India 2020: A New Future for Kolkata

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 inside the Commodities belt in India, and should have benefited from the competition and rising prices for commodities in the world market. It could have been India's gateway to the East Asia and China, the most exciting region in the world. As Robert Kagan points out, this is also the most sustainable of big Indian cities, with ample supply of drinkable water: Assuming that in near future, water will become more valuable than oil, Kolkata indeed has a lot to go for it.

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.

One can and should indeed blame the left front government for the state of affairs. However, it is too cliched to repeat the accusation that they drove the industry away. However, I shall ascribe the decline of Kolkata to the culture of defeatism that they promoted for their political gains. This was a perfect cocktail,  their political line for a large part of their thirty year reign was that Kolkata was poor because the Central government, the government in Delhi, discriminated against its interests, and the victim mentality of the Bengali aristocrats which lost its landholdings in the partition and the refugees from East Pakistan who never got a decent settlement because the Muslims actually never left West Bengal as they did in Punjab. Also, there was truth in that claim: Kolkata never got the benefit of its access to mine and mineral belt the way it would have if it was not part of India. It is an accusation similar to the one Alex Salmond is making for the case of independence of Scotland, and like the Scottish independence, it was made too late in the day. Apart from the merits of this claim - minerals lie in neighbouring states and Kolkata is the conduit for these to reach the global market - this translated into a sort of defeatism that the government of the state and the people themselves couldn't do anything about the decline. It might have been good politics at the time, and allowed the leftists a long stay at the helm with low accountability, but this thinking proved counter-productive in imagining a future of the state away from the commodities, and sapped the energies of the City and its people.

Unsurprisingly, this new government, which came to power in May 2011, followed the same political lines as their predecessors, and blamed Delhi for everything that is wrong and could not be ascribed to their predecessors in the State. This stance is disingenuous, as the party in power in the state is also part of the governing coalition in Delhi. However, the political allure of such 'blame others' rhetoric is proving hard to let go. The current government is keen on hyping up the Bengali identity as much as possible, promoting and idolising the regional culture, as a part of their political strategy of playing hot-and-cold with the Indian union.

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.

First, Kolkata, and West Bengal, is more elitist than most other Indian states. Its polity is dominated by the urban upper caste middle classes, and so are its best institutions and government jobs. Despite the land reforms under the left rule, possibly their best achievement, Kolkata's society has changed very little. Indeed, a number of upper caste educated intellectuals left Kolkata in the last thirty years precisely because of this social change - an invasion of sorts by the rural masses - but yet this was not deep enough. In a way, the Left Front government created a sort of rural prosperity through land reforms, but failed, eventually, to provide the next step - to urban comfort and modern prosperity - to the beneficiaries, and eventually became a victim of its own past success. The current government represents this ongoing struggle for Kolkata's soul: It has been put in power by the force of rural disenchantment with the lack of social and economic mobility, and was also seen, at least for the moment, as the saviour by the middle classes which ran away during the left rule. This should have been an opportunity: However chaotic, this is the moment when a coalition can be built between the disaffected rural youth and the English speaking gentry. A social revolution changing the antiquated power equations which kept Kolkata and West Bengal poor seemed to have started during the Left rule, but it is time to make another new beginning.

Second, related to the above, is of Education. I shall argue that the only job a government in Kolkata needs to do is to create and maintain an education system in line with the changing social agenda and global economic realities. The left front government systematically under-invested in the state's Middle tier schools and colleges (which served the urban middle class) and tried to invest in primary and secondary education for the rural population instead. A good thing at the start, it soon degenerated into a morass of mediocrity as the leftist policy makers failed to move on and provide the next level opportunity to its own beneficiaries in the rural schools. And, besides, the under-investment in education for middle classes meant that Kolkata missed out on India's service sector revolution. Indeed, it had a number of elite institutions which served the very best of the urban intelligentsia, but these students were soon leaving the state afraid of being caught in the 'invasion by the villagers', politicisation of the academia, declining industry scenario and perverse effects of the affirmative action in government recruitment. This is the biggest mess inherited by the current government, and they have already proved themselves completely unable, and unwilling, to confront the challenges. The policies pursued so far were the inverse of the left front policies, rightward turn to correct the leftward turn, but there is little evidence that they can ever build the meritocracy, openness and transparency that can empower an education system fit-for-purpose in a newly industrialising state playing the catch-up. The education system is broken and needs to be re-imagined, which is an opportunity, and new partnerships, between public, private and social organisations, have to be built. There is nothing that the current government has done so far prove that they understand the challenge or serious about it.

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?


Unknown said…
Very rightly said Supriyo. I do agre that the new govt. has to come out o the blame game & show more maturity than behaving as a beggar to Delhi. It has to think of ways to generate its own revenues by utilizing its strengths & now blindly follow other states. Apart from its extraordinary geographic location, which you have rightly mentioned, Kolkata sits on a cradle of craftsmanship which, if properly exploited, can boost huge tourism, make the "Kolkata" tag popular in far east & help to earn revenues. Instead of getting lost in 'Tagore songs', people of Kolkata need to think ahead, develop civic sense, pride in making a cleaner, law abiding city instead of making there own home as a dumpyard. A lot has to improve & we all hope this will happen soon...
Unknown said…
Very rightly said Supriyo. I do agre that the new govt. has to come out o the blame game & show more maturity than behaving as a beggar to Delhi. It has to think of ways to generate its own revenues by utilizing its strengths & now blindly follow other states. Apart from its extraordinary geographic location, which you have rightly mentioned, Kolkata sits on a cradle of craftsmanship which, if properly exploited, can boost huge tourism, make the "Kolkata" tag popular in far east & help to earn revenues. Instead of getting lost in 'Tagore songs', people of Kolkata need to think ahead, develop civic sense, pride in making a cleaner, law abiding city instead of making there own home as a dumpyard. A lot has to improve & we all hope this will happen soon...
Unknown said…
Hi Supriyo,

It was a good read... You are one of those few exceptional Bengalis who feel this place holds a bright future. I strongly feel that the place could boast of its many strengths but as we Bengalis are... We lack branding and promoting ...

Its like realizing that a place where nobody is in the habit of wearing shoes is the best place for the shoes to sell if promoted properly.

Basumitra DasGupta

Thanks for dropping by and your comment.

Yes, indeed, I see Kolkata at an inflection point, partly because I refuse to give up hope on it, and partly because I can't see things getting any worse. So, my various 'projects' still relate to Kolkata - whatever I do, I invariably come back to it - and I believe all it needs is a bit of citizen's actions (shall i say, as in Delhi recently) which will hold the political class accountable. This is a big departure from everyone for themselves mode, but I somehow see that departure to be more plausible for ever-angry Kolkata resident than most other cities across the developing world. I know the problems and I face those every time I go there: I shall sum this up as apathy, people have really given up and they don't want to do anything anymore, but I believe the spark of life that can sweep away this apathy, the faith in the future, the deep love in a way of being over and above the temptations of ever drifting consumerist life, are persistently present in Kolkata-residents I know and talk to. I don't know how far this break point is, but I keep faith in its coming.

Anonymous said…
didi didi r u?? west bengal is gradually going towards haldia itself led by didi. its indeed now or never. modi first confronted didi. but now understood that it is better to kill bengal and bengalis by keeping didi in power. modi is now playing with didi and bengal. and we bengalis knowing very well that bpth modi and didi are aganist the bengal and bengali culture sleeping......and dreaming of a better bengal with sharp calcutta stock market, it market, agriculture, food processing industry, cluster banks with financial hub, innovative bengalis, new song, books, ahaaaaaaaaaaa

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