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February 16, 2012

Calcutta must shine

The transformation of Calcutta is a project of national importance

Calcutta, it bears repetition, was once the second city of the British Empire. In formal terms, its decline began in 1912, when the Raj moved its capital to Delhi. Exactly, a hundred years later, the West has symbolically snapped its last link with the city, with Lufthansa, the only remaining western carrier to service it, announcing the discontinuation of its Calcutta-Frankfurt flight. In 1959, Calcutta became the first Indian destination for Lufthansa, ahead of Delhi and Bombay. In 2006, the German carrier re-asserted its faith in the city by starting a Calcutta-Frankfurt non-stop flight, declaring that the city had been identified as a “high growth area with immense potential.” The potential appears to have been belied. Lufthansa has now said, Goodbye, Calcutta— until market conditions improve.

Calcutta

Photo: Brijeshwar Oinam

The announcement has come as a huge embarrassment to the new state government of the Trinamool Congress, whose representative, Saugata Roy, is also Minister of State for Urban Development at the Centre. He was all set to inaugurate, later this year, the state-of-the-art new terminals at the airport, which will increase passenger handling capacity many times. All he could say now was “It is an ominous sign… I really have no answer to the question on what do we do with an airport with much better facilities but not enough passengers.”

Ominous sign indeed. Once the business and industrial capital of the country, Calcutta, “filthy, gorgeous”, as the New York Times describes it, continues to suffer from chronic decline. In 1985, a neophyte Prime Minister raised a furore by describing Calcutta as a “dying city.” That appellation has stuck and is often recalled by commentators even three decades later.

Calcutta’s obituary has been written many times since 1912: In 1947, when Independence for India meant the vivisection of Bengal and the loss of Calcutta’s jute growing hinterland to Pakistan; in 1956, when the introduction of the infamous Freight Equalisation Policy caused the loss of comparative advantage for the Ruhr of India; in the 1970s, when widespread labour unrest, spawned by left militancy, caused deindustrialisation and capital flight; and in the ’80s and ’90s, when the Left Front Government in Bengal focused on rural regeneration through land reforms and panchayati raj, turning a blind eye to Calcutta’s woes and causing an exodus over a period of 20 years of middle-class talent (leading the novelist Amit Chaudhuri to write, “It seems that every Bengali bourgeois’ destiny is to be a pravasi”).

But somehow, the city has soldiered on. In Ghalib’s classic phrase, Maut aati hai, par nahi aati. Reports of Calcutta’s death, like those of Mark Twain’s demise, have been greatly exaggerated. The dying city refuses to die. In fact, in the last decade or so, there have been green shoots of revival—the upshot of the Left Front’s efforts to right the wrongs of the past. It focused attention on the long-neglected city. Calcutta saw the mushrooming of high- end housing projects, five-star hotels, glitzy shopping malls and flyovers. Perceptions about the city began to change. One Delhi- based columnist, who described himself as “an economic refugee” from Calcutta, wrote: “Dead city walking? It’s a lot more than that. There’s a business-like buzz about the City of Joy.”

But the buzz has not been enough. While the change has been encouraging in many areas, and impressive in some, the overall picture remains dismal and bleak. The city needs help and urgently and while the new Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee promises to “turn Calcutta into London”, the task is so stupendous and the need so pressing that it seems beyond the state government’s ability to deliver.

Calcutta’s death or resurgence, Lazarus-like, is not a cause for concern only to its denizens. It is a matter of national importance because the destiny of “India’s original economic powerhouse”, as The Economist describes it in a recent issue, is linked inextricably with the fate of its hinterland, which happens to be the entire Eastern India. Its primacy in its hinterland is unmatched by that of any other Indian metro: By one estimate, the population of Calcutta is ten times that of Patna, the second biggest city of Eastern India. Calcutta has continued to play the role of the pre-eminent commercial hub for all of Eastern India. The Calcutta Port, the oldest in the country and the only riverine one, services a vast region of over a dozen states, extending from Eastern Uttar Pradesh (Mayawati’s Purvanchal) to the deepest Northeast, as well as landlocked Nepal and Bhutan.

This strategic importance of Calcutta is only going to increase with increased sub- regional cooperation in India’s northeastern neighbourhood. The Kunming Initiative, or the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, is a robust Track-ll effort for economic and cultural cooperation between these four countries that are geographically contiguous and economically complementary. Kunming is the capital of the Yunnan province of China and the initiative is named after it because it all began with a conference for regional cooperation held in that city in 1999. The broad goals of the Kunming Initiative are substantially improved regional connectivity for goods and people in the region, through a network of roads, railways and waterways, and establishing the Kunming-Mandalay- Dhaka-Calcutta economic corridor. The Kunming Initiative is a shining example of Track-ll driving Track-l.

The best part of the Kunming Initiative is that it is not an effort to create something that has never been attempted before. Trade ties and overland connectivity in the area had existed since millennia. The fabled Southern Silk Road existed over 2,000 years ago. More recently, the legendary Stilwell Road (named after General Stilwell of the United States Army) was built during World War II to connect Ledo, Assam with Kunming, 1736 kms away, to ferry supplies as part of the Allied war effort. The exigencies of the war also led to the building of a Sino-Indian oil pipeline from Calcutta to Kunming and the use of the famous Hump flight route by innumerable Allied military aircraft to transport supplies from India to Southwestern China over the eastern Himalayas.

Since 2008, Kunming and Calcutta have been reconnected by air and the flights (taking one hour 51 minutes to cover 1487 kms) are always full. Business, tourism and educational ties between Bengal and Yunnan have been growing steadily, thanks to the efforts of another Track-II initiative, called the Kolkata to Kunming (K2K) Forum.

