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Crony communism - India Today

Udayan Namboodiri ()
June 8, 1998

Title: Crony communism
Author: Udayan Namboodiri
Publication: India Today
Date: June 8, 1998

They are among west Bengal's "more equals", envied for their
clout with a chief minister who is otherwise inaccessible and for
the favours they manage to wrangle out of him. Unknown till about
a decade ago, these neo-businessmen whose proximity to Jyoti
Basu's family has perhaps been their only claim-and springboard-
to fame know how to get the state to bend the rules to favour
them. Though they have sparked off their share of controversies,
dragging Basu's name into some, so far the patriarch has somehow
managed to survive. But with his image as Mr Clean and Mr
Infallible taking a severe beating over the years, his largesse
might just land him in trouble.

There are any number of instances of his generosity. Sheo Kumar
Jhunjhunwala, a cold-storage owner and a friend of Basu's son
Chandan, had approached the chief minister in 1990 with a
request. Having a background in theatre, he said he wanted to
set up an "art centre", to fulfil a "long-felt need" of the city.
A 3,000 sq ft facility, it would house rehearsal rooms, a free
art gallery, a music and dance school, a photographic club and a
library. The location? 3, Lower Rawdon Street, a prime piece of
land over which he was locked in a legal dispute with the state.
Jhunjhunwala wanted Basu to get the legal proceedings dropped so
the art centre could become a reality.

Basu obliged with a little help from the bureaucracy.
Jhunjhunwala not only got the Government to "withdraw from
acquisition" the half-acre plot, he got it for a song-a mere Rs 7
lakh as against the market price of over Rs 2 crore. Ironically,
a swank apartment complex, called Surya Rawdon Gardens, stands on
the once-disputed land and nowhere in the published plans of the
Rs 11.5 crore complex is there any mention of the art centre.
Basu on his part still laments that Calcutta lacks an art
facility. "It's a shame," he recently said, "that we don't have
Et proper public art centre."

Elsewhere, the issue would have made headlines demanding an
explanation from the chief minister. But not from Basu whose
Government in recent times has made several questionable
decisions to favour a chosen few. These include:

Granting 1 5 acres in Salt Lake to Kamal Gandhi who floated a
garment exporters' federation. There was not a single exporter
registered with him and soon Gandhi began to sell the plots;

Plum housing plot in Salt Lake out of the chief minister's quota
given to Jamshed Ali Mollah;

Sick state-owned sugarcane factory along with 500 acres of land
sold to S.K. Khaitan of Khaitan Fans, who, instead of reviving
the unit, now grows vegetables for export to Bangladesh.

Another friend of the Basus was even luckier. Tea magnate
Dipankar Chatterjee saw his sprawling Chandmoni tea estate as the
answer to check the haphazard growth of Siliguri town. He had
approached Basu in 1994 with plans to turn his garden into a
"satellite township". There was a small problem: tea estate land
held by the state by law cannot be used for purposes other than
growing tea. When Chatterjee moved his application seeking
permission to lease the land from the Government for the
township, there was resistance from Basu's seniormost minister,
Benoy Chowdhury, who held the land portfolio. Chowdhury soon paid
the price: he was openly chided for his impractical policies and
nudged away from active politics, though he is still a CPI(M)
Politburo member.

Further hurdles were simply swept aside. When the Land Department
valued the estate at Rs 75 crore, the Government roped in the
Commerce and Industries Department to revise the price to Rs 34
crore. When even that was found too high, a cabinet meeting was
called to clear the proposal and bring down the price to Rs 15
crore. And since the project had a "noble" cause, meeting housing
needs, Basu wanted it further reduced by Rs 2 crore. Finally, in
November 1997; an MOU was signed between the state and Chatterjee
with the price fixed at Rs 13.9 crore. "It's unjust enrichment,"
says a senior state official. But voices like his are barely
audible in the corridors of power in Calcutta. The snuffing out
of Chowdhury was a lesson for possible detractors.

JHUNJHUNWALA and Chatterjee are not the only friends on whom Basu
bestowed undue favours. He got Mahendra Jalan, owner of the
Keventer Group, 130 acres of state land in Calcutta's Barasat
suburb to run a packaging unit; he practically gifted a state-
owned salt factory in Digha to Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose,
reportedly Chandan's partner in a shrimp export business. There
are some favoured businessmen who have a colourful past as well.
Holding the lucrative coal handling contract between mines in
Asansol, and three thermal power plants is Ujjal Upadhyay. When
Haradhan Roy, CPI(M) MP, demanded his arrest in a criminal case,
Basu got his ticket for the 1998 elections cancelled. Mollah, a
friend who was allotted a plot in Salt Lake, has been accused of
pilfering rice and wheat from a Food Corporation of India godown.

Despite his name being linked with such controversies, Basu has
managed to stay on as the country's longest-serving chief
minister. But all the same, the halo around him has been dimming.
Surviving controversy may have been a way with the patriarch in
the past but with his detractors waiting to strike at an
opportune time, Basu, it seems, cannot push his luck too far.

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