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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Foreword. The Seminar and After

Genesis of the Present Volume

Jean Racine

Texte intégral

1In December 1978 the Centre for the Study of Regional Development of the Jawaharlal Nehru University organized, with the collaboration of the Centre for Studies in Tropical Geography of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the first Indo-French Seminar on the problems of urban growth.

2As a participant in this Seminar, I felt certain that the French Cultural Centre in Calcutta could in its own way carry on this Indo-French dialogue. Contacts were already established with the Department of Geography, Calcutta University; the Calcutta Metropolitan Department Authority (CMDA); the Directorate of Census Operations, and Chitrabani. When approached, Professor Barun De, Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, immediately added his decisive support. Thus the possibility arose of obtaining the cooperation of high-ranking research scholars, professors, and administrators. Sessions could be chaired by Personalities best known in their field —Hiten Bhaya, Asok Mitra, Bhabatosh Dutta, and Barun De himself— and the organizer could welcome on November 23 and 24, 1979, in the French Cultural Centre, a selected panel of guests whose very names could vouch for lively and relevant debates.

3The topic "Calcutta" was self-evident. An extraordinary city, an urban monster carrying contradictory images broadcast far beyond India's frontiere: clichés, myths or realities to which one cannot remain indifferent.

4Naturally, other seminare had dealt with the city before and after our own workshop. Usually a particular topic was selected: Calcutta's culture ("Cultural Profile of Calcutta", organized by the Indian Anthropological Society, and published in 1972 under the editorship of Surajit Sinha); Calcutta's future and how to prepare it ("Calcutta 2000 —some imperatives for action now", organized by the Indian Chamber of Commerce and published in 1978 under the editorship of R.M. Kapoor); economy and employment ("Economy and Employment in Calcutta Metropolitan District" organized by the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority in February, 1983). In addition, several regional and national seminars organized in Calcutta have dealt separately with the Metropolis of Bengal, in the framework of their subject, be it housing ("Shelter to the Poor", Centre for Human Settlement, Jadavpur University, 1981); regional development ("Development of the Eastem Region and Calcutta", Bengal National Chamber of Commerce, 1979), or land Problems and policy in big cities ("Land in Metropolitan Development", Times Research Bureau, 1982).

Our seminar: its aim

5What I tried to do was different. I wanted to provide a more comprehensive picture of Calcutta. Calcutta, indeed, cannot be enclosed in a book, but one might certainly risk a collective global analysis of the metropolis, assessing its historical, geographical, sociological, demographical factors; presenting a diagnosis of the causes and features of its urban and economic crisis; exposing and discussing the development policy carried out and the attempts to tackle this crisis.

6Our seminar, therefore, aimed at assessing Calcutta as an urban phenomenon, and at communicating these assessments to a larger audience than the concerned experts and the Calcuttans. So much has been said, and so hastily, about Calcutta, that I thought it useful to present before the French reader (for whom this book was first planned and first released) an image of Calcutta drawn by Calcuttans themselves.

7What guided the scheme of the seminar was the belief that Calcutta was undergoing a crisis. We aimed to try to understand the background of the metropolis, to describe some to the major aspects of the crisis, and to assess what was being done or what could be done to solve that crisis. The topics proposed to the contributors were related to these three stages of the crisis, each stage —each session— generating a debate, and the fourth and last session open to general discussion.

8The proceedings of the seminar are thus presented here in seven parts:

Session I: The foundations of the present: understanding Calcutta.
A: Papers submitted.
B: Discussions.
Session II: A metropolis in crisis.
A: Papers submitted.
B: Discussions.
Session III: Tackling the crisis.
A: Papers submitted.
B: Discussions.
Sessions IV: General Debate.


9The discussions were taped during the sessions, and are presented here with minimal alterations. Only civilities and the approximations of the spoken language have been edited out. The edited texts have been submitted to and approved by the speakers.

10I felt it useful to give, in the final proceedings, a title to each speech. The selected title was either extracted from what was said, summarizes what was said, or expresses one key-idea of the address concerned. Similarly, sub-titles have been added to the longer speeches. As editor, I take entire responsibility for these additions, as the selection of a phrase or an idea from amongst several choices has been somewhat arbitrary.