However, China appears to have made more progress than India in developing economic ties with both Myanmar and Bangladesh. India has had serious concerns about the growing Sino-Myanmar entente and, as a response, has ignored naysayers to reach out to the military regime in Yangon.

Lately, Sino-Bangladesh ties, too, have shown signs of being on the upswing. Disappointed by News Delhi’s tardiness even in delivering on its own promises, Dhaka is increasingly turning to China for economic assistance and linkages. Already, China, not India is the biggest investor in Bangladesh. The self-same China, it has been pointed out by an Indian analyst, that had opposed the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Most recently, China has agreed to build a deep sea port for Bangladesh and has responded positively to a request to establish direct connectivity between Bangladesh (Chittagong) and China (Kunming) through Myanmar.

New Delhi must rise to the occasion and ensure that India does not get left behind in this concerted push for sub-regional integration. The good news is that New Delhi’s ostpolitik or Look East policy has the support of the highest level of government. Not only that, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh realises the criticality of Calcutta as the gateway to the East (Southwest China and Southeast Asia). Speaking at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of IIM, Calcutta in August last year, he said, “I sincerely believe that a new sun is rising on our East, and Kolkata can once again regain its glory as India’s window to Asia. One of the greatest Indians who re-discovered India’s Asian identity and Asia’s links with India was Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate and a proud son of Bengal and India. His travels to the East helped India reconnect with its civilisational neighbourhood. The time has come to build on this great civilisational heritage and to pool all our wisdom, knowledge and experience to revitalise West Bengal’s economy, polity and society so as to scale new heights of human endeavour and achievement in the service of the people of West Bengal and India as a whole.”

In one succinct paragraph, Dr. Singh re- emphasised India’s links with its “civilisational neighbourhood”, spoke of the need to build on those links, recognised the role of Calcutta as the gateway to the East and stressed how the realisation of its potential would mean revitalisation of not just Bengal but “India as a whole”.

But here too, as with much else in Dr. Singh’s intent, policy-making and policy- implementation, in Eliot’s verse, “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow.”

He has, for instance, reached out to clasp Sheikh Hasina’s extended hand of friendship, but has been unable to deliver very much beyond that. Last September, he became the first Indian Prime Minister in 12 years to visit Dhaka. It was to be a historic visit. Much was achieved, but there was no agreement on the two most important and contentious issues: river waters and overland transit. The deal on Teesta waters was torpedoed by Dr. Singh’s UPA ally Mamata Banerjee. Since Dhaka tends to link a deal on river waters with transit rights, India will have to continue to wait for an overland link to the Northeast through Bangladesh.

Trans-border connectivity and turning Bangladesh into a regional transit hub can transform the economies of both Bangladesh and Eastern India. For instance, trans- Bangladesh connectivity will mean that the distance between Calcutta and Guwahati will go down from the current 1300 km to 587 km and the distance between Agartala and Calcutta will go down from 2000 km to 350 km. Once again, transit through East Bengal would not be a novel development. Even after Partition, until 1965, there was free movement of goods and people across international borders through the then East Pakistan.

If it is agreed that Calcutta must realise its destiny as India’s gateway to the East and the engine and principal driver of economic regeneration in the entire eastern India, it must regain its lost glory as an economic powerhouse. Revival of manufacturing industry in its immediate neighbourhood is a must. The ill-fated Nano project in Singur could have acted as a catalyst, but that was not to be. The new government in West Bengal must identify, facilitate and fast-track several such projects if manufacturing has to be revived in Bengal.

But manufacturing industries have relatively long gestation. Knowledge industries can be put up quickly if their modest requirements of land are met. In this area, the previous Left Front Government had done remarkably good work, which is not adequately acknowledged. Calcutta was the city which housed India’s first computer. Way back in 1956, the Indian Statistical Institute, founded by planning guru PC Mahalanobis, had received a computer called Ural from the USSR. Yet, when computerisation took off in other parts of the country in the 1970s and 80s, the Bengal communists refused to countenance it. Therefore, fostering an IT industry in Calcutta was not on the Left Front’s agenda in the first few terms of its long 34 year rule.

It was only in the mid-Nineties that the Left Front Government took to promoting the IT industry. When it did, it did with a vengeance and provided all support to those who dared to invest in Bengal. The communists went to the extent of declaring IT an essential service to keep the 24/7 operations of the IT companies out of the purview of the all- too-frequent bandhs in the city. Soon, the IT industry gathered its own momentum and Calcutta turned into one of the leading IT hubs in the country, acquiring many firsts — the most cost-effective, the fastest growing and the one with the lowest attrition rate.

The new state government must go further than build on this solid base created by its predecessor. It should capitalise on the professional talent generated by the state (much of which now migrates to the other metros) and develop Calcutta as a centre of excellence for IT and other knowledge-based industries. This will not only keep the talent home but also draw back such professionals as had migrated to other states in the earlier decades. Over time, this hub will need additional talent, which can only come if Calcutta and its environs are developed as a centre for higher education in the knowledge sector.

There is more that Calcutta urgently needs. The city had the first Metro in the country, but that has remained a one-line wonder. It needs a network of lines the way Delhi has. The new airport will soon be ready, but work must be expedited in the proposed deep sea port, off south Bengal. The riverfront is being developed—in part and in isolation. However, as a recent IIM-Calcutta study has recommended, the river, lovely and yet neglected and abused, needs to be integrated with the city—in terms of the citizens’ mindscape and in terms of connectivity and physical landscape. Ms Banerjee may not ever succeed in turning Calcutta into London, but if these changes are effected with the support of the Centre, she will have succeeded in transforming the city into a global megapolis—to use the famous Nehruvian phrase—“not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”.


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