Kolkata's Future

Kolkata invariably features in my tours to India. Not just because it is home, but I am a Kolkata enthusiast - I love the city and its people, and believe in its future. I am, of course, working towards expanding our network there - I remain convinced that any education business in India should have a Kolkata presence.

Of course, I face this question often - if I believe in Kolkata so much, why don't I go and stay there? The answer I give is similar to many other compatriots living abroad - lack of work opportunity has made me travel. Undoubtedly, Kolkata has little industry and too few jobs - Rajiv Gandhi famously said it was a dying city - but most importantly, it is yet to wake up to Globalization and take the opportunity.

There are people who would jump at the last comment. There has been much ado about the re-industrialization of West Bengal in the recent times. It is undeniable that the world-record making $2500 car, the Tata Nano, is to be produced in the outskirts of the city. There were an unprecedented series of new projects in the pipeline, the housing sector boomed, real estate prices have shot up three-fold in a space of two years, and the service industry flourished. Much credit is due to the current Chief Minister, Budhdhadev Bhattacharyya, who, despite leading a communist administration which is ruling the State for last 30 years, could bring in new thinking and openness to foreign investment. The fear of industrialists that West Bengal/ Kolkata will mean militant trade unions and a unenthused government has finally been dispelled.

However, as I would find out, Mr. Bhattacharyya got certain things wrong, which led me to doubt whether he will fall short of his own promise. I was looking to find a 50 to 100 Square Meter space for ourselves in the new business district of Kolkata - the Sector 5 of Salt Lake City - which promises to be the hub for Information Technology in the city. My idea was to build a small e-learning team, which can then work on various projects we are getting. However, I have been told in no uncertain terms that there is no 'small' space available in Sector 5, and the minimum I can get is 400 Square Meter!

After this disappointing start, I also looked at various incentives that the government offers for IT sector, and I could see the problem - there is actually very little for start-ups, though the government is fairly generous on big investors.

I would identify this as the big problem for Kolkata's future. Globalization - for an industrially backward place like Kolkata - should lead the way to developing indigenous competence and competitiveness. But it is indeed plain for everyone to see that the government of West Bengal, which is primarily responsible for the state's economic strategy, does not get it - they are focused on bringing change in terms of offering sweet deals to big name industrialists and foreign capital. One need not be protectionist, but at this stage, the government must labour to develop indigenous competitiveness, more garage industrialists.

This option is surely unglamourous, and it is unlikely to give the Chief Minister the prime time minutes he desires. However, coming after a long period when his party's government effectively stifled all entrepreneurial efforts of people from Bengal, such bias towards foreign and big name capital, and more importantly, against the entrepreneurs of the state, will only destroy the long term economic prospect of the state. This is not a neo-protectionist urging - it isn't an either/or. The government must invite foreign capital, which will create jobs, train local people and create facilities. But at the same time, the government must have a structured programme to assist and encourage local enterprise - incubation facilities, venture funds, training for entrepreneurs, small industry advice service etc - if it has to balance the growth and create longer-term prosperity. I go back with a strong suspicion that Mr. Bhattacharyya, being a showtime politician, does not really get it.

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