India 2020: A New Future for Kolkata
Then, there is its people. Though it lagged behind the rest of India in terms of mass Higher Education, it still boasts about its elite institutions and their very high quality graduates, who, alas, mostly leave the state afterwards due to lack of opportunities. The usual complaints that Bengalis are lazy and unimaginative, made many times over as a reaction to my earlier post, do not hold as the ones migrating into other cities and countries fare perfectly well, and go on to set up businesses and create wealth and opportunities. So, looking rationally, Kolkata's poor state of affairs is largely of its own making, rather than circumstances.
This is precisely the wrong thing to do, I shall claim. The starting point in moving Kolkata forward is to believe that Kolkata has a future. And, that its own people and its government need to deliver this promise of the future. The prosperity and success that we dream of is unlikely to come about as a handout from Delhi, and therefore, it is best to stop fussing about it. There is no point pondering over the unfair terms of trade any more: In an open, competitive global economy, these policies will matter less and less. It is best to look inside and resolve the internal challenges, the key reason for Kolkata's decline, before it is too late. I shall point to three challenges/ opportunities that come to mind.
Third, the state has to look beyond commodities and be perceptive about the opportunities arising around it. The state, and the city of Kolkata, is surrounded by one of the poorest region of the world. National boundaries do not matter much when people are hungry, and Kolkata's slums were overcrowded and disease ridden and full with people from Bangladesh, Bihar, Orissa, Nepal, Indian north-east and indeed its own villages. A rather shocking recent statistic, however, points to an opportunity: In the recent years, Kolkata's population has declined. This decline is marginal, but hugely significant: How can a sprawling city in the middle of a desperately poor neighbourhood have a declining population? This is indeed less about Kolkata's decline, and more about the new-found peace, stability and prosperity in the neighbouring states and countries. All of a sudden, Orissa is prosperous, Bihar is an example of governance, Nepal is peaceful and Bangladesh is looking into the future. If things go well, India may soon have transit rights through Bangladesh, opening up the Indian North-East. And, the most dramatic change in the region is brewing in Burma, the biggest country in South-East Asia (and the second most populous): There is a slow but sure march to that country opening up to the world in the next few years time. All this is a huge opportunity for Kolkata and its people: Of trade, of jobs, of building bridges and opportunities. They don't have to live off the mines and minerals produced in neighbouring states and by extracting the surplus from landless peasants; opening up the mind and looking East provides a great opportunity. There is no reason to slump into despair for the mistreatment from Delhi, but as the power of the world shifts from the Middle East to Asia Pacific, it is time for Kolkata to shape up for a new role and be the guiding spirit for rest of the India into the region. Indeed, the current government is caught up in its own web and have little imagination, but this would be an opportunity for them to lose.
So, surely, I see a new future for Kolkata: A magical, art deco city reimagined in the new festive lights of creativity and imagination, prodded by a new education system unleashing the new energies released by the people surrounding the city as well as from its inside, powered by new enterprises focused on the opportunities arising all around it. The city is sitting right in the middle of the most exciting opportunities arising in the world: Should we fritter this away just because we can't govern ourselves?