Kolkata 4.0: Creating A New Conversation

Calcutta needs a new start.

The city which I call home has earned a bad name, but its reputational problems have more to do with the politics of India than economic fundamentals.

The city, the second most populous in India after Mumbai, is the third largest city economy in India, presiding over a mostly prosperous agricultural economy and a strategic state. Yet, people don't tend to see it that way: India's geopolitical obsession with Pakistan and Kashmir keeps minds focused on its Western frontiers, and a succession of opposition party governments in West Bengal (the last time Congress ruled the state was in 1977) ensured that the state did not feature in the Central Government's list of priorities. But this is changing - there is increasing realisation of the geopolitical challenges and opportunities of the Indian East - and one would hope that this would bring about a change, if only gradual change, in Indian policy.

But any conversation about change must be rooted in reality, not the shallow mythology that gets passed on as common sense. A good place to start is the back story: One may indeed notice the closed factories and slums in Kolkata, but an appreciation of Calcutta's, and Bengal's, post-independence history should correct some of the distortions that gets floated about Bengali character and enterprise.
We must remember Kolkata had an industrial base once: This was one of the world's greatest Jute processing centres, which died a premature death when it was forcibly disconnected from its jute producing hinterlands of East Pakistan. East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is one of the most fertile agricultural economies of the world, and while the country is hardly spoken about in India, it is one of the most populous in the world (just behind the usual suspects), with one of the highest agricultural productivities. One of the economic costs of partition was to yank Kolkata, which had an economy and a port closely linked to this hinterland, from its ecosystem. 

The other impact of partition was on Kolkata's population. Already a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, it was on the receiving end of the refugee crisis : In 1947, when Hindus left East Pakistan but Muslims felt safe and never left West Bengal in large numbers to offset the same. Unlike Delhi and Punjab, where a bloody population transfer actually happened, there was no land and houses left vacant by Muslims to swap with these new Hindu refugees. Partition, therefore, meant the creation of a new underclass in Kolkata: Radicalised and destitute, the new migrants would change the city forever. 

Independence and its economic shocks also meant a flight of the professional class. Kolkata's elite, educated and europeanised, was not land-based, unlike some other parts of the country (and those who were, lost their estates in partition) and a great wave of migration followed through in the 50s and 60s. The new democratic West Bengal, with its radical left - which was there because of the industrial development and whose ranks swelled with the new migrants and jobless workers - scared the Bengali 'gentlemanly capitalists', who promptly sent their sons and daughters away to Europe and America. There was internal migration too: The mobile technocrats moved from Kolkata nearer to the centres of power and commerce in Modern India.

This is old history, but a conversation about Kolkata should start there. It is a convenient myth that West Bengal's, and Kolkata's, decline started in 1977, as the Communists took power and 'work culture collapsed'. This is indeed based on the implausible claim that all was well when Congress, the political party which ruled India most of its first 50 years, was in power. Yet, anyone in Kolkata would remember late 60s and 70s as a period of strife and decline, radical movements and police brutalities, and lawlessness on the street. Besides, it is just the Communist rule that blighted West Bengal and brought about Kolkata's decline does not explain why Communists kept winning elections for next 34 years, and why, when they finally lost power in 2011, nothing really changed. A more realistic assessment of Kolkata's decline, dating it back to the economic shocks of the partition - which Eastern Indian states disproportionately bore - is a good starting point. It allows one to go beyond the myth of the Bengali character (which does not hold up as Bengalis do just as well or as badly as any other communities) and look at the key economic issues - an unredeemed economic shock, a demographic and political transformation, flight of the professional class and destruction of an ecosystem - to understand the issue of Kolkata's decline.

One does not need to stop at the economic and social impacts of the partition, though. The last seventy years have transformed Kolkata from an industrial city to a commodity economy, with the resultant changes in politics, culture and ideas. This is part policy - the city sits near one of the most mineral-rich areas of the world and serves as its main trading point - but partly this happened by default, creating new power structures and political priorities that work against any possibility of change. This is partly the reason Kolkata changed slowly, despite its good education system, young population and successful diaspora, to the growth of the global outsourcing industry in the 1980s and 90s, and missed the bus completely as new clusters emerged in Bangalore, Hyderabad and even in once-sleepy Bhubaneswar (as well as many other Indian cities).

A second wave of refugees, from East Pakistan in 1971, duly arrived, brutalised by the Pakistani Army as it battled to undermine the nascent Bengali nationalism: Kolkata and its Bengalis were naturally sympathetic, but this imposed an economic cost; the Indian Government was delighted about the military opportunity and duly helped dismember Pakistan, but never really assessed the economic costs and provided appropriate economic support to the areas, in Bengal and Northeastern States, which had to take on those who came. This fed to resentment, which became the dominant theme of Bengali politics ever since, justifiably but self-destructively. 

This is what we want to reverse now, and create a new conversation. I talk here of the past, but not to mourn, resent or justify it, but to use it as a perspective - both to understand why the City is where it is today, and how possibly it can reinvent itself. This conversation starts with an acknowledgement: This is Kolkata's 'Ask Not' moment. For far too long, Kolkata's citizens looked to their government, a carefully cultivated colonial era habit, for development: It is important now to change the conversation and build self-sustaining ecosystems of innovation and development. Kolkata should draw its inspiration from all those Western cities, which were reduced to industrial wastelands because of globalisation but since reinvented themselves: Dresden, Eindhoven, Pittsburg and now Manchester come to mind.

These cities offer valuable lessons: Their regeneration was privately led, supported by the government, no doubt, but built around ecosystems of private enterprise. Also, they did not seek to compete with established industrial centres in their geography, but sought to leverage the new developments in technologies and ideas and created new ecosystems. It may be very difficult for Kolkata to compete with a city like, say, Bangalore, because of the latter's track record and ecosystem of IT Service companies; however, focusing on different industries and newer ideas may allow Kolkata to create a different niche for itself.

We are calling the initiative Kolkata 4.0. The 4.0 bit is indeed an allusion to the currently fashionable Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is about new industries and conversations. Exploring these possibilities and enabling these conversations is the objective of the Civil Society organisation that we are setting up now, with HQ in Kolkata (obviously) but networks in different cities. And, perhaps appropriately, Kolkata 4.0 would do four different things: First, it would create an apolitical platform for expatriates to connect with Kolkata's educational institutions and companies; Second, it would work on creating awareness about the strategic importance of Kolkata in particular and Bengal in general; Third, it would work with the government of West Bengal and Kolkata's civic administration and industrial promotion bodies to engage effectively with expats and potential global partners; and finally, it would create networks of positive engagement in different global cities to draw people into a conversation about economic opportunities and realities of the city economy. 


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