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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Inaugural Session

Let your Seminar address itself to the Grassroots

Prasanta Kumar Sur

Texte intégral

1Historically speaking, Calcutta is not an old city-Varanasi, Delhi, Patna and many other cities have a longer history. Though Calcutta existed before Job Charnock, its history is traceable from those early British days and it is mystery to many how a city could rise so fast and slide back faster. We who have lived in this city for over forty years remember not only its past grandeur but also its facilities, and particularly its ability to provide livelihood. This itself should be a subject of study —I mean what went wrong with Calcutta in the comparatively short period of 40 to 50 years?

2To me, it seems that a city based on exploitation, a city which is thecitadel of power of colonial administration and a city which does not have an inbuilt mechanism to absorb shocks, is destined to suffer. Past mistakes are identifiable; inaction is indefensible. Whatever the mistakes of the past, a city must grow out of them changing with the times and looking forward.

3The second point of study, to my mind, should be connected with the citizenry. Can a city grow in isolation? Should it not reflect the aspirations of the people? If so, in what way should people's involvement be sought and what remedies found? Talking of Calcutta, I need not stress upon the fighting quality of the city. In spite of Imperialist stranglehold and all kinds of oppression, it has always aligned itself with international movements for freedom, justice and equality. Each chapter of Calcutta's history has a peculiar nuance which requires not only a historian's dissection but as well an economist's analysis.

4Also, I cannot but refer to the metropolitan character of this city. So many units are directly dependent on the city core and the influence of the city extends much beyond even the state boundary. It is, therefore, a proper subject for study as to what are the linkages, what are the growth factors. It is not that we are giving people another Calcutta soon. Perhaps the last experiment has been made in Chandigarh and I am told the resuit has been rather disastrous. We, in the CMDA, are planning for three new townships; preliminary work has already started. It is therefore proper to think of Calcutta as a ground for useful experience. Unfortunately, we ignore the largest section of the community, I mean, the poorer sections, while planning a township. We presume that if we can provide for the rich or the well-to-do, if we can have a wide network of roads, the poor will take care of themselves. The poor can and do take care of themselves. The slums are examples of the response of the poorer sections of the community to the failure of society to meet their shelter requirements. We have to think of the existing situation where slums have grown and there are no practical ways of getting rid of them. They are the products of the capitalist System-in the western world prosperity of some has not eliminated poverty of others. Slums are to be found even in the prosperous West; none in the socialist world.

5The social cost of such plans must be worked out and this can only be done if there is an in-depth study of all the aspects of city life. Metropolitan Calcutta has many faces. The well-to-do have one set of values and one set of expectations, the merchant community has another and the poorer sections still another one. The state policy should be directed at tackling the problems of the poor rather than of the rich. Unfortunately, as I said before, we expect the poor to take care of themselves while we provide for the rich.

6Since we are proud of the cultural aspects of this city and the French are equally attached to them, I would expect that a study should also be made of the factors which lead to the enrichment of the city culture. It is inexplicable that in this city of Calcutta, with all its problems, there are a few thousand theatre groups, four hundred literary magazines and a few dozen permanent theatres. These are patronised not by the affluent but by those whose problem is two meals a day. Is there any answer to this?

7I cannot but be emotional when I talk of this city; it has given shelter to so many of my countrymen irrespective of their language, religion, caste and creed. It had fallen in bad days but it triumphed by survival. In Calcutta, we discern a subterranean stream of life; in many western cities, there is the stench of decadence.

8It is important that we give directions. Such directions can be found from not only learned conventions and seminars like the present one but also from the grassroots.

9Let your seminar address itself to the grassroots. Let it be a success through action-oriented ideas.


Minister for Local Government and Urban Development, Government of West Bengal

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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