Notes on Kolkata

It would be unfair if I make an assessment of the city, since my destinations were restricted to the Eastern parts. However, the Eastern part of the city, from the Airport to Ultadanga and Science City, does give one a sense of affairs.

The city, despite contrary views, has a thriving economy. In my opinion, the State’s machinery is looking in the wrong direction by asking for a debt waiver from the Centre. There is a lot of business potential in this city. Kolkata has the potential for becoming a growth and investment hub, creating a significant number of direct and indirect jobs. You can see the entrepreneurial spirit at every nook and corner of the city. Be it the man selling SIM cards under an umbrella on the road or the millionaires selling Marwari mithais (distinct from the Bangali mithai), one can clearly see that the debt against the state’s name (a whopping 93,000 crores), can be serviced easily. What is needed perhaps is a boost to the more than visible entrepreneurial spirit. Bengalis do well outside Bengal, which goes to show that aspiration needs to be encouraged within the state for meaningful progress to take place. Service sector is one area that Kolkata can market itself well, and it should seriously look at the Bengaluru model of growth to re-start the engine of growth for the state. This can act as a much needed boost to the local and state economy. It has the human resources to do it – however, it needs to encourage investor confidence again. Even though rabble rousers persist in various institutions, people in general have learnt the lessons from Communist visions of utopia, and have become increasingly capitalist in nature today. Bengal has learnt the hard lessons of populism, if you hear the taxi drivers, mostly second or third generation of Maithils and Angikas of Bihar. Bengal shall more than welcome industries, but this will happen only if the Didi-Dada style of politics comes to an end. This will not happen by forcing businessmen at summits to sing Ekla Chalo Re, but by direct action like smoother land acquisition wherever possible and a dedicated, encouraging industrial policy, de-politicization of institutions of their affiliations, and the dismantling of militant trade unions. There are lessons to be learnt from Malaysia and Singapore and their handling of trade union movements to encourage economic development.

Contrary to the popular view, there is a lot of money in the city. The city, despite its poor appearances, has a significant taste for luxury, be it housing with Italian marble flooring or spectacles from Lawrence and Mayo. Fancy laptops and iPads, smart phones, Fedora handbags and preference for even stylish airline brands such as Indigo over the pathetic Spicejet – there are a lot of things that testify for my argument. One can gauge the desire for luxury by just looking at the endless number of real estate and infrastructure improvement projects of various kinds taking place within the city. The city is refiguring the housing market, with swanky apartments, driven by investments from the North-East and Bihar in particular, coming up at places that were, in the conventional sense, dingy and inhospitable, such as Baguighati and Bidhannagar. There are also new cluster townships coming up at places like Rajarhat, Salt Lake stretches and East Kolkata. These flats cater to rich clients, who would prefer Italian marble flooring and gated communities, thus driving demand to the extent that Kolkata’s property prices are nearing those of Bengaluru and Pune’s new developments. Unlocking the real potential of land through asset value monetization by the Municipal Corporation can push this process, while simultaneously addressing issues of planned development and affordable housing. Wherever you may go in the city, you see signs of the underlying aspiration spirit that the city has suppressed for a long time. It is time, as the line popular with India Inc. goes, that we unleashed the animal of growth.

Kolkata has managed, unlike most Indian cities, to overcome the caste barrier, and while class barrier exists, there is an urgent need to make aspiration and not equality the dream of the people. The city, excluding the poor air quality, manages to score surprisingly well on the sustainability front as well, particularly mixed developments, effective public and semi-private transportation systems and proximity of workplaces to accommodation particularly in the newly developed areas. Decent infrastructure exists within the city. The Kolkata Metro project is seeing a much delayed expansion, which, in my opinion, will yield excellent results when completed and integrated with other modes of transport. Significant stretches of the city have access to municipal services, and soon the entire city shall have drinking water and sanitation coverage, making it the first metropolitan city of India to achieve this feat. Waste management is decent, though there is a need to find better ways to go about it. This is the same case with a city like Delhi. There would be a greater number of immigrants, but a city that was founded by immigrants must seriously consider re-engaging with them.

On a lighter note, the city is one that follows two levels of volume – no volume or full volume. I thought there were three till I landed in Kolkata. Two days were enough to convince me about it. Wherever you went – be it the buses, taxis, trams and the cars, or the people themselves – everyone and everything was probably screeching and screaming. That is the only way I can perhaps describe its moorings. This is evident everywhere – screaming passengers on being shoved around in buses and trams, shouting receptionists if you ask them to repeat what they said and confounded people who deliberate very loudly while trying try their best to help you if you are lost. The social voyeurism can be funny only till the point that people turn violent though. There is more than a violent streak in the social moorings of Kolkata, as I witnessed one particular afternoon. However, in my opinion, violence thrives in a culture of despair and anger, when the State thought that people need to be excluded from being stakeholders in the economic decision making, keeping them disconnected from the real bread and butter issues. This does not mean pushing the usual clauses of equality but making everyone realize that their actions are crucial to the growth and welfare of the state. Unless this disengagement is seriously addressed, the state will continue to lag behind others.

Its love for arts and culture were more than visible to me at Science City, adjacent to which an obnoxiously loud Kolkata Book Fair visited by waves of people. Any outsider could seriously mistake it for some dharna or a protest march; however, the city and the State perhaps need to realize that capitalism does not inhibit creativity. Cultural terrorism in the garb of state patronage of self declared artists has led to two problems. It has allowed sub-standard rubbish to be called art in many parts of the city. Also, this has been one of the several reasons for the collapse of the state economy. This patronage culture, while appreciable, needs a serious relook, since the only beneficiaries are those who curry favour with the ruling dispensation, while crowding out the real intellectuals, even hounding them out of the state. This will be politically challenging in a city, and a country in fact that has much the same attitude towards arts and culture.

An old Bengali folktale talks about a king who did not like dust on his feet. The ministers first got the whole kingdom to be swept with brooms; however, there was dust in the air, and covered everything and everyone, including a fuming king. They then tried watering the dust by calling water carriers (bishtis) to pour water everywhere, only to cause slush that caked the angry king’s feet. After innumerable disasters, they announced a reward for anyone who could solve the unique problem. A cobbler came up, and devised the first pair of shoes (nagras in Bengali, much like the North Indian Juttis), which did the trick, thus finally restoring order in the kingdom. Will Bengal find its genius who will cobble up the parts to score a perfect sum? I, and the whole country, are certainly praying for it.


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