18th October 2008
Dear Mr Ratan Tata,
This letter to you is in response to Mr Modi’s letter to the Buddhababu and yours to the youth of Bengal written over the past week. Sometime back I saw full page advertisement in the Business Standard (2nd October, 2008, Kolkata, pg 5) that extolled you to stay on in Bengal since you were the hope of new Bengal and of its young persons. It was signed the Young People of Bengal. I was intrigued by the page because it contained no marker of the advertiser and no name of its printer. It was totally anonymous. But now with your open letter addressed to the youth of Bengal I surmise that it was your company that bought the space and published the anonymous advertisement. Incidentally, the Business Standard was a paper that published the almost scandalous deal that the government of West Bengal had signed with your company and hence you perhaps chose the paper to publish the advertisement probably in an effort to turn the popular opinion in your favour. It is interesting how you have relied so much on popular opinion and the media for a project that claims to be hard economics and technology. We thought only democracy was run on popular opinion, it is heartening to know that even businesses choose to be run by such means as well. If democracy were to serve the cause of industry, nothing could be better.
I distinctly remember the time when you announced the one lakh rupee car when I said to myself that the Tatas have now broken the price barrier in the automobile industry. I soon read that you were going to develop the hydrogen car and I swelled in pride at your marvel. I knew that if India was to ride the crest of innovations it had to be through you. As a Bengali, I have no faith in the Marwaris and the Gujaratis (they are mere banias) but Tatas being established, respected and traditional, are the real industrialists. Tatas are honest, transparent and responsible. I have been to Jamshedpur and seen with my eyes how people, whether they are in your steel plant or not swear by you. When I became a working and an earning individual, I preferred Tata to anything else. Tata Eau de Cologne was the only perfume that I used; I bought the Tata Indicom and installed the Tata Sky. I am insured under Tata AIG, purchased Tata Steel shares and hence greatly looked forward to the Nano, the Tata Car. I found the Indica a bit heavy for my size is the Maruti 800, but the Nano, I imagined would sort out that problem.
The Nano also meant to me something else. By locating the plant into West Bengal, I felt that you were going to give a new economy, a new culture and a new society to Kolkata. I was only twenty two when I left my home and my parents behind because Bengal could give me no employment that would do justice to my qualifications and the standard of living I inherited. Each day of my stay of a quarter century away from home I have lived with the dream of going back to Kolkata some day. Nano and the Tatas gave me hope of that return. It was belying of the promise of homecoming that upset me the most when you decided to move out of Bengal.
It was then really that I took a hard look at the Singur stand off and this was also the first time in my life that I really noticed Mamata Banerjee, the accused in your open letter. I have been so long outside Bengal that I am out of touch with the details of everyday life in the state. Mamata, to me, is one who is incessantly upsetting my travel plans back home because she seems to call one bandh after another. But suddenly as you decided to move out of Singur into Sanand and openly called the progromist Narender Modi as the good M, and Mamata as the bad M, it was then something struck me. I realized that notwithstanding Mamata was the bad M, it was pernicious for you to have called Modi the good M, the man who has used political power to sponsor riots and finish off his bad M, the Muslims. It was at that moment that I started calling up people in Kolkata to find out what really had happened.
I began first by reading through the details of the massive subsidies that you were to get. So the people of the country and the state were helping you with Rs 30,000 per car to maintain the Rs one lakh barrier. In days of industrial competition, such subsidies are unethical and you could very soon be put to question by the Competition Commission as soon as it is formed.
Then I looked towards Singur. I am familiar with that area and I learnt that a piece of land was lying just across the road of an area of over 500 acres which could have served your purpose. The only thing that you would have had to do was to construct an underpass and things would have been solved. But you insisted on the contiguous area of the 350 acres whose owners were unwilling to sell land. When I visited the locality, your steadfast demand of the land of the unwilling farmers became clear to me. The land was irrigated and you needed water. So with land you were claiming water as well. In any case, irrigated land is a precious thing in India and more so in Bengal because of its high population density. I was quite surprised when you insisted on such an irrigated land be given to you when you know that a car can be manufactured anywhere but food crops cannot be grown in any place. What lay behind your obstinacy was puzzling to me. I imagined that with your stature you should have at least gone half way with the farmers and helped Buddhababu to abandon the acquisition of the 350 acres and instead settled with the underpass alternative. For you, the compromise would have hardly cost you anything, for the farmers it meant their lives.
