West Bengal reshuffle to lead to new retail delays

West Bengal reshuffle to lead to new retail delays

Kolkata: West Bengal, whose industry-friendly image has taken a battering as companies such as Reliance Retail Ltd and ITC Ltd have scaled back plans to start retail outlets in the state, has shuffled around the top three bureaucrats responsible for agri-retailing.

The move is widely expected to further stall retail expansion in the state.

Last week, the government shifted the secretaries of the two departments—agriculture and food processing industries. And the secretary for agri-marketing has been moved to the less significant fire and emergency services. In the Indian government, the secretary is the top-most, policy-making bureaucrat.

Atanu Purakayastha, who has been heading the agriculture department, has been put in charge of the food processing industries and horticulture. Sanjeev Chopra, whom he replaced, has taken over Purakayastha’s role. R.D. Meena, an officer currently posted in Delhi, is being brought in to head the agri-marketing department, replacing B. Pande.

The chief secretary of the state, who is responsible for the postings, could not be reached for comment.

“These changes have put on hold all the meetings being convened to rework the Agricultural Produce (Marketing) Act," says a senior bureaucrat, who did not wish to be identified because of the controversy. “Right now, it does not seem that the differences between CPM (Communist Party of India, Marxist) and the Forward Bloc on the issue of allowing organized players in agri-retail can be resolved."

Agricultural produce in several states of India cannot be bought from farmers directly by private players and has to be routed through government procurement departments. While some states have amended the decades-old Agricultural Produce Marketing Act to allow private participation, others have not.

While CPM, the main constituent of the Left Front in West Bengal, has pushed for allowing organized retailers to enter the state and vend farm products, the Forward Bloc, another constituent of the government, which controls the agriculture and agri-marketing department, has been vehemently protesting against this policy and particularly the entry of deep-pocketed Reliance.

The Forward Bloc-cont-rolled departments were withholding issuing the licences that Reliance needed for direct procurement of farm products. The food processing department stepped in to have Reliance tweak its project to include a food processing component to its procurement and distribution centres. This enabled the food processing ministry to clear the project.

This did not go down well with the Forward Bloc or the opposition parties. In August, party workers belonging to the Forward Bloc and the Trinamool Congress (the main opposition party in the state) vandalized two of the five Reliance Fresh stores that were to open that month.

The violence forced Reliance to halt its roll-out, which culminated in the company sacking 400 of the 800 people it recruited for its operations in the state on Saturday. Last month, for the first time, the state’s chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, voiced reservations about allowing big format retail stores within the city limits and also about allowing organized players to handle foodgrain. This has perplexed officials who have been involved in drafting the amendments to the agri-marketing policy of the state. They are equally thrown by the shuffling of the bureaucracy at a time when the state needs to speed up the policy changes.

Organized retailers have faced lock-outs and protests in other states such as Kerala, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, on concerns that they will erode sales at small mom-and-pop stores.