Kolkata 2020: An Act of Imagination

An old, dated piece on Kolkata, titled 'Why Kolkata will win in 20 Years', came to my attention. There are a number of things mentioned in this article that I don't agree with: The statement that Mamta Banerjee represents the moral end of Indian politics may invoke ridicule today, and the stereotype of Bengalis as business-averse and that they would need a Bengali-speaking non-Bengali for saving is mind-bogglingly absurd. But the two key propositions articulated here - that Kolkata is one of the most sustainable of the Indian cities, and that it can be fixed with good governance - are rather self-evident.

Of course, Kolkata is home and I am partial, and I shall make no claims to objectivity here. However, the fact that I keep writing about it - and indeed, there are many many people from Kolkata spread all around the world will do the same - proves perhaps that there is more to it than the dirty, dreary, poor city that the place appears to be to a casual visitor. Indeed, I meet people who will never ever dream of going back to Kolkata, simply because the place is too daunting and life is good elsewhere; but Kolkata remains a place to be imagined - and with imagination, it can win.

A city is its people, first and foremost. That goes both for and against Kolkata. It is the cosmopolitan network of love that Kolkata enjoys, from its suave residents and its wide diaspora, that should work for the City. At the same time, letting it degenerate into a kind of self-destructive politics is also the making of its people, and needs correcting. However, beyond all the political mess that Kolkata has found itself into, there is one common strand which should work for the city: Not many in the city, not even the 'emerging middle class' who are supposed to watch English language TV and be completely insensitive to the reality around themselves, will readily buy into a development model that bulldoze the poor and the weak, and present all opportunities on a plate to a few crony industrialists. Empathy still lives on in Kolkata, though one may, therefore, be accused of not striving.

This is a point missed in the article I quote, and perhaps this is an intentional act of omission. We have somehow decided that the new Indian development model has no space for the weak and the poor, and set out on a path of industrial development solely dependent on a few tycoons. The evidence that this does not work anywhere - and only leaves an impoverished society and people - doesn't seem to matter to the Indian commentators. That the farmers suicides are on the rise across the country, and will continue as most of Western India is running dry, is only a moot fact: There is also an urgent attempt to dress up the dreary urban poverty of all other Indian cities as some kind of entrepreneurialism. Within this myth of 'emergence', soft feelings such as empathy has no place.

This makes the conversation about Kolkata's future harder and easier at the same time. It is difficult to see Kolkata 'developing' just as the powers that be wishes to see. It will be difficult to catch up with the cut-throat winner takes all mantra without extinguishing all that is distinctive in the Bengali psyche. The culture that binds - much was made of it in the article I cited - is less about fine songs, books or movies, and more about being sensitive to those who have less, who could do less. It is also about loving the landscape, the countryside, rivers and all, and even the most ardent developer will have a family member, perhaps old, who may balk at poring concrete over the land perhaps most fertile in the world. 'Development' in its current Indian avatar will be a joke to most Bengalis, as they have a clear premonition how it usually ends.

On the other hand, talking about Kolkata's future is easy because this needs imagination, one thing that people of the city has lost and is trying to hard to get back. It needs capital to back the imagination, but, as with modern economies, Capital always follows once imagination is found. It needs a few leaders who will cut through the morass of corruption - and inspire hope. This is the only catalyst that Kolkata needs, hope, and this is one thing it is denuded of, as the other 'models of development' is promoted in India. It is a renewed commitment to Kolkata's future, emanating, most appropriately, from its nature and its people, that can turn everything around. One could claim that this is, in many ways, crucial to India that we don't lose alternate perspectives about our future, which Kolkata is capable of providing.


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