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After three years, Marwaris back to square one in West Bengal

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A hospital fire has put the business community that helped build Bengal, and its relationship with the state government, under the lens.

In 2008, a senior leader of one of the Left parties, Abdur Rezzak Mollah, called Marwaris manipulative. The matter was immediately taken up at his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s, state secretariat meeting attended by former chief minister and who was holding that position at that time. A barrage of apologies followed — from the Left Front chairman, chief minister, and Mollah himself.

It’s been three years since that statement. But some are recalling it after a recent hospital fire killed more than 90 and put the hospital’s non-executive directors, all of them Marwaris, in jail. The tragedy raised questions about how the Marwaris, which helped build Kolkata, are treated by the state. Equally important is how this prominent business community views itself.

A proud history
Bengal is a second home for Marwaris, indeed the only one for many second or third-generation entrepreneurs. The Marwari roots in Bengal can be traced to the 18th century and back to pre-Independence when the Birlas set up their first cotton mill in Kolkata (then Calcutta).

Since then, the has been a key to Bengal’s business and growth. Roughly 60-80 per cent of trade bodies and chambers of commerce—local or regional chapters of national bodies—are accounted for by them. In traditional sectors such as jute or stock broking, it’s more like hegemony. Tea is a fragmented industry, but dominated by Marwaris from Kolkata. Most hospitals, charitable trusts and schools of the state are also set up by them as a part of corporate social responsibility.

“It would be easier to make a list of Bengali industrialists,” said a businessman, in response to whether the number of Marwari industrialists would be significantly more than a majority.

Versus Bengalis
“I am more Bengali than the West Bengal Chief Minister. My father came to Kolkata in the 1820s and I have never visited our village,” said a Kolkata industrialist who runs a diversified business group.

This comparison to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is a deliberate one. Banerjee’s statements after the hospital fire tragedy aggrieved a community already feeling shortchanged. In the wake of the December 9 fire, hospital founder R S Goenka, and of the Emami Group, S K Todi and Ravi Todi of the Shrachi Group, and executive director D N Agarwal were arrested. Co-founder R S Agarwal was held at a nursing home. Aditya Agarwal, Priti Sureka and Rahul were listed as proclaimed offenders. All are Marwaris.

In contrast, four directors (including the managing director and chairman) who are Bengalis were not interrogated by the police.

When an apex chamber of industry questioned the treatment meted to the directors not involved in the day-to-day functioning of the hospital, chief minister Banerjee, not known for diplomacy, made matters worse.

“A chamber has said the directors of AMRI should be released. I want to tell them that we want industry here, but we do not want industry that will kill people. Terrorists are terrorists. From this chair, I cannot be a sympathiser. Even I have limits, but the law will take its own course,” said Banerjee.

The business community felt the chief minister should have watched her words, especially since the Marwaris have been courted by politicians when the need arose.

“The Marwaris may have been there in the post-Independence period in Bengal, but it was during Jyoti Basu’s regime that they gained prominence,” said Dipankar Dasgupta, a former professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute. “While a lot of them had left Bengal as well, largely due to the labour problems, those who stayed dominated Bengal’s business interest. They may not have achieved the scale their counterparts did in the western part of the country, but all the big names in Bengal were from the community.”

Initially skeptical, Jyoti Basu started befriending Marwaris from the mid-1990s. The land largesse to several of his Marwari friends is widely known. A popular joke was that the ‘M’ in CPI(M) actually stood for Marwaris.

Closing ranks
In the current scenario of harsh words being used against them, the Marwaris are closing ranks. Ahead of the West Bengal government’s investor meet, Bengal Leads, on Monday this week, the mood among the Marwari industrialists was at an all-time low. A businessman who owns a group exceeding Rs 1,100 crore and was, until a while ago, a common fixture at Mamata Banerjee’s events said he was not interested in any investment summit.

“The mood is just one of gloom and doom. In the middle of all this, who is interested in Bengal Leads? We are still discussing a possibility of a collective action aimed at side-stepping the summit. Many will make themselves scarce,” the businessman said.

Most Marwaris have put expansion plans and fresh investment on hold. Some are considering stepping down from the boards of companies where they serve as independent directors.

Sensing the mood, ahead of the Bengal Leads investor summit earlier this week, commerce and industry minister Partha Chatterjee, met a select group of industrialists to ensure their presence at the meet. The government is trying to send out a better signal than earlier. “”I know why they are feeling like this, But I am in touch with them and have asked them to continue investing in Bengal. As far as AMRI (hospital fire) is concerned, the matter is subjudice and law will take its own course, “said Chatterjee.

But it is clear the hospital fire incident and how the accused in that tragedy are treated weighs heavily with the community. Venugopal Dhoot, chairman of the Videocon group and a Marwari, said some of those arrested should be released immediately.

“Those directors who are not part of the day-to-day operations — specially people like

R S Agarwal and Goenka — should be released immediately. It should be the case with all those who are not responsible. At least, they should conduct a fair trial,” said Dhoot, former president of Assocham.

No businessman intends to move into the healthcare sector. Some trusts have closed hospitals which did not subscribe to fire safety norms. Some like Vishudanand have opened their doors again under pressure from the government, which has promised support for upgradation so that the hospital can conform to fire norms.

“I know traditional Marwari families who are selling properties in Bengal, at any price. People don’t want to take risks. End of the day, we now know where we stand,” a businessman said.

(With inputs from Shine Jacob and Swati Garg)

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