Approaching India - Let's Go Kolkata!

I have three data points about Kolkata, which I talk about often. 

First, Kolkata was the first Indian city to reach a million population, and only the second city in Asia to do so (Tokyo is the other one).

Second, it is the only city in the whole world, in this day and age of urban expansion, to have lost population in the last ten years. The loss was marginal, and it is still a very populous city, but this is not good.

Third, it is the only Indian metropolis with abundant supply of drinkable water. Assuming that water is going to be a big issue in the next twenty years, Kolkata seems secure as a City.

These three data points capture the usual narrative. We often talk about the city's illustrious past, as the Second Capital of the British Empire, Capital of India and as home to many leading modern Indian intellectuals, a place of learning and a hotbed of Indian nationalism. We also hope about its promising future, pointing to various geographic, demographic and economic reasons. The present, squeezed between the two, seems like an inconvenient reminder of how we, the people of and from Kolkata, squandered a great opportunity and destroying a great future.

It did not help that our political culture in the last thirty-five years were sustained by our grievances towards New Delhi, the seat of power in Modern India. As it happens, in modern economies, resource-rich regions always have such grievances (think Scotland), and Kolkata is no exception. But the grievance culture has also stolen the initiative from its people - everyone seems to think that someone else is responsible for creating a better life for them (and, therefore, their misery is someone elses fault!). [This is not unusual in India. A recent Drink-and-Drive case involving a Film Actor led to some people coming out in his defence claiming that it is the Government's responsibility to provide housing so that the poor are not sleeping on the pavement (but the protagonist is innocent though he was drunk and driving at great speed!). The paternalistic state in India has created a dependency among its people, and in turn, got a citizenry who fails to assume responsibility of everything.]

Therein lies the two key ideas that I wish to recommend to all people who care about Kolkata (and I know many who do). Both of these ideas are against the mainstream thinking in India, but they have pedigree and prior track record. 

The first is to stop looking at the Government. I am painfully aware that in a developing country, the Government matters a lot, and indeed, wields a lot of power. But, after repeated disappointments, at least the people in Kolkata should know that the government can, and would, do very little. The only way to turn around the city is to organise publicly-minded citizens into a single mission to develop enterprise and opportunities in the city. Surely, the government will get in the way, but there are enough high profile individuals sufficiently concerned about the city who could advise the government to mind its own business. This is what Narayana Murthy and others did in Bangalore while organising Citizens initiatives - and it has worked to some extent! Having watched West Bengal from inside and outside, I know that as long as these Citizens activities concern itself with enterprise and opportunity and do not demand anything from the government, one should be make an impact without official help.

The second is to build an wide ecosystem, in fact, one as broad as possible. Often, discussion about Kolkata becomes one about Bengalis, but the other communities, both linguistic and religious, are big and important. Most importantly, this ecosystem should draw lessons from Deng Xiaoping, who, in the initial years of liberating the Chinese economy, told the mainland Chinese to learn from their diaspora community and connect with them. The Indians have a very different approach to their diaspora. People who left are usually seen as unpatriotic and though their money and investment are often sought, their participation is often frowned upon. If one is to build Kolkata though, this has to be built as an open, welcoming city, involving people from all communities and countries. If anyones heart beats for Kolkata, we should want him in the initiative.

So, what should this Citizen's action be targeting? One should leave the tasks of the government to itself, like Poverty alleviation, infrastructure etc. Instead, the private initiative should perhaps focus on jobs and growth, education and enterprise. 54% of West Bengal households have at least one member who can not find work, the highest incidence in India. This needs to be reversed. The Citizen Action, if built around a global ecosystem of ideas and resources, can get involved in Entrepreneurship Support and Education, including supporting initiatives such as the Analytics City, which has received some government support already. Properly organised, this can use the established networks of public libraries and auditoriums and transform them into collaboration zones. Its global ecosystem can help connect opportunities globally and send jobs and opportunities to Kolkata. It can help organise local industries and support local talent. It can, above all, promote a culture of self help and stop the pathetic dependency culture that blocks all initiative in the City.



Curious Desi said…
Interesting post! I did not know the 3 facts you mentioned about Kolkata especially the availability of fresh water. I have never visited Kolkata but it is on top of my list of places to visit. It is somewhat unfortunate that the city that had geniuses like JC Bose, Satyendranath Bose, Meghnad Saha, Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, and so many others is crumbling and has been suffering from brain drain for last few decades.

Kolkata's downfall started in a single stroke when British Viceroy (or King George) announced in Durbar of 1911 that they were shifting capital to Delhi. Kolkata never recovered.

So if the downfall came from a top down decision, is it realistic to expect the city to resurrect from bottom up i.e. citizens working with a good intent. Also considering that majority of talent has left the city and moved to NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, US, UK. I don't know how but the way to change fortune of a city has to come through some drastic event otherwise status quo would prevail for decades to come.

