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Lost Chance

Mamata Bannerjee should have visited Pune before turning down the Tata Nano project, says the author

It is a pity Mamata Bannerjee did not visit Pune (or Poona as it used to be) before she turned down Tatas for the Nano project. It would have helped her change her mind. Pune is every thing West Bengal is not, though only a while ago it was little different from the likes of Singur, only bigger.

Sixty years ago, when I was a student in Pune, the city was a backwater, a kind of an overgrown village, only bigger than most villages. Although it was supposed to be second capital of the state after Bombay, it could boast of no amenities worth the name. It didn't have buses, only tongas, and they were so expensive, we used to walk long distances, and so did most Puneites including people like R.P. Paranjpe, who used to be a member of the London-based council of the secretary of state for India, and a great mathematician in his own right.

Pune had no industry, only a small textile factory and a large military complex which had been established in the town since the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. But the main thing was that Poona was cheap - you could rent a house for five rupees a month - and had excellent schools and colleges. And it was of course close to Bombay.

Pune is no more the place it used to be. It has probably grown ten times in the last 20-old years, though it still has a village-like look. People are affluent and spend like mad. Just behind our block of flats, there are ten restaurants in a row and they are always packed. The cinemas are packed, the buses are packed, the trains are packed. There is so much money, every thing costs twice as much as it does in Delhi. Apples cost 20 rupees each, and pumpkins, which in Delhi lie by roadside in heaps, are wrapped in cellophane and displayed like Swiss chocolates.

How did this all happen? There is only one word for it - industry. First cause the scooter plant of Bajaj, followed by a truck factory of Tatas. Now three are hundreds of small factories all over the place feeding parts to these plants. There are, of course, the ubiquitous IT centres.

The city is now so prosperous, Paranjpe, who later became our high commissioner in Australia, would almost certainly not recognise it. What changed Pune, and other places like it up and down Maharashtra, is investment. Money begets money, and it changes your life.

There are, of course, the usual hazards of rapid growth. There is not a tailor within miles, and you have to pamper electricians and plumbers to visit you. Which they do most reluctantly. Your cleaning woman charges thirty (30) rupees an hour, as they do in the U.S., and she has her own scooter.

Is this what Mamata was afraid of when she said no to Nano? It so, she made a big mistake. Development is like a forest; it starts with a single tree, though often you do not know which tree. Tatas could have done to Singur - and by extension to West Bengal - What Bajaj and Tatas did to Pune. It would have put money into the pockets of Singur people, and God knows they need it. Money works wonders and changes the complexion of whole communities, but it creates problems too.

And it is not just money; other things also change. The marathi film industry in Maharastra was moribund because nobody wanted to see those sickly films of gun-toting Thakurs and weeping mothers. Now there are rip-roaring comedies one after another and the theatres are full. For the first time in maybe a hundred years, the Marathas are laughing all the way to the bank!

This is what the Tata plant in Singur would have done - it would have made Bengalis laugh!