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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Introduction. Narcissus' Doubts

An Inside View of Calcutta in Crisis

Jean Racine

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Calcutta: images and myths

1Multitude, misery, dilapidation, violence... Calcutta, an urban monster, a city of hell... We have heard too much about these cliches broadcast by the international media moved by the lame beggars outside five-star hotels, by the scenes in the streets, by the tragedies of recent history. Those images labelled Calcutta as a myth: Calcutta, the greatest urban disaster of our times? Sinking Calcutta? Hopeless Calcutta?

2The fascination generated by this impressive 9 million strong urban machine which stili runs, whatever happens, despite the jolts; the ambiguous interest people take in the slums, the bastees, the pavement-dwellers; the uneasy feelings of Levi-Strauss glimpsing in Calcutta the dreadful picture of the possible future of Man: these typical reactions still exist. But more and more amongst the pen pushers occasionally visiting the city, the traditional negative reactions are tending to fade away, leaving room for belated and perhaps naive discovery of the humaneness of a city so inhuman by many standards. "Calcutta, my love", a best-seller's writer declares...

3Village-based or neighbourhood solidarity in the bustees, the wonderful vitality of millions of people, a fantastic capacity to adapt oneself at all costs, a mosaic of languages, of creeds, of customs, a variety of vivid cultures: the culture of the rural folks from Orissa or Bihar, the culture-so typical of Bengal-of a vibrating sensitiveness owing so much to Tagore, the culture of the avant-garde, seeking a social and radical breakthrough: behind its wretched and cruel mask, Calcutta, for anyone not condemning it at first sight, is not without charm, and certainly deserves love.

Calcutta in the mirror

4Bengalis will be the first to approve of this new feeling: who loves Calcutta more than they do? Calcutta is their city, their only true city, the city par excellence, loaded with History, full of the resources-however meagre they may be-that only a metropolis may provide. A Bengali city. An immigrants' city too. A city of refuge, a city of hope. Kali-threatening, attracting-has been ruling here for centuries, between Gangasagar, the shrine in the south, and Tarakeswar, the shrine in the north. Here the heroes of the yesteryears hold sway: the great reformers of the 19th Century, Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Sri Ramakrishna; the great names of this Century: Tagore, Vivekananda, Aurobindo; the fighters, terrorists or martyrs, heroes of the struggle for Independence: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Binoy, Badal, Dinesh.

5This was the capital of the Empire, a monumental place, "the most beautiful city East of Suez", a city which was also, for more than a hundred years, at the forefront of the Indian Renaissance, that political, religious, artistic, social upheaval fecundating the then subjugated country. This was also the financial stronghold of India, its major economic centre, its prominent port.

6So, when looking at herself in the mirrar, Calcutta, the Calcutta of the Bengalis above all, was fond of her image. Complacent pride-complacent conceit?-of Narcissus....

Narcissus' doubts

7But today, the mirror is tarnished, and Narcissus, who still loves himself, is in doubt.

8More than ever New Delhi is the seat of political power. Calcutta as a financial node is now lagging behind Bombay. The port, still the main Indian port in 1950, ranks a pitiful fifth a quarter of a Century later. Calcutta's once pioneering industries are now ageing, and stagnant. In the heart of the city (Calcutta Corporation) public amenities established for fewer than a million citizens have to serve a population three times the size. Dilapidation of the urban set-up, wear and tear of the housing, vanishing services, lack of proper maintenance, the years and monsoons take their toll: on their own scale, the leprous facades of the former well-to-do districts flaunt the packed bustees where a third of the city dwellers live. Crammed and ramshackle buses; streets flooded after a monsoon shower, a reduced availability of drinking water, and in addition, an unprecedented power shortage which for hours a day, brings offices and workshops to standstill. Here is the bleak picture of a Calcutta in crisis, the Calcutta of the seventies. The decade Starts in the blood of the Naxalite revolt and police repression. It ends with a Communist-led Left Front in power. An interesting experiment. But how is the city to face the economic crisis, the ever-increasing unemployment, the burden of two million refugees in the metropolis alone, the demographic growth rate (30 per cent for 1971-81 for the Urban Agglomeration)? How to cope with the lag in the field of urban and economic planning in the sixties? How to face corruption, carelessness, wages which are too low, the officially acknowledged poverty of half the population?

