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Rediff.com  » Business » Even the 'City of Joy' is shining

Even the 'City of Joy' is shining

April 21, 2004 13:58 IST

India is shining, not just in Bangalore, Delhi and the election propaganda of the ruling party but in Kolkata too, written off till now as a place that not just refuses to change but makes a virtue of being shabbily down and out.

The city is filled with a new self-confidence and raring to go. Just as large parts of the country's poor do not feel their lives are shining all that much, there is no knowing how the rest of West Bengal feels. It is taken for granted, as it always was.

The big and unquestionable change that has taken place in Kolkata is that it has stopped trying to be different. It has climbed onto the national bandwagon and has imbibed the same mindset and values that characterise those seeking to get somewhere.

Says a perceptive old Kolkata hand, Kabir Mustafi, headmaster of Bishop Cotton, Shimla, in Civil Liberty, "Young Bengali boys and girls are stepping out, trying to breach the invisible walls of the universe that is Calcutta, trying to score, trying to hustle like their north Indian counterparts."

West Bengal and Kolkata have in fact been the victim of a peculiar irony in recent times. Going by many economic and human development indicators, the state has done none too badly.

During the period 1992-2000, the state's economy (state domestic product) grew the fastest among the 15 major states, at an annual average of 7.4 per cent, followed by the number two Karnataka which recorded 7.3 per cent.

During the same period, per capita income in the state grew by 5.7 per cent, beaten only by Tamil Nadu whose per capita income grew by 5.76 per cent. West Bengal's literacy level has been consistently higher than the national average and fertility rate and population growth rate lower than the national average.

Yet, in public discourse, the state got very little credit. This is because, precisely during a period of remarkable agricultural growth, there was a decline in the industrial climate and a perception of capital flight.

Resultantly, jobs for not just the better educated but also those with any type of skills have been few and far between. Thus took place, from the late 1960s, the great Bengali Diaspora, setting the image of the state as one of unmitigated blight.

Two key factors gave substance to this image, causing the state to lose the early gains made in the countryside through changes in cultivation rights. They were the state's refusal to allow private investment in technical education and ignoring the entire information technology area through trade union led campaigns against computerisation. The change is captured in the reversal in employment growth.

During 1983-94, employment in the state grew by 2.4 per cent annually, higher than the national average of 2.1 per cent. But during 1994-2000, employment in the state grew by 1.1 per cent annually, lower than the national average of 1.6 per cent.

If there is a solid foundation to the new optimism in Kolkata then it is in the decision a few years ago to allow private investment in technical education and the effort by the state through the West Bengal Electronics Industry Development Corporation Ltd (better known by the acronym Webel) from the mid-1990s to attract IT companies.

These efforts are now bearing fruit. Not only is the state able to host companies like IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant, they are all going in for rapid expansion. What is more, new well know players are coming in.

Prominent among them is Wipro, which will begin working at a new campus in a couple of months, eventually employing 6,000 people. Satyam has also begun the process of setting up shop.

The state's campaign to attract IT-related investment rests on Kolkata being the most cost effective ITES centre among the six leading centres in the country. Software exports from units registered with the Kolkata STPI account for a mere 3.6 per cent of all national STPI units' exports right now but the important point is that the share is rising.

Three infrastructure companies are setting up office space in the Salt Lake suburb of Kolkata and Webel has dramatic plans for Rajarhat, the new town coming up next to Salt Lake. It has entered into an agreement with DLF to set up a 1 million sq ft complex, the first phase to be ready by early 2006.

IT is not the only thrust area for the West Bengal government. In Salt Lake it has set up a gems and jewellery park and a toys park in an attempt to attract investment in these areas. The change in the government's attitude as opposed to old habits that die hard is best illustrated in the dual approaches to strikes.

The government has declared IT a utility, thus disallowing strikes in it but this has not prevented trade unions from keeping IT establishments within the purview of the last strike, thus effectively crippling their functioning for the day.

There is no doubt that business activity in the city is much more within the global mainstream. A financier describes how in a space of three days he was able to get together a top level advisory team for a local business interest seeking to acquire a steel mill.

Confidence also stems from the fact that a city which was once plagued by power cuts and an abominable telephone system now has little power cuts and phones that work.

The current hype in Kolkata is to an extent about new shopping malls, better roads, traffic lights that work and of course flyovers. Someone has said approvingly that the "city of joy" has become the city of flyovers. Just as "city of joy" sought to glorify poverty, there is no realisation that a flyover is not a panacea but the second best solution to an intractable traffic problem.

The best symbol of the city indiscriminately embracing all the fads is the flyover coming up on Chowringhee right in front of the National Museum, ruining the view of its noble and grand facade. Why an underpass was not decided upon is not clear. It seems, while modernising, you cannot pick and choose.

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