Sunday, October 19, 2014

Independence for Kolkata!

Kolkata is India's third largest city, its former capital and a desperately poor one. It is home for me, and whatever I write about it - and I keep writing about it - is never impartial. I can see, like everyone else, its broken politics, its stilted society, its broken infrastructure: However, if there is one city I would live in if all my wishes are granted, it will be Kolkata. This is indeed more about me than about the City, which has perhaps changed far more than I did, despite my life abroad and all that. However, this is more than nostalgia: I have never been a resident of Kolkata, living all my life in a suburb, and while I went to college in the city, I didn't know the city that well till fairly late in my life. And, this is not about its culture, which most Kokata residents are intensely proud of: While my cultural identity remains irredeemably Bengali and linked to Kolkata, I am also aware of the deep conservatism and class consciousness that pervades the Kolkata society, and caused the city's decline. In fact, the reason I find Kolkata immensely interesting is precisely because of its ability to defy its own cultural limits, to be able to maintain its street culture and not lose it to orthodoxy, to be able to remain free of celebrity-fetish which pervades other lively cities such as Mumbai (one can still roam around in College Street without being reminded, such as in Bandra, which famous bum adorned which seat) - in summary, its ability to renew itself. 

There are times when I have to explain 'Kolkata' to my colleagues and acquaintances: They want to know what is to make of this city other than treating it as a desperate corner of the world to avoid. For most of them, Kolkata is about Mother Teresa and her work: I feel obligated, like almost all other Kolkata residents, to object to this single-dimension description of the City. However, to do so, I avoid the trap of talking about 'famous sons', all those other Nobel Laureates Kolkata has produced, Indian or Foreigner working here: I do so in deference to the City's ability to remain outside the celebrity culture (outside its social clubs). I also avoid the temptation of talking about politics, because being the last bastion of communism to fall or signing up to the current soap opera does not reflect, in my opinion, the matured political persona of this city. Instead, I talk about two data points which, in my opinion, reflect the 'Kolkata Problem': That it is the only major city in the developing world, at this day and age of urbanisation, to have lost population in the last ten years, and that it is the only major Indian city which has an abundant supply of drinkable water to last it for at least the next fifty years. 

Cities lose population when they start dying: The great English industrial cities had all lost population when the age of industrial city was over in the West. And, so did the American cities like Detroit, and the Soviet-era cities in Russia and across Eastern Europe. But this is almost unthinkable in the developing world, where those industrial activities migrated to. Besides, with changing social norms, many people are always trying to escape desperate rural poverty to come to the cities. Seen from that perspective, Rajiv Gandhi's description of Kolkata as a 'dying city' in the 80s, for which he was loathed in the city, seems prescient.

However, Kolkata's decline in population may also be a direct result of conscious policy. A Centre Left government (using the Communist label) ruled the state of West Bengal for over thirty years: Their focus was firmly on the villages, starting with sweeping land reforms, which did help improve the rural income levels. The other part of their policy was industrial activism, which they clung onto as a primary tool to maintain their communist label: However, this meant, for the large part of their rule, a conscious policy of encouraging subsistence agriculture by discouraging private industry. Add to this the extensive welfare programmes afforded by the immediate past central government in Delhi, which channeled a huge sum of money to employment guarantee and other schemes in rural India, and Kolkata's declining population may look like a policy triumph rather than a disaster.

It is, nevertheless, still a disaster. Without resenting the good fortune of the village folks who used to come to the city slums earlier, one must also see that Kolkata as a city is failing to provide them with more opportunities than the handouts they may get staying in their villages. The welfare programmes did not stop people from going to Mumbai or Delhi, and the small cities in India has swelled with people, who often channeled the new-found rural income to the trading points to ensure runaway prosperity. But, nothing of that sort happened in Kolkata: Its once mighty port has declined, not just because of the shallowness of the river but more for its atrocious management and rampant crime; its industry had continued to falter, as its successive governments took on populist positions; and even the creative sectors, once its place of pride, have suffered because of government meddling and rise of a 'Durbur' culture, where the Chief Minister of the State has taken upon herself the role of patron-in-chief and the arbitrator of cultural taste. 

However, the mitigating factor, that Kolkata may be one of most sustainable of India's cities, should add to the perspective of its strategic importance. It is also significant if India's own pivot to Asia, the much talked about India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China corridor has to become a reality. Besides, the creative economy in India, indeed overshadowed by the mighty Bollywood, still owes a lot to Kolkata, often drawing talent and ideas from the city. It still hosts some of India's best schools, and a strong knowledge-based culture. Though the successive governments have done much to meddle in its Higher Education system, destroying the meritocratic culture and the spirit of independent inquiry, the city maintained a vibrant public culture, an activist media community and a good publishing industry.

So, in short, the city is dying, by design or otherwise, and yet it has the potential to come back. However, it can't unless it is freed from the tyranny of the State Government, as the Economist of the Cities, Edward Glaeser, has recommended. It is big with its over 13 million people (and more if one adds the suburbs) and it deserves, just as the other major Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore do, to be freed from the policy priorities of the State Government, which is often working against its interests (or at least being oblivious to its interests). The new Indian government, which has projected a strong pro-industrial, pro-urban, policy priority, should perhaps start here: Finding ways to establish more proactive city governments, which is independent of the state governments that stifle its progress. Indeed, I say this because I love Kolkata and feel dismayed about its decline; but I also say this because it makes abundant sense in the broader aim of India pursuing its path to development. All cities will benefit from such focus on self-government, but Kolkata as a basket case is perhaps the best illustration of the costs of not doing it. 

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