9It is this acute crisis which is the concern of the present volume.

An inside view of a metropolis in crisis

10To understand the crisis it is necessary first to understand the city. In order to do this and to dispel the tags attached to Calcutta in the West, Calcuttans were called upon. Their collective analysis presented here is, for once, an inside view of the metropolis, an assessment without complacency, a vision without deliberate sensation either, if not without thrill.

11The grave technical and financial realities have been exposed, but do not make up the whole picture: economists, planners and top executives have been confronted with historians, social scientists and media men. Once again, Calcutta does not fit into a seminar nor in a book. But at least one can attempt to open up the avenues of investigations and reflections.

The foundations of the present

12Feelings suit Calcutta well: a city of poets, artists, passions, a volatile metropolis. This is why it has inspired so many writings, so many images, so many representations which in their tum recreate new mental images of the City.

13To attempt an understanding of Calcutta -and that was the aim of our first session- it was necessary to start from this point. G. Roberge did this (Chapter 1): "tristes tropiques" of the foreigner, beloved city of the Bengalis. He then contrasted these archetypes with his own complex and subtle images of Calcutta, calling the imagination to the rescue of the future.

14Once these justified or biased images of Calcutta were duly assessed, one could turn to the background of the city, to the foundations of its present: S.K. Munsi (Chapter 2) analysed the genesis of the metropolis, a colonial city to the core. J. Racine (Chapter 3) provided the regional and national perspective, and underlined the assets and the acute imbalance of Calcutta's hinterland. A. Banerjee (Chapter 4) searched in the dual past of the city-imperial and popular-for the key to its present society. The conclusion of N.K. Bose's classic survey (Addendum A) highlights by itself the complexity of the social mosaic, and underlines the weight of the traditional and rural heritage on Calcutta, the "immature city".

The crisis

15The crisis is the topic of the second session. A congested city, under-equipped, ill-planned, badly administered (S.P. Das Gupta, Chapter 5). A city suffering from defective land use and an unsound land market open to speculation and fraud (J. Racine, Addendum B). A city with excessively high population densities, where employment and housing shortages restrict today's immigration, and push a good many of the middle-class inhabitants towards the suburbs (S. Sinha, Chapter 6). A port, a financial capital, an industrial stronghold which, in three decades, has lost its national pre-eminence (S.K. Bhattacharya, Chapter 7). Two complementary sections on the port crisis (J. Racine, Addendum C) and the energy crisis (N. Banerjee, G. Adhikari, J. Racine, Addendum D) underline the extent of the problems and expose some of the factors involved: defective planning, inordinate delays, lack of maintenance, party and union rivalries, strained relations between West Bengal and New Delhi.

16However, life must go on. Micro-units, poor artisans exploited by their silent partners and in tum exploiting their employees: the informal sector provides many with the minimum subsistence wage, but no future (N. Banerjee, Chapter 8). A case study, carried out in Pilkhana bustee by E. Romatet (Addendum E) illustrates how it works.

17For those even less privileged, survival depends on activities which are marginal. Rickshaw pullers, rag-pickers, beggars: they are the homeless, living, eating, sleeping on the pavements. Compiled from S. Mukheijee's survey Addendum F throws light on their lives.

18The labouring classes, the underprivileged: are they dangerous classes? If labour unrest is at its peak in the metropolis, violence and crime are no worse in Calcutta than in any other large Indian city (S.K. Chaube, Chapter 9). One thing may be underlined, though: the open or insidious politicization of violence and tensions (J. Racine, Addendum G).

Tackling the crisis

19How does one try to tackle this multi-faceted crisis? Firstly, through a large urban-development programme, mainly entrusted to the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). Two of the CMDA officers assess this enormous task and the progress made (S.K. Roy and K. Roy, Chapter 10). Addendum H and Addendum I comment upon two of the challenges facing the CMDA: the improvement of the bustees and the transport crisis.

20As everyone knows the urban crisis cannot be divorced from the economic crisis from which West Bengal, and the metropolis, are suffering. M.G. Kutty (Chapter 11) expresses the Left Front policy, and its relevance to Calcutta. A few press clippings (Addendum J) focus on three key-economic sectors-industries, jute and tea-which have contributed so much to the now diminished strength of Calcutta.