Additions: why and how

11The richness of a collective work such as this is mainly the resuit of the freedom granted to the contributors. Each of them dealt with the topic he was in charge of in his own way, raising one point and leaving aside the other.

12To enrich this volume, I decided to make full use of an editor's privileges. I added lo the proceedings of the seminar some documents stressing a few points which deserved some additional attention. Apart from footnotes (concerning mainly Bengali ethos and allusions which might require clarification for the non-Bengali or the non-Indian reader), the documents can be classified in the following categories:

  • some texts elaborated by the editor, partly or wholly from available publications, official documents or studios: notes on the port crisis, on the bustees, on the small industries, on the rickshawallahs.
  • some texts quoted, with either a short introduction (N.K. Bose’s synthesis on Calcuttan society; È. Romatet's note on Pilkhana), or a long and updated comment (G. Adhikari's article on the power crisis).
  • some press clippings: either concise and thoughtful pieces of writing (editorials on tea and jute for instance) or vivid descriptions of Calcutta's daily fife (Street agitation and violence).

Illustrations, photographs, documents, maps

13This edition is also enriched by a number of photographs, informative documents, such as copies of old maps or prints, significant advertisements, and maps and charts.

14As the author of the 70-odd maps and charts of this volume (Sunil Munsi and S.K. Chaube alone contributed maps or charts with their paper), I hope that this time-consuming cartographic effort, carried on at the French Institute of Pondicherry, will help the reader to a better understanding of Calcutta, its metropolitan district, and its hinterland.


15Several months of extra work were required to add to the original selection of papers and debates, and to work on the many documents and notes, maps and charts. For unavoidable reasons the elaboration of the final manuscript was not carried out until the end of 1982 and the beginning of 1983. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary to update the 1979 texts. In 1982 I and the authors went through all the papers presented during the seminar. In 1982-1983 all the edited discussions were submitted to the participants.

16The updating was conducted usually through footnotes. Maps and complements referring to the latest documents available between December 1982 and April 1983 also helped to update the studies.

17Practical difficulties, as mentioned earlier, prevented unfortunately a prompt release of the Indian version, which was published much later than the French one. Despite worrying delays in publication, it was decided to avoid successive updatings, which would have required further postponments. After assuring myself in December 1988 in Calcutta that Calcuttan scholars still found the book relevant despite the passing years, I decided to make clear on the cover itself that the situation analyzed in this book referred to the early eighties, and that, henceforth, Calcutta 1981 would make a suitable title for this collective reflection. During the last few years, Calcutta has not stagnated; still I believe that the information provided remain valid, by itself for a part, and, on the other hand, as a background for a better understanding of the latest evolution.

Multiplicity of views, plurality of the appraisal processes, unity of the key idea

18Papers, debates, notes, original documents, elaborated additions, illustrations, maps: the plurality of the assessment processes echoes the multiplicity of the views conveyed. I hope that the abundance of extra information provided will not weaken the cohesion of the book. I believe that, on the contrary, it will strengthen its coherence by giving the reader an opportunity to follow, chapter by chapter, the development of the key ideas of this collective work, to understand Calcutta and the crisis it faces, and to appreciate the debate on urban planning and development in the city, a debate of interest far beyond the limits of West Bengal.


Born in 1946 in Northern France, carne in India for the first time in 1968. He spent most of the last fifteen years in India and stayed long in the South and in Calcutta, where he headed the French Cultural Centre from 1977 to 1982.
Since 1982, he is Fellow in Geography, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at the Centre for Studies in Tropical Geography, Bordeaux. Currently, he is with French Institute of Pondicherry.
A Ph.D from the Sorbonne University, he published his first book Tradition and Modernity in South India: Two Rural Studies in Tamil
Nadu (in French) in 1976. He is presently carrying on a long-term research on "Territory, Civilization and Development in South India", focussed on a Tamil district, and heads an Indo-French research project entitled "To Migrate or to Stay? A Study in Rural Change, Mobility and Retention of Village Population in India. The case of South Karnataka".

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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