A Conversation About Kolkata in the 21st Century

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 inefficient commodity economy, that enriched a few but enfeebled a lot. And, yet, I shall claim, it has a future to be made: Despite, and because of its decline, perhaps because the 'development' of the last two decades that bypassed it. If only we can imagine! And, this is an invite to imagine!

If one looks out to the world now, the signs of change are noticeable. Call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an Age of Discovery or The Second Machine Age, or whatever you like, there is a profound shift in the global economy. There are many versions of this imagined future, Utopian and dystopian in equal measure, but the direction is clear: We are at the end of the globalisation wave that, starting in 1990s, led to the de-industrialisation of the West and created new industries and value chains globally. In a perfect storm of new technologies, attitudes, finances and business ideas, the supply chains are getting shorter, markets are becoming more local and the work is favouring the smart. The imperative of doing things cheaply is giving away to new ways of doing things smartly. And, cities and regions smart enough to anticipate and adjust to these changes, former Rustbelts and mining towns, are building new industrial ecosystems from scratch.

This is Kolkata's opportunity. This economic shift is generally seen to be favouring the Developed countries, with their knowledge, talent and entrepreneurial ecosystems, and away from the cheap manufacturing belts of China and global service industries of India. But, it is also destined to favour cities and regions in the middle of large consumer economies - Kolkata is situated in the middle of the corner of the world with highest population density and serve a rural hinterland with land ownership and increasing aspiration - which can get its talent, environment and enterprise right. And, indeed, one may argue that Kolkata may have problems on all those counts - Talent, Environment and Enterprise - but so does all the other cities in India. All it comes to is committing to this new future, fast!

The point is to change the conversation. The economic revival will not come through building large factories, as the past Governments tried, failed and paid for. It would not come by jumping into the IT services bandwagon when the industry is contracting and likely to lose most of its jobs in the next five years. There is no hope in the Handcrafts and Cottage industries, traditional arts of the region, as the current Bengal government sometimes argue. And, the Culture industries, something Kolkata is famous for, would not lead to the economic revival in scale, though they may need to be encouraged for other reasons. And, there is no point trying to seek redemption in Foreign Investment, and trying to steal cheap manufacturing jobs from China, the strategy of the Government in New Delhi.

Kolkata has a lot going for itself, and recognising these strengths is a good first step. It is one of the big cities with plentiful supply of drinking water - all other Indian cities struggle with water shortage - and its environment, for the lack of industry perhaps, is relatively less damaged. It has good schools and a Higher Education system relatively less tainted by corruption of money, though political interference has done a lot of damage. It has a relatively young population, people who emigrate and power the industries of Western and Southern India, and of those abroad. It has a diaspora deeply attached, and being more Cosmopolitan than other Indian regions, its people are less allergic to those who live abroad (though they fall short of the real curiosity and love the Chinese give to the Overseas Chinese). It is geographically well located, and could become India's gateway, and link, to South-East and East Asia.

Indeed, the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' needs a lot more than this. A research culture, strong scientific commitment, a great and cosmopolitan Higher Education system, Start-up ecosystems and availability of finance, political will and support (at least in terms of getting out of the way), and identification and cultivation of industries and sectors that play to the City's strength are all needed to be done, and indeed, the emergence of a Connector, persons or organisations with a vision that can build a broad coalition to commit to build this future. But, free of baggage, at a tipping point, this suits Kolkata well - a moment when imagination is needed and that is all it really has. 


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