Saturday, April 07, 2012

Kolkata Revisited: The Arc of Hope

Kolkata, I would always point out, is unique among the major metropolises around the world as its population is FALLING. Even if this fall is only marginal, at this time of unparallelled urbanisation, that marginal fall in population indicates decay. Ghost cities aren't that unusual: A walk down the Piotrkowska Street in Łódź, the third largest city in Poland and one with declining population after its textile industry disappeared, is highly recommended if anyone doubted that this could happen in modern times. I know from my time in Łódź what happens when an inward-looking city meets globalisation: I imagine in my nightmare the side streets of Kolkata completely abandoned, an inescapable darkness and decline, where despair brings more despair and lead people to give up and abdicate to a self-interested, lumpen-bourgeois leadership. 

However, even Łódź is turning around. The nightmare of Piotrkowska Street ends as one steps into Piłsudskiego and the all new steel-and-glass outsourcing centre of India's Infosys makes an appearance. The hotel owner mentions proudly that there is a Dell factory in Poland, though forgets to mention that this is possibly run by Foxconn now, the Taiwanese company known for the horrific working conditions in its Chinese factories. The resulting outrage may not have reached Łódź, where people are rather grateful that the unemployment has fallen. Even in the middle of this recession, though Poland was hit badly, the unemployment in Łódź is about 8%, down from 20% that the town saw in 2006. The population may be rising again. After reducing the once-proud town on its knees, global capitalism has finally arrived and started rewarding the muted compliance.

This, in many ways, the future one sees for Kolkata. Without the pain, may be: Unlike Łódź, which had a population of less than a million at its peak in 1990, Kolkata has more than 10 million. But even if Kolkata escapes the devastation of Łódź in the wake of globalisation, the vision for Kolkata's future is somewhat defined by the appearance of similar steel-and-glass buildings of outsourcing centres, the usual bistros and ice-cream shops around them, and the streams of people, each carrying a distinctive identity card around their neck or their belt-buckle, bused into work every morning and bused back every evening. One would wonder whether this will really happen, for this vision depends on realisation of a totally compliant population, who will be grateful at Foxconn's largess, and treat this as a gift. Kolkata is still too complacent, too proud, too happy to be what they are. Anything short of the devastation of Łódź, when people are forced out of family homes and those who stayed would be reduced to scavenging, may not break Kolkata and make it contribute its blood, sweat and tears into the sucker-pool of global and national capitalism. 

But what about an alternate vision? Why does Kolkata have to be a dying city first to be able to live in the new era? Why do all of us accept that the people in Kolkata has a work-culture problem when the same people create businesses all over the world, work 24x7 in the sweatshops of Bangalore and Pune, and run the bureaucratic machinery in Delhi? A journalist tells me, rather knowingly, that the Bengali changes once his train crosses Kharagpur, the last major stop inside West Bengal on the way to Mumbai or Chennai (or Bangalore). The humour aside, this is a reverse justification of the failure to create an alternative, other than slavishly following the formula as played out in Łódź, and in other new colonies of global capitalism. The great shame of Bengal was that it was the first region to be colonised by the British: The next great shame seems to be that it is one of the last in the line to join the slave-empire of global capitalism.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the great masters of new world, the international banks and their assorted sidekicks, are in trouble. I see Kolkata as a perennially rebel city in this time of rebel cities: One where friends will come up to me to ask whether I regret travelling abroad in search of a career, when I could have stayed home to live a happier life; or one where some people may think that giving up everything to earn the right to have a mortgage is pointless; or where the bosses will complain that people don't want to work even if they are offered money. It seems in its own lazy, confused, swampy way, the city has refused to accept the received ideals of global capitalism, and raised their own kinds of battle by refusing to participate.

With this, I reach the other end of my arc of hope - the complete opposite of the nightmare of the Łódźian decline - a vision of Kolkata as the fountainhead of a new idea of development. The city has reached an abyss - economically, but also spiritually, as the apathy of people have led to the rise of a fascist rule, and this, if anything, would destroy the apathy that in the first place has created it. Suddenly, after all the mucking about, politics is a positive force, a tool of liberation, an escape hatch from irreversible decline, for the people in Kolkata. Back in the zone of positive politics, this is where the people in Kolkata can play to their strengths. Unlike the other peer cities, being outside, it has nothing to lose. Its non-participation has now pushed it to the precipice, the inevitable turning-around point where new ideas come from.

I don't actually see a revolution, however: No long marches from Kolkata to Delhi or Washington! I see instead a break with the dependent development model - from the hat-in-hand model of begging international financial capital - and one based on developing local enterprise. There is nothing new in this, but the emerging country governments often forget this option. The reason why the erstwhile leftist government in Bengal failed to start job creation, which eventually cost them the election, is because even the communist model of development is bereft of options other than luring global capital investment. This, contrary to the mythology, does not enable the local population, does not create jobs and is all but permanent: The capital flees as people aspire more and costs rise. Local enterprise, instead, create sustainable wealth and local jobs, and most importantly, local role models and self-sustaining chain of enterprise.


I know Kolkata isn't ready now: Such enterprise revolution needs a quad - business, government, academia and civil society working together - as Ernest Wilson argues in his recent article on Strategy and Business. None of these elements are in place now. However, studies of innovative regions show one common trend: That they stood on the precipice of disaster just before the things started turning around. I cling on to this hope, only a slender one, that Kolkata's time has finally come.

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After writing this, I was wondering whether my views have changed or remained same on the subject. Here are some earlier posts:

August 2008 : Singur: Where Do I Stand?


August 2008: Recounting Kolkata's Past: How we got here?


November 2009: Late Stage Industrialization: Curious Case of West Bengal


May 2010: Road Ahead for Bengal


July 2010: A Future for Kolkata


January 2012: A New Future for Kolkata
 
  

2 comments:

riverine said...

NECROPOLIS?? VISIT POST=DUNLOP BANSBERIA/ BANDEL. REMEMBER HOW HOWRAH LOOKED IN EARLY NINETIES WHEN GKW, REMINGTON, HOWRAH JUTE MILL & MARTIN BURN SHUT DOWN?

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Yes, indeed. My point is that these industries are never going to come back. And, the only way employment and prosperity can return is by getting us to do it ourselves, rather than hoping that an international BPO will open a back-office in Kolkata. However, the successive governments are more interested in press conferences and MOUs that big deals may bring than the nuts-and-bolts work (and tackling the sloth and corruption) that would be required for a revival of small businesses.

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