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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Session IV. General Debate

Addendum L. Managing the City

A Few Remarks

Jean Racine

Texte intégral

  • 1 Calcutta Research Series, edited by Leslie Green. Ten volumes were published by Asia Publishing Hou (...)
  • 2 Ali Ashraf: The City Government of Calcutta: A Study in Inertia, Calcutta Research Series, Vol. 9, (...)

1When the Institute of Public Administration of New York started, in the sixties, its Calcutta Research Series1 Ali Ashraf was entrusted with the task of preparing a report on the city government of Calcutta. The subtitle Ashraf chose when his book was published was significant enough: "A study in inertia"2.


  • 3 Ashish K. Biswas: Work Apathy, a Tradition, The Hindu, Madras, 6 January 1982.

2Fifteen years or so later, not much, apparently, has changed in Calcutta's offices be it the Corporation Hall on S.N. Banerjee Road, or the government headquarters in Writers Building. When Ashish K. Biswas wrote a paper on the West Bengal government employees for The Hindu of Madras, he noted that whatever the party in power and despite the benefits allotted to them by the Left Front, the employees stuck to a well-established "tradition of work apathy"3, a tradition which strongly resists the government attempts to improve the efficiency of the administrative machinery. An additional proof of this was provided, in early July 1982, when a pressing circular to the State clerks was simply unheeded (document 1).

  • 4 One must also emphasize, naturally, that all is not black in the city administrative picture. Men (...)

3True, one could easily denounce the absenteeism and the deliberate inertia which, too often, affect the efficiency of too many public servants: the images of half-empty office rooms, of unconcerned clerks, regularly denounced in the press and daily criticized by tax-payers are no inventions. But one must also try to understand the reasons behind the facts, and how the unconcern of many is an integral part of a System which is the result of a combination of factors4.

4Low salaries, poor office accommodation, the difficulties of daily life as well as purely administrative difficulties play a role. No doubt also, the manifestations of what we could call "the babu spirit" —this major sociological component of Calcutta life— are also a relevant factor: a study of the white collar lower middle class's feelings and representations would be beyond the scope of the present volume, but would certainly help to understand some of reasons preventing the smooth running of the administration, as the subtleties of hierarchical relationships in the bureaucrats System would then interestingly come to light.

5Complementing this, an analysis of the role of and the mechanisms of corruption would also be required. Crude or veiled, petty or serious, occasional or permanent, to what extern corruption is simply corruption, or a tacitly accepted way of maintaining, under modern circumstances, some archaic processes wherein the bureaucrats enjoy power and privilege over the dependent citizen?

6Inertia, carelessness, corruption and irregularities are well-known facts for all those living in the metropolis and are, as such, regularly denounced in public forums (document 2). It would however be vain to focus attention on these phenomena only. They could be the decisive factors of urban mismanagement, but they have to be interrelated with other hurdles. Such as, amongst others, finance.

Scarce resources

  • 5 Here is the estimated budget presented by the Corporation Commissioner for 1980-81: expenditure Rs (...)

7Finance, because the Corporation of Calcutta has to face acute difficulties on that front. Unrealized taxes, and particularly unrealized property taxes are a major problem, and one of the constant reasons for deficit. Inertia and corruption may explain in part why, in the Corporation as in many municipalities of the Calcutta Urban Agglomeration, the administration fails to have to hand comprehensive and updated statements on urban property: a failure which naturally paves the way for widespread tax evasion. But even when the tax owed is known, and the tax-payee is an official organization, things are not necessarily better managed. The Central government and the State government are themselves debtors of the Corporation: they had arrears of no less than Rs. 2.5 crore in 1979. Similarly, the Eastern Railway and the South Eastern Railway, in 1982, owe Rs. 75 lakh to the Corporation as unpaid service charges for their buildings in the city. One can guess the result: a constant deficit in the annual budgets of the Corporation, with an outstanding accumulated deficit fluctuating in recent years between 99 per cent and 60 per cent of the annual budget income5. Fortunately enough, the funds for the development of the metropolis are not drawn solely (not even mainly) from the coffers of the Corporation, nor from those of the much poorer municipalities. But such a lack of revenue cannot help when its negative effects are compounded with other handicaps which are not strictly financial, handicaps which, incidentally, are largely the reason for deficits: here is a vicious circle.

8One of these handicaps deserves special attention: the status of the Corporation administrative body itself, which definitely resorts to politics.

The political tangle: a nominated or an elected executive?

9In the early seventies —irony of fate— Calcutta lost her political autonomy just after finally gaining her own development body. In 1972, one year after the CMDA was founded, the State government, then in the hands of the Congress, decided to supersede the Corporation. After that Congressmen or Leftists —whoever had power— found it advantageous to have no mayor at the head of the city, and year after year good reasons were presented to the honorable members of the State Legislative Assembly for explaining why elections could not be organized. Hence, for more than ten crucial years, the Corporation of Calcutta was not a full-fledged body. An Administrator, nominated by the government, was the head of the Corporation, and supervised and controlled the Commissioner, the main Corporation executive.

  • 6 The first Mayor-in-Council was elected in 1985.