As a child I read Tagore’s poem Samanya Khoti in which the queen of a kingdom burnt down shacks of the poor people because she wanted to dry herself after a cold bath in the river, I felt that you were like that queen reveling in your own glorified self gratification when you should have been the king meeting people half way, leaving more from your share to make others happy. But it seems only the greed of profits helps you grow and that such greed is the only virtue in a free market. By such logic then you should respect the right of some farmers not to sell their property if they are unwilling to do so just because you as a buyer insist on it. Such is not the sentiment of a free market; it is an even lesser sentiment of a free society.
As the Singur struggle was going on, I was feeling the heat of rising vegetable prices and soon enough the government admitted that the rise in prices was also due to a slowdown in agricultural production. It suddenly hit me that food production was dropping and indeed, the Planning Commission was true when it said that 70% of India’s farmers want to leave farming because of the poor remuneration in the occupation. Since we cannot force farmers to remain in agriculture when it yields them less money, we would be, as the recent food price rise suggests, facing what one knows as food insecurity. This is not a nice thing to happen especially since we know of the Bengal Famine in 1943, barely sixty years ago killed three million people and recently helped to give Amartya Sen his Nobel Prize. In this light, we should be grateful to farmers who are still willing to produce food for us. But you portray such farmers as lawless, violent, reactionary and quaint just because they decide to feed us when most of them no longer wish to do so. As an industry leader of the country I imagined that you would be the one who should be alerting us to the grave crisis facing us in terms of food insecurity and its greater crisis in the impending corporatization of farming, instead, you show scant knowledge of the importance of food growing lands and even scanter respect for informed opinions who raise the issue.
There is a certain kind of economics of a global market and which requires us to only concentrate on producing those goods that we are good at. The rest of it we could buy. India is not an efficient producer of food, it is an efficient producer of steel and cars, yours being the world’s cheapest ones. Thus, we could very well produce steel and cars and buy food. By such switch we would be increasing the overall income of the country. This is exactly where the case of the Nano fits. But away from this neat model, there is a reality and which is that of food security and food sovereignty. We know of a similar situation in the form of the oil economy, where no matter how our economy has grown to prosperity we are still harassed by rising oil price because we do not produce it by ourselves. Food, is an essential commodity like steel and it is better that we produce the subsistence quantities for ourselves by ourselves. Otherwise food prices will play truant with us in the future and while we would be left with cheap cars we would have our stomachs empty. Hunger, surely will not help us buy your Nano, especially when your factory would employ no more than a mere 1500 persons progressively to be reduced in the pursuit of productivity.
As I was mulling over the Nano versus the food security issue, I stumbled across an issue of the Statesman (19th September, Kolkata etc, front page) in which there was a report on the area of land and capacity of the car manufacturing plant. According to this report, you could have at most required 700 acres of land for an annual capacity to manufacture 5 lakh cars with ancillaries. The report listed out several car manufacturing companies and their ancillaries and nowhere in the world, does a car company need as much land as the Nano would need. What is even more pertinent is that in the pursuit of competitiveness, you sack workers, reduce fuel consumption and cut down on raw material consumption, I am curious to know why you are less inclined to show such parsimony in the case of land, which is a scarce resource.
When I reflect on the Nano project in Bengal, I feel that never in the history of Bengal was a corporate body welcomed with such open arms. Bengal was determined to change its image from being a militant trade unionist state to one that would show up the ethos of good industrial culture. Buddhababu bent backwards in projecting himself as one no more hostile to the capitalists and one who promotes industry. Almost every one in Kolkata lapped up in pride such an impending change in Bengal’s future prospects. The worker abandoned his demands for fair wages; the babu left his laziness behind gearing up to work for you, the women in the farmer families looked forward to opening up their canteens. But you disappointed everyone; you left your vendors high and dry, left the Bengal exchequer strained with the huge money that the government had spent for your project, got Mr Modi to call Buddhababu and us Bengalis names and then decided to be kingmaker by attempting to meddle with our political decision making through open letters. As being the world’s cheapest steel maker, the world’s most innovative car maker, the owner of the only private city in India, and being the oldest industry house in the world’s largest democracy you should have been the one to remind the Bengal Chief Minister of the WTO issues of India, our Planning Commission’s concerns about agriculture and how we are deadly worried about threats of hunger and why food security is the very core of a successful industrial base. To top it all up, you have decided to fine the residents of Bengal by demanding a huge compensation, which I believe would be transferred to Mr Modi to keep the Gujarat balance sheet in order, something that the “tolabaaj goondas” do in Kolkata. I am disappointed to find in the country’s most revered industry house the mentality of a cheap extortionist, a blackmailer, and a self-aggrandized narcissist who forgets that in giving us a car he also means to make his own profits, not normal profits but super profits. I suspect, that in addition to the above, you were also a land grabber.