Thanks for dropping by.

The decline of Kolkata is a complex subject, and as you would imagine, I think of it often. It is not just the lack of political influence with the moving of the national capital, but also the loss of economic hinterland with the creation of East Pakistan that contributed to its decline. Kolkata is also a very commodity based economy, and decline of the Jute industry, for geographic, economic and technological reasons, was key to the decline of the city.

The Kolkata scientific and cultural elite, whom you mention in the comment, in many ways, was a product of absentee landlordism, the British system which created landowners staying away from their estates (mostly in East Pakistan) and in the city, enjoying a culturally productive life. They somehow did not make the transition to new India very well, partly because some of the lethargy that creeps in with that kind of economic set-up.

However, I still have hope for Kolkata because here, more than others, people are more politically conscious and they hold their elite accountable for their actions. This is sadly missing in most other places in India. I believe this approach allows the development of a new kind of cultural engagement, democratic and self-renewable. Greater integration with Bangladesh, which the resentful Kolkata elite resisted for a long time, is also going to help, by expanding the economic activity and cultural engagement. So, overall I am hopeful, but then I am biased because it is home.

Curious Desi said…
I was taking a simplistic view over Kolkata's decline...appreciate your insight. Interesting you mentioned that creation of East Pakistan also contributed to its decline. However, I had read in a book (Freedom at Midnight, I think) that East Pakistan took an economic hit as all jute mills ended up in India and due to this East Pakistan was destined to be poor. Also that Chittagong was a major port before partition and went in decline while Kolkata's economic activity picked up. From your comment, seems like both the sides took a hit.

Lastly, I agree with your passion and bias for home. I come from Delhi and world may call it most polluted or r*#@ capital of the world, but for me it'll always remain the best place in the world!
Indeed, the partition hit us all, both in the East and the West. It meant an overnight decline of economic activity, and when we fear about a fraction of a percentage point of decline in GDP, imagine how shearing off a large portion of the economy, whichever side you look at it from, would feel like.

There was one way Partition for Bengal was different from the Partition of Punjab. There was widespread violence in Northern India and West Pakistan, which led most people to leave their home. The Population Transfer left several millions dead, but as insensitive as it sounds, it opened up a space for economic renewal. The land and housing vacated by those who left for Pakistan could be allocated to people who came from there. In West Bengal though, where violence erupted in 1946, there was no violence during the partition, mostly because people were tired of it, as well as because of Gandhi being present in the area. This meant the muslims largely remained where they were, feeling safe in new India, whereas a large number of refugees were still driven out of East Pakistan. This caused enormous economic strain, particularly on Kolkata, and several settler communities were created overnight. Though these migrants were Hindus, there was great animosity between the people of Kolkata and these newcomers, and if you talk even today, you will find traces of this animosity.

Apart from the social strife, there was economic strain. There were no (or not much anyway) vacant properties to settle these refugees in. Some of them would eventually be settled in Chattisgarh (places like Raipur) but most remained in Kolkata, living in shanty towns and slums. This had put the city infrastructure immediately out of sync. Remember, many of these migrants were farmers, just like the people who came to Punjab, but unlike the Punjabis, they were given no land. So, their economic initiatives and enterprise, which made Punjab and Northern India in general flourish, were absent in Bengal.

However, I think we are turning a new corner with greater economic openness in the East, reconciling with Bangladesh (where Bengalis in West Bengal was a big stumbling block) but also generally reaching out to South East Asia and further afield. This would allow Kolkata to recover and even play a greater role in India.

Curious Desi said…
I am well aware of Partition of Punjab as my family moved to Delhi during that time. It's good to know about Partition of Bengal. Fate of Hindus who moved from East Pakistan to India seems to be similar to Muslims who moved from India to Pakistan (mostly Karachi area) and were called Mohajirs.

Wanted to share with you a link - It's a project started by some students in US and they are documenting hundreds of stories of people who were impacted by partition. When I saw Holocaust museums in the US, I always used to wonder why don't we have Partition museum in Delhi and Kolkata telling stories that common man can relate to.

Thanks again, and the link is very useful.

Partition Museum is a great idea, though the Holocaust Museum had both political will and financial backing, which Partition, which really affected commoners and less the rich and powerful, is unlikely to have. Besides, we have accepted the partition as a way of life, and solidifying it with every passing generation.

Let us also connect on email (or Linkedin or Facebook) because it is great to have this conversation with a fellow-traveller.


Ashutosh said…
Good idea. I found you on FB but the Add Friend option wasn't not accepting new friends it seems ;-) Anyways, I send you one on LinkedIn.


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