21Everyone knows as well that the future of the metropolis will not rest on the metropolis alone, and that a new regional balance must be evolved. B. Banerjee (Chapter 12) deais with that particular point, assesses what is being done, and suggests some desirable perspectives.

The discussions: some major questions

22What about the debates? From the discussions a number of major questions arose, some relevant to the regional context, many of them valid for all the big metropolises of the Third World.

Analysis of a decline

23Calcutta's decline may be explained by political factors (the shifting of the capital to New Delhi in 1912), historical factors (the Partition of Bengal in 1947, the millions of refugees), geographical factors (the stagnating agriculture of the hinterland, the silting of the Hoogly river). However, the present discussions emphasise mainly the decisive importance of the economic factors. Like so many advanced industrial regions, Calcutta became intoxicated by its supremacy. Because of a lack of balanced Investments, of too much capital invested in trade and not enough in industry, because on an ageing infrastructure, Calcutta lost some of its earlier dynamism, and was successfully challenged by Bombay, the Gujarat and the modern southern industrial centres (S.K. Bhattacharya, S.C. Chakraborty, N. Banerjee). The urban crisis is possibly aggravated by many lapses related partly to the social and professional behaviour (J. Racine, Addendum L), but basically, the heart of Calcutta's problems is its economy (A. Mitra).

The urban development contested: for whom are we planning?

24The economic crisis or the urban crisis: which one should be solved first? For many participants, the present urban development, relying upon massive investment (300 million dollars in seven years, 300 million more on the way) is unsatisfactory.

25The attempted policy is merely a plaster on deep economic sores (N.Banerjee) caused by the privileges the city enjoyed at the cost of hinterland development (Sudhansu Mukherjee). Inspired by the U.S., the development programmes drive Calcutta into the snares of World Bank loans, but fail to improve the fate of the poorest (Sudhendu Mukherjee) and at the same time do nothing to solve problems already in existence twenty years ago (N. Banerjee). Hence this major question: for whom are we planning? (D. Biswas, S. Mukherjee, J. Sen). The intricate example of the rickshaw pullers, surveyed by the Unnayan Association, is analysed at length (Addendum K), and adds to the picture of the informal sector (M.G. Kutty, Sudhendu Mukherjee, N.Banerjee). The test problem of the illegal workers is thus set up: may a leftist government displace hawkers from the busy Streets, may it throw out of employment unlicensed rickshaw pullers for the sake of easier traffic flow in a congested city? For whom are we planning? For a minority, who wish to live in a modernised Calcutta, or for the millions of poor whose vital priorities are jobs and meagre wages? Is the dual past still so relevant?

The Calcutta man

26Whenever the participants thought about putting more emphasis on manpower resources (B. Banerjee), devoting more attention to the complexity of Calcutta society (J. Racine) and to the forced migrations of the middle class (S.K. Chaube), or wondering how to enlist popular participation in policy making and implementation control (Barun De) and anticipating the awakening of the poor (S. Mukherjee), they ended up denouncing in many ways the peril of technocratic planning. They thus repeated in their own words G. Roberge's basic question: "where do you fit the Calcutta man in all those schemes?"

Which city, which development, which future?

27Under attack, the CMDA and the state government defend themselves. Their officers throw light on the financial background of the projects completed or in progress (M.G. Kutty, S.C. Basu), emphasise that no Plan is immutable (M.G. Kutty) and stress that the CMDA is still dealing and will deal with basic infrastructures (water, sewage, roads, etc....) simply because five decades of neglect have to be compensated for (S.C. Basu, debates and Addendum M).

28Must we not struggle simultaneously on all sides? Must we wait for the solution of the socio-economic problems, or for the eradication of unemployment and poverty before giving the urban agglomeration essential services and amenities?

