A Future for Kolkata

I wrote about various disappointments with Kolkata, and how the lack of political leadership has dragged the city, and also the state of West Bengal, into the current state of hopelessness that it is in. However, as I said earlier, it is imperative that Kolkata changes and progresses, as this will be critical to bring change in the poorest parts of India, and in the neighbouring countries too.

I talk about neighbouring countries here, because I do think national boundaries essentially distort our perspectives. I was explaining to someone yesterday how, when we talk about ancient India, we refer to great emperors of Ujjain and Kanauj, some of which are little more than city states in size. My essential point was how our perception of space changes with the advances in transportation and communication technology. As an extension of this thought, I think Nation is a very 19th century concept, which is past its prime, and we are moving towards a world of opposites, great regional clusters made of smaller local, cultural identities. European Union shows that in action - there is no conflict in Scottish Nationalists' desire to secede from the UK but to have a closer integration with Europe.

So, anyway, coming back to the point, Kolkata needs to regenerate itself. I hope that time has come to imagine the Post-CPIM future. Time has come for a new leader to emerge, with a new agenda. I hope that this time we shall get it right.

So, what are the things I think need to be done to regenerate Kolkata?

I think the first thing is actually about developing other townships in nearby area, and also in other parts of Bengal. The problem with Kolkata is that it has too much of a population pressure - the problem of being in the middle of a poor region - and only developing other centres of commerce can relieve this pressure. Of course, some work has happened in the last two decades. Cities like Siliguri, Burdwan and Haldia has emerged. But, this isn't enough - as this growth was not supported in terms of developing the infrastructure of these cities and no incentive was offered to anyone to move out of Kolkata. Also, the growth of these cities coincided the collapse of other cities like Durgapur and Asansol - and therefore the net effect remained the same.

The first task of a new, Post-CPIM administration will therefore be to create a blueprint for coordinated urban development in West Bengal. Incentives must be given to companies to move to inner cities, and I see no reason why the big BPO campuses can not move to Durgapur, or software centres should not move to Kharagpur.

Besides, it is imperative that we look at Education and Environment in Kolkata. Education is one of the long-neglected subjects in Bengal and this needs to be given a fresh look. It needs to be freed from the clutches of the state control, given the necessity of a significant upgrade of state's educational infrastructure. Some work has happened, again. But, unfortunately, the efforts are still minuscule with regard to requirement, and more investment needs to come in. The state should actively pursue the centre for a tax holiday on education business in the state. They should offer earmarked land and other incentives for these education enterprises to move to inner cities too.

Also, environment has not yet featured in the government's agenda. But environment is going to be a crucial factor for a city's competitiveness, in the days to come. The public transport system in Kolkata, once the best available in the country, has degenerated after years of corruption and misrule. This must be reversed and people should be encouraged to use public transport. The current vested interests in the transport ministry needs to be broken, as well as an upgrade of roads need to happen quickly and efficiently.

Kolkata also sits on an enormous opportunity of building bridges across the national border with Bangladesh. I think special incentives should be given to Bengali industrialists to invest in Kolkata. This is going to be well received - as this will open the doors for Indian markets to Bengali industrialists across the border and yet they are culturally so close and feel so much at home in Kolkata. One must forget past animosities and acknowledge that Bangladesh, despite its political problems, has demonstrated its entrepreneurial spirit in abundance and Kolkata and West Bengal will only benefit by allowing the cultural relationship to flourish in commerce.

And, lastly, someone needs to stand up and say that - it isn't over yet and this is our city to build. I stated earlier I think it is my responsibility to go back to Kolkata at some stage of my life and work there. I am sure there are thousands of Bengali expats all over the world, very successful bankers, doctors, businessmen, who would all want to do the same. I am an optimist - I know when change happens, it is an irreversible process. We just have to wait for that first spark - that emergence of a new leadership.


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