincerely ...

The author is Editor, The Statesman, and wrote this tongue firmly in cheek