29Which city, which development, which future? Those are, naturally, interrelated questions. If we consider the hypothesis of a Calcutta revival, which a few indicators may announce (the modest recovery of the port traffic, the dynamism of the CMDA, the acute consciousness of the problems faced), then what technology, what type of development are to be selected in Order to bring a better future (M.G. Kutty)? How can we accept the cost of growth and modernisation if the price to be paid involves the disowning of one's deep-rooted identity, and the massive intrusion of international capitalism that some neighbouring capitals, such a Bangkok, Singapore, Colombo have chosen to accept (Barun De)? Is it not safer, if slower, to link the future of Calcutta to the whole of eastern India (S.K. Munsi)?

Which priorities?

30The relevance of these major questions, as one sees, extends far beyond the case of Calcutta alone, and obviously affects other Third World metropolises. One key problem may epitomize all interrogations: do the calculations of the economists and the choices of the planners prevail over the protests of those who underline that the poor not only do not benefit, but may, in the worst cases, even suffer from the urban development?

31Before the magnitude of Calcutta's crisis, conflicting opinions and Tierce controversies are to be expected. Despite the crores of rupees or the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Calcutta's development, the city will never get enough money to finance all desirable projects. Once again, choices have to be made. Should priority be given to massive industrial investment to boost the economy, and an urban renewal be achieved through the dividends to future prosperity? But then how to attract Investors and industrialists to a city doomed by such a diminished infrastructure? Or should priority be given to infrastructures, in the hope that adequate amenities will serve everyone, and pave the way for the economic growth? Or should it be given to the poor so that, with their participation, the required minimum improvements (housing, health and sanitation, education) would benefit them, while top priority would be given to the creation of jobs? But how to create jobs without an economic breakthrough?

32Those priorities overlap but cannot be blended. Let us add one remark. Next to the economic principles one supports, it is not possible to ignore the part played by personal sensitivity: the conception one has of man, his daily life and that of his children tends to underline one's conception of the city: planning is a total concept.

33As stressed by Bhabatosh Dutta, chairman of the last session of our seminar, it is hoped that these stirring debates may create a new awareness of the problems of Calcutta and of the complexities they involve, and that they may even lead to what Hiten Bhaya, chairman of the first session, called a perspective for action.

Calcutta: a magnifying mirror

34It is also hoped that beyond the specific highlights of the Calcutta case study, these discussions will throw light on important questions facing all the great Indian cities, India as a whole, and other developing countries as well. The exaggerated social contrasts, the inefficient administration, the corruption, the tentacular slums, the crammed hospitals, the working children, the unemployed adults: long would be the list of evils harming the urban monsters, as well as the Third World rural areas diverting their excess population into expanding metropolises. In that way, with its sores so evident because of the gear-wheels of history, Calcutta stands as a magnifying mirror not only for India but also for a world that faces a tragic challenge. And this is why, besides the effect it will have on the fate of its ten million inhabitants, the answer Greater Calcutta does or does not find to that challenge will be of general concern. Beyond the myths, the facts and realities of Calcutta mean that, for better or for worse, the city will remain a Symbol in the future.

Calcutta on the razor's edge

35After all that has been said, may we venture a forecast? Despite its bleak aspects, Calcutta does not feel it is sinking forever. The monster does indeed take its daily share of flesh: dying destitutes, condemned children, babies turning blind for lack of vitamin A, wasted lives. Such a mess, even if strongly denounced in forums, does not however affect many of those who are not personally concerned. One has to live, to live in a difficult city, and Calcuttans do live with a wonderful energy. Despite the necessary adaptation to a life-style that has to be accepted-that cuts both ways, because adaptation both relieves the pain of the System and perpetuates the System-; despite the hugeness of the problems; despite indifference, dejection, black market, bribery and nepotism, the tenacious fire of talent, passion, and action goes on burning.

36Calcutta on the razor's edge? The city is poised on the brink but the fall cannot be taken for granted. The present emblem of Calcutta, like that of Paris, depicts a boat, mayur pakhi nao, the boat of the Bengal of old, Sonar Bangio, Golden Bengal. Now, a very long time after the golden age, the city faces stormy days. Though the sea is rough, the boat withstands the strain and the city holds out: fluctuat nec mergitur, Paris’ blazon says. A shaky poise indeed, with many tragedies and tensions. The Imperial Calcutta motto, however, proclaimed it: per ardua stabilis esto.

37But, beware of the smouldering fire....


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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