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MAY 6, 2007
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Business Today,  April 22, 2007

Hick Town Comes Alive
Durgapur is no longer the 'capital' of Bengal's rust belt. finds that it's rocking to the beat of the times, and how.
MARCH 26, 2007
Durgapur, 179 km off Kolkata

It's a little after 8.00 a.m. as the Howrah-Ranchi Shatabdi Express chugs into Durgapur's bustling railway station. As we (my colleague from BT Photo and I) make our way out of the station, one of the first signs that greets us is a mobile billboard screaming "Durgapur goes hyper".

It's a little ironic because in the background stands the shell of the almost defunct Burn Standard & Company, a one-time blue chip-turned PSU. The area, billed as the "Ruhr of Bengal", is now characterised by this economic duality. On the one hand, you have the relics of the Nehruvian dream gone sour; and on the other, visitors are surprised by the high rises, housing complexes, malls, multiplexes, amusement parks, fine-dining restaurants and star hotels that have come up over the last 4-5 years.

"This vibrancy can be attributed to the resurrection of the iron and steel industry in the area," says Nirupam Sen, West Bengal's Commerce & Industries Minister. In many ways, it marks a return to its roots. The Durgapur-Asansol belt had grown on the back of the success of the Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP), the Alloy Steel Plant, some large psus like Burn Standard and their ancillary industries, much like Jamshedpur has on the back of Tata Steel. As the fortunes of these companies waned, so did Durgapur's star. And the reluctance of the private sector to invest in the state effectively hammered in the proverbial last nail in its coffin. But that is now changing-and this time, it's the private sector that's leading the way. But that is not to say that the public sector is lagging behind.

DSP, a unit of Steel Authority of India (sail) and the town's showpiece company, is now once again considered one of the stars within sail; production, at 2.06 million tonnes per annum, is at an all-time high; the target, at 2.92 million tonnes, is even higher. As we alight from our rented car inside the plant, an executive walks past, loudly reporting the previous day's production figures over his cell phone, attracting a few bemused stares from others in the crowd.

The company has also shed its fuddy-duddy psu style of functioning. DSP recently leased out Kumarmangalam Park (a sprawling park within the DSP Township) to a private group, which has turned it into a modern amusement park. "Look at the turnout every day. You cannot think of development without these," says a DSP spokesman.

Booming business: Shopping malls, multi-storeyed housing complexes and budget hotels are changing the face of Durgapur

It's now time to leave the DSP premises. On National Highway 2, we realise first hand why this belt was (and now once again is) called the Ruhr of Bengal. As many as 30 iron and steel units, albeit small and medium ones, have come up in the Durgapur-Asansol belt since 2000 and all of them are riding the boom in the sector. SPS-Elegant Steel, Jai Balaji Steel, Ma Chandi Durga Ispat, Shyam Ferro Alloys, SRMB, Adhunik Ispat and Stallberg India are a few of the names that this correspondent could quickly jot down. Statistics available with Sen's ministry later tell us that investors have funnelled more than Rs 1,100 crore (Rs 581.92 crore in industry and over Rs 500 crore on infrastructure) in the Durgapur belt over the last 3-4 years. But our driver, Suresh Singh, won't allow us to stop here. "This is nothing. There are many more up ahead. Won't you go there?" he asks. His enthusiasm is infectious; so, we decide to go along. It's more of the same for miles and miles. "Now let me show you around our 'city'," says Singh, perhaps realising that driving past factory gates along a National Highway isn't exciting us as much as he had hoped.

Our first port of call: the sprawling Durgapur City Centre, a 370,000 sq ft plaza that plays host to leading brands like Van Heusen, Arrow, Reebok, Woodland, Samsung, Nokia, Reliance WebWorld, banks like HDFC, ICICI and UTI, a multiplex-Cinema 89-Big Bazaar and a fine-dining restaurant. The Ginger, the budget hotel chain run by Indian Hotels (which owns the Taj brand), is located close by. "Occupancy levels are at 85 per cent-plus," says Riaz Nizamuddin, the Manager of the hotel. Its only restaurant does booming business, especially on weekends. So do the three restaurants at Peerless Inn, next door. What's the typical profile of patrons? "It ranges from executives to businessmen, to doctors, lawyers and even students," says Nizamuddin. The last category, though, prefers to hang out at the many malls-Suhatta, City Plaza, Junction, to name a few-that now dot Durgapur's landscape. Bidisha Sen, a teacher at the KidZee School, is palpably excited about the new Reliance wholesale and retail trading centre that's coming up in this neck of the woods. "Life seems much easier and more comfortable now. From vegetables to spices to kitchen appliances-they are all there under one roof. Besides, you get a lot of freebies too," she adds.

Industry is upbeat, too. Says Prabhat Pani, CEO, Ginger Hotels: "This belt is among the fastest growing regions in the country because of its vibrant manufacturing and engineering industries."

Only, the private sector now leads where the public sector once ruled. But that apart, the wheel of time has come a full circle for this town.