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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Communists gamble on hi-tech future
By Matthew Grant in Calcutta

Graffiti in West Bengal
West Bengal's communist rulers are embracing an IT future
A hammer and sickle daubed on the entrance gate would be an odd greeting to the world of IT in most parts of the globe.

But there it is outside Indian software giant Wipro's Calcutta headquarters.

The complex sits in the heart of Salt Lake, an IT park and suburb on the outskirts of the city.

Nearly all the major players in the industry have a presence here, including multinationals such as IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Now a major development is underway to extend the IT belt all the way from Salt Lake to the airport.

The land has already been cleared in the vast area known as Rajarhat, or perhaps more tellingly New Town.

But so far only a few buildings and a four-lane highway have been constructed.

Driving along the empty road feels slightly spooky, like entering a film set not yet ready for action.

Thin red line

And all this in West Bengal, a state that proudly boasts of uninterrupted rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) since 1977.

West Bengal IT development
The new IT infrastructure still has a slightly empty, spooky feel

The thin red line keeps getting thinner.

The CPI-M is pushing IT hard. It has set itself two ambitious targets.

First, it wants West Bengal to become India's third IT hub, after Hyderabad and Bangalore.

Second, it aims to gain a 15% share of the country's overall IT revenue. And it wants to do all this by 2010.

"It's ambitious but achievable," says West Bengal's IT minister Manabendra Mukherjee.

To make this possible, West Bengal's communist government has taken some steps that might make even a staunch capitalist blanche.

It has declared IT - and IT-enabled services such as call centres - to be essential services.

A person comes to the airport and the city ends for him at Salt Lake... He doesn't touch the city in any way
Ravi Mandapaka,
IT entrepreneur

This means workers are banned from striking.

West Bengal also offers attractive subsidies to companies looking to invest.

And it is trying hard to combat the perception of the state as bureaucratic and lethargic.

The IT ministry is located in the business centre of the city and has made a point of dispensing with the type of petty officials who make life difficult for visitors to many other government departments.

The IT minister has even guaranteed he will meet potential investors within 48 hours.

If a big obstacle crops up, the chief minister himself, Buddhadeb Bhattarcharjee, will get involved.

Manpower costs

IT employs nearly 20,000 people in the state.

Call centre
Call centres have been a huge boom for India
The government believes it can provide a livelihood to many more.

But to the outsider the cost of paying those wages is comparatively small.

Asked to explain the attraction of West Bengal, PricewaterhouseCoopers admits: "Cost is a major factor."

Manpower costs at least 20% less here than in other Indian cities.

Ravi Mandapaka is an IT entrepreneur who runs a company called Ravindra Marketing Systems in Calcutta.

He says the investment the government has put in to guarantee a high-quality broadband network and a constant power supply in the Salt Lake and Rajarhat-New Town areas means Calcutta has far more to offer than just its overcrowded and polluted centre.

"What the government is trying to do is to make it so that a person comes to the airport and the city ends for him at Salt Lake," Mr Mandapaka says.

West Bengal IT development
West Bengal offers attractive subsidies to firms looking to invest

"He doesn't touch the city in any way. He's not bothered about the potholes and the fact the roads are not maintained."

Yet the state government cannot cut the IT parks off from the city entirely.

Local workers who cannot afford the luxurious properties nearby have to endure the daily commute through gridlocked streets.

A greater problem facing West Bengal's IT experiment is the relative lack of English speakers.

Until a year ago, schools only started teaching English to pupils at the age of 11.

Now children start learning the language as soon as they enter the classroom. But the change will take time to filter through.

This may limit the development of call centres.

While companies can train workers to use computer programs, teaching them a language is a far greater undertaking.

Broadly though, West Bengal appears to have hit the right track and the recent decision of HSBC to locate a call centre in the state seems to confirm this.

In a place where communism is not a dirty word and the hammer and sickle remains ubiquitous, inevitably not everyone is delighted.

But having survived decades of relentless economic stagnation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is banking on getting away with IT.


SEE ALSO:
India's communists shun national stage
17 May 04  |  South Asia
Indian tech firms face skills gap
13 Sep 04  |  Business
Greying of India's call centres
05 Aug 04  |  South Asia
Bengal strike supporters arrested
03 Feb 04  |  South Asia
Bengal 'fails' to modernise police
23 Jul 03  |  South Asia


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