Calcutta needs a new start.
The city which I call home has earned a bad name, but its reputational problems have more to do with the politics of India than economic fundamentals.
The city, the second most populous in India after Mumbai, is the third largest city economy in India, presiding over a mostly prosperous agricultural economy and a strategic state. Yet, people don't tend to see it that way: India's geopolitical obsession with Pakistan and Kashmir keeps minds focused on its Western frontiers, and a succession of opposition party governments in West Bengal (the last time Congress ruled the state was in 1977) ensured that the state did not feature in the Central Government's list of priorities. But this is changing - there is increasing realisation of the geopolitical challenges and opportunities of the Indian East - and one would hope that this would bring about a change, if only gradual change, in Indian policy.
But any conversation about change must be rooted in reality, not the shallow mythology that gets passed on as common sense. A good place to start is the back story: One may indeed notice the closed factories and slums in Kolkata, but an appreciation of Calcutta's, and Bengal's, post-independence history should correct some of the distortions that gets floated about Bengali character and enterprise.
We must remember Kolkata had an industrial base once: This was one of the world's greatest Jute processing centres, which died a premature death when it was forcibly disconnected from its jute producing hinterlands of East Pakistan. East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is one of the most fertile agricultural economies of the world, and while the country is hardly spoken about in India, it is one of the most populous in the world (just behind the usual suspects), with one of the highest agricultural productivities. One of the economic costs of partition was to yank Kolkata, which had an economy and a port closely linked to this hinterland, from its ecosystem.
The other impact of partition was on Kolkata's population. Already a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, it was on the receiving end of the refugee crisis : In 1947, when Hindus left East Pakistan but Muslims felt safe and never left West Bengal in large numbers to offset the same. Unlike Delhi and Punjab, where a bloody population transfer actually happened, there was no land and houses left vacant by Muslims to swap with these new Hindu refugees. Partition, therefore, meant the creation of a new underclass in Kolkata: Radicalised and destitute, the new migrants would change the city forever.
Independence and its economic shocks also meant a flight of the professional class. Kolkata's elite, educated and europeanised, was not land-based, unlike some other parts of the country (and those who were, lost their estates in partition) and a great wave of migration followed through in the 50s and 60s. The new democratic West Bengal, with its radical left - which was there because of the industrial development and whose ranks swelled with the new migrants and jobless workers - scared the Bengali 'gentlemanly capitalists', who promptly sent their sons and daughters away to Europe and America. There was internal migration too: The mobile technocrats moved from Kolkata nearer to the centres of power and commerce in Modern India.
This is old history, but a conversation about Kolkata should start there. It is a convenient myth that West Bengal's, and Kolkata's, decline started in 1977, as the Communists took power and 'work culture collapsed'. This is indeed based on the implausible claim that all was well when Congress, the political party which ruled India most of its first 50 years, was in power. Yet, anyone in Kolkata would remember late 60s and 70s as a period of strife and decline, radical movements and police brutalities, and lawlessness on the street. Besides, it is just the Communist rule that blighted West Bengal and brought about Kolkata's decline does not explain why Communists kept winning elections for next 34 years, and why, when they finally lost power in 2011, nothing really changed. A more realistic assessment of Kolkata's decline, dating it back to the economic shocks of the partition - which Eastern Indian states disproportionately bore - is a good starting point. It allows one to go beyond the myth of the Bengali character (which does not hold up as Bengalis do just as well or as badly as any other communities) and look at the key economic issues - an unredeemed economic shock, a demographic and political transformation, flight of the professional class and destruction of an ecosystem - to understand the issue of Kolkata's decline.
One does not need to stop at the economic and social impacts of the partition, though. The last seventy years have transformed Kolkata from an industrial city to a commodity economy, with the resultant changes in politics, culture and ideas. This is part policy - the city sits near one of the most mineral-rich areas of the world and serves as its main trading point - but partly this happened by default, creating new power structures and political priorities that work against any possibility of change. This is partly the reason Kolkata changed slowly, despite its good education system, young population and successful diaspora, to the growth of the global outsourcing industry in the 1980s and 90s, and missed the bus completely as new clusters emerged in Bangalore, Hyderabad and even in once-sleepy Bhubaneswar (as well as many other Indian cities).
A second wave of refugees, from East Pakistan in 1971, duly arrived, brutalised by the Pakistani Army as it battled to undermine the nascent Bengali nationalism: Kolkata and its Bengalis were naturally sympathetic, but this imposed an economic cost; the Indian Government was delighted about the military opportunity and duly helped dismember Pakistan, but never really assessed the economic costs and provided appropriate economic support to the areas, in Bengal and Northeastern States, which had to take on those who came. This fed to resentment, which became the dominant theme of Bengali politics ever since, justifiably but self-destructively.
This is what we want to reverse now, and create a new conversation. I talk here of the past, but not to mourn, resent or justify it, but to use it as a perspective - both to understand why the City is where it is today, and how possibly it can reinvent itself. This conversation starts with an acknowledgement: This is Kolkata's 'Ask Not' moment. For far too long, Kolkata's citizens looked to their government, a carefully cultivated colonial era habit, for development: It is important now to change the conversation and build self-sustaining ecosystems of innovation and development. Kolkata should draw its inspiration from all those Western cities, which were reduced to industrial wastelands because of globalisation but since reinvented themselves: Dresden, Eindhoven, Pittsburg and now Manchester come to mind.
These cities offer valuable lessons: Their regeneration was privately led, supported by the government, no doubt, but built around ecosystems of private enterprise. Also, they did not seek to compete with established industrial centres in their geography, but sought to leverage the new developments in technologies and ideas and created new ecosystems. It may be very difficult for Kolkata to compete with a city like, say, Bangalore, because of the latter's track record and ecosystem of IT Service companies; however, focusing on different industries and newer ideas may allow Kolkata to create a different niche for itself.
We are calling the initiative Kolkata 4.0. The 4.0 bit is indeed an allusion to the currently fashionable Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is about new industries and conversations. Exploring these possibilities and enabling these conversations is the objective of the Civil Society organisation that we are setting up now, with HQ in Kolkata (obviously) but networks in different cities. And, perhaps appropriately, Kolkata 4.0 would do four different things: First, it would create an apolitical platform for expatriates to connect with Kolkata's educational institutions and companies; Second, it would work on creating awareness about the strategic importance of Kolkata in particular and Bengal in general; Third, it would work with the government of West Bengal and Kolkata's civic administration and industrial promotion bodies to engage effectively with expats and potential global partners; and finally, it would create networks of positive engagement in different global cities to draw people into a conversation about economic opportunities and realities of the city economy.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
There is no other city like Kolkata for me: It is Home. The only city where I don't have to find a reason to go to, or to love. It is one city hardwired into my identity, and despite being away for a decade, that refuses to go away. People stay away from their homeland for a variety of reasons. But, as I have come to feel, no one can be completely happy to be away. One may find fame or fortune, love and learning, in another land, but they always live an incomplete life. They bring home broken bits of their homeland into their awkward daily existence, a cushion somewhere, a broken conversation in mother tongue some other time, always rediscovering the land they left behind for that brief moment of wanting to be themselves. The cruelest punishment, therefore, for a man who lives abroad is when his love for his land is denied. It is indeed often denied, because the pursuit of work, knowledge or love seemed to have gotten priority over the attraction of the land. This is particularly
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.