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.
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