Kolkata is India's third largest city, its former capital and a desperately poor one. It is home for me, and whatever I write about it - and I keep writing about it - is never impartial. I can see, like everyone else, its broken politics, its stilted society, its broken infrastructure: However, if there is one city I would live in if all my wishes are granted, it will be Kolkata. This is indeed more about me than about the City, which has perhaps changed far more than I did, despite my life abroad and all that. However, this is more than nostalgia: I have never been a resident of Kolkata, living all my life in a suburb, and while I went to college in the city, I didn't know the city that well till fairly late in my life. And, this is not about its culture, which most Kokata residents are intensely proud of: While my cultural identity remains irredeemably Bengali and linked to Kolkata, I am also aware of the deep conservatism and class consciousness that pervades the Kolkata society, and caused the city's decline. In fact, the reason I find Kolkata immensely interesting is precisely because of its ability to defy its own cultural limits, to be able to maintain its street culture and not lose it to orthodoxy, to be able to remain free of celebrity-fetish which pervades other lively cities such as Mumbai (one can still roam around in College Street without being reminded, such as in Bandra, which famous bum adorned which seat) - in summary, its ability to renew itself.
There are times when I have to explain 'Kolkata' to my colleagues and acquaintances: They want to know what is to make of this city other than treating it as a desperate corner of the world to avoid. For most of them, Kolkata is about Mother Teresa and her work: I feel obligated, like almost all other Kolkata residents, to object to this single-dimension description of the City. However, to do so, I avoid the trap of talking about 'famous sons', all those other Nobel Laureates Kolkata has produced, Indian or Foreigner working here: I do so in deference to the City's ability to remain outside the celebrity culture (outside its social clubs). I also avoid the temptation of talking about politics, because being the last bastion of communism to fall or signing up to the current soap opera does not reflect, in my opinion, the matured political persona of this city. Instead, I talk about two data points which, in my opinion, reflect the 'Kolkata Problem': That it is the only major city in the developing world, at this day and age of urbanisation, to have lost population in the last ten years, and that it is the only major Indian city which has an abundant supply of drinkable water to last it for at least the next fifty years.
Cities lose population when they start dying: The great English industrial cities had all lost population when the age of industrial city was over in the West. And, so did the American cities like Detroit, and the Soviet-era cities in Russia and across Eastern Europe. But this is almost unthinkable in the developing world, where those industrial activities migrated to. Besides, with changing social norms, many people are always trying to escape desperate rural poverty to come to the cities. Seen from that perspective, Rajiv Gandhi's description of Kolkata as a 'dying city' in the 80s, for which he was loathed in the city, seems prescient.
However, Kolkata's decline in population may also be a direct result of conscious policy. A Centre Left government (using the Communist label) ruled the state of West Bengal for over thirty years: Their focus was firmly on the villages, starting with sweeping land reforms, which did help improve the rural income levels. The other part of their policy was industrial activism, which they clung onto as a primary tool to maintain their communist label: However, this meant, for the large part of their rule, a conscious policy of encouraging subsistence agriculture by discouraging private industry. Add to this the extensive welfare programmes afforded by the immediate past central government in Delhi, which channeled a huge sum of money to employment guarantee and other schemes in rural India, and Kolkata's declining population may look like a policy triumph rather than a disaster.
It is, nevertheless, still a disaster. Without resenting the good fortune of the village folks who used to come to the city slums earlier, one must also see that Kolkata as a city is failing to provide them with more opportunities than the handouts they may get staying in their villages. The welfare programmes did not stop people from going to Mumbai or Delhi, and the small cities in India has swelled with people, who often channeled the new-found rural income to the trading points to ensure runaway prosperity. But, nothing of that sort happened in Kolkata: Its once mighty port has declined, not just because of the shallowness of the river but more for its atrocious management and rampant crime; its industry had continued to falter, as its successive governments took on populist positions; and even the creative sectors, once its place of pride, have suffered because of government meddling and rise of a 'Durbur' culture, where the Chief Minister of the State has taken upon herself the role of patron-in-chief and the arbitrator of cultural taste.
However, the mitigating factor, that Kolkata may be one of most sustainable of India's cities, should add to the perspective of its strategic importance. It is also significant if India's own pivot to Asia, the much talked about India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China corridor has to become a reality. Besides, the creative economy in India, indeed overshadowed by the mighty Bollywood, still owes a lot to Kolkata, often drawing talent and ideas from the city. It still hosts some of India's best schools, and a strong knowledge-based culture. Though the successive governments have done much to meddle in its Higher Education system, destroying the meritocratic culture and the spirit of independent inquiry, the city maintained a vibrant public culture, an activist media community and a good publishing industry.
So, in short, the city is dying, by design or otherwise, and yet it has the potential to come back. However, it can't unless it is freed from the tyranny of the State Government, as the Economist of the Cities, Edward Glaeser, has recommended. It is big with its over 13 million people (and more if one adds the suburbs) and it deserves, just as the other major Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore do, to be freed from the policy priorities of the State Government, which is often working against its interests (or at least being oblivious to its interests). The new Indian government, which has projected a strong pro-industrial, pro-urban, policy priority, should perhaps start here: Finding ways to establish more proactive city governments, which is independent of the state governments that stifle its progress. Indeed, I say this because I love Kolkata and feel dismayed about its decline; but I also say this because it makes abundant sense in the broader aim of India pursuing its path to development. All cities will benefit from such focus on self-government, but Kolkata as a basket case is perhaps the best illustration of the costs of not doing it.
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
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Religi
This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic ( read here ). While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacu
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
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 was gui
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, as
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
A lot of conversations about Kolkata is about its past; I want to talk about its future. Most conversations about Kolkata is about its decline - its golden moments and how times changed; I want to talk about its rise, how its best may lie ahead and how we can change the times. In place of pessimism, I seek optimism; instead of inertia, I am looking for imagination. It is not about catching up, I am arguing; it is about making a new path altogether. It had, indeed it had, a glorious past: One of the first Asian cities to reach a million population, the Capital of British India, the cradle of an Enlightened Age and a new politics of Cosmopolitanism. And, it had stumbled - losing the hinterland that supplied its Jute factories, overwhelmed by the refugees that came after the partition, devoid of its professional class who chose to emigrate - the City's commercial and professional culture evaporated in a generation, and it transformed into a corrupt and inefficien
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
The story of British influence on Indian Education, to which Macaulay's Minutes of 1835 belong, has been told in six distinct phases. Syed Nurullah and J P Naik's very popular and influential History of Indian Education calls these 'six acts' of the drama: From the beginning of Eighteenth Century to 1813 The British East India Company received its charter in 1600 but its activities did not include any Educational engagement till the Charter Act of 1698, which required the Company to maintain priests and schools, for its own staff and their children. And, so it was until the renewal of its charter in 1813, when the evangelical influence led to insistence of expansion of educational activities and allowing priests back into company territory. From 1813 to Wood's Education Despatch of 1854 The renewal of Charter in 1813 re-opened the debate, which seemed to have been settled in the early years of the company administration, between the Orientalis
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.