10The Calcutta Municipal Corporation Bill, 1980, was first of its kind in India. Since the end of the nineteenth Century, the life of the city administration has oscillated between two poles: the prominence of an executive nominated by the government (as a result of the Mackenzie Act of 1899), or the prominence of elected executives (as a result of the System introduced by S.N. Banerjee in 1923). The new Bill aims at both modernization and democratization of the city government. It will establish an elected Mayor as the head of the Mayor-in-Council body, a small assembly of six to ten members whom he will nominate, and which will exert executive power just as a government cabinet does6. The elected members of the corporation in that scheme will play the role of a legislature. For better efficiency, the Bill also provides a new decentralized administrative structure of ten boroughs, each of them assuming in ten wards a vital role in essential activities, such as water supply sewerage, health, bustee service, maintenance of roads, etc.

  • 7 Quoted by Professor Mohit Bhattacharya in an insight analysis of the new Bill published in The Sta (...)

11The future of Calcutta’s local administration depends largely on the competence of the future members of the Mayor-in-council, and of their capacity to get the administrative machinery running smoothly from top to bottom. They will thus have to bear in mind the judgment passed in 1948 on their predecessors by the Biswas Commission of Inquiry promptly established by the first State government after Independence, a judgment calling for Corporation councilors "with a genuine sense of civic responsibility who will not use their position as an instrument for the furtherance of party ends or personal interests"7.

  • 8 "Implementation of the new Act-a tough job". Editorial in The Calcutta Municipal Gazette, Vol. XCI (...)

12Moreover, the implementation of the Act will also require a lot of money, particularly for establishing the new borough-level administration. That is why the present Corporation has requested the State Government to assist it with a Rs. one crore grant, and has not failed to underline, in its official organ, that "unless the State Government covers the whole expenditure" the "enforcement of the new act is sure to be a tough job"8.

13Clearly enough, with the new Bill, the future of the city's management stumbles once more against those three familiar old hurdles, which sound today like so many interrogations: efficiency at all levels of the men in charge, dearth of funds, and a sound balance between political democracy and fair administration of the main city of the metropolis. To say nothing of the administrative problems of the smaller cities and towns where live two-thirds of the population of Calcutta Urban Agglomeration.

  • 9 This report was published in The Statesman on 3 July 1982, under the title "Circular to State Staf (...)

14Document 1: On administrative inertia: a press assessment of Writers Building offices9

15The Statesman
3 July 1982

16Three days after the West Bengal Government issued a circular asking Government employees to report on time, the attendance at Writers Building on Friday continued to be poor. The circular had asked the employees to report for duty by 10.45 a.m.

17A visit to Writers Building on Friday morning revealed that hardly 30 per cent employees had turned up in most departments. In some departments like Finance and Home, which are under the Chief Minister, the attendance was even poorer. In fact, the large number of empty chairs in some of the departments like Agriculture, Cooperation, Jail, Education, Police Directorate and Industries around 11 a.m. gave one the impression that the employees had scant respect for office discipline.

18In many branches, officers, specially of the supervisory category, were equally indifferent. In a number of departments section officers were not found in their seats till 11 a.m. on Friday.

19Even though some employees were present, there was no sign of work being done. Some of the employees were busy reading newspapers with heaps of files on their tables. Many were chatting and a few were seen resting their heads on typewriters. Some, probably tired after their journey from home to office, had taken off their shirts and were relaxing. Most of the staff reported for duty between 11 a.m. and noon.

20But the scene was different after 4 p.m. with the employees busy preparing to leave for home. The exodus, which started around 4.30 p.m. was almost complete by 5 p.m. The scheduled hours of work at the State Government offices are 10.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

21Lack of punctuality in attendance by State Government employees is not a new phenomenon. The Left Front, after coming to power in 1977, had tried to enforce discipline among the employees. The issue was also discussed with the State Coordination Committee. The leaders of the committee had appealed to the employees, to attend office on time. But the response to the Government circular and request of the union leaders was feeble. The State Government employees have received considerable financial benefits since the installation of the Left Front Ministry. Employees of the lowest category now get about Rs. 500 a month.

22The atmosphere in different departments at Writers Building is far from satisfactory. The rooms are ill-lit and poorly ventilated. There is overcrowding in all the offices. The space is so cramped with tables, chairs and files stacked around, that one has to move cautiously. About 6,000 people work in Writers Building.

23The corridors of Writers Building are filthy. Shops selling tea and snacks, cigarettes and betel leaves have mushroomed. Many of the stalls are owned by employees or their relatives. Even outsiders have opened shops on the premises. The place is littered with food and fruit peels. Water from taps and sinks, where the shopkeepers clean their Utensils, accumulates at different points on a corridor.

24The employees at Writers Building had a stock explanation for their inability to report for duty on time. They said that most of them were from the suburbs and had to come by trains, which rarely ran on time. Those who come by buses, often have to wait for 45 minutes for a foothold on a vehicle. For some, living as far away as Burdwan, Ranaghat or Bongaon, it is a three-hour journey from home to office.

25Leaders of the State Coordination committee agreed that many employees had to come from far-off places and the transport System was chaotic. But they admitted that late coming had become a matter of habit with many. That was why their response to the Chief Minister's appeal had been lukewarm. A Coordination Committee leader conceded that not even 50 per cent employees reported for duty on time. He felt that lack of proper supervision on the part of some officers had encouraged the employees. It was pointed out that there was no proper distribution of work load nor an assessment of performance.

26Documents 2 and 3. The Corporation of Calcutta: pro and con.

27One will find here two texts totally antithetic. Both of them were published in The Statesman in 1980. The first one, "Lord Mayor's show", is a vitriolic editorial against the Corporation of Calcutta, and expresses something of the desperate anger assailing many Calcuttan's faced by the degradation of their city. In its own way, the second text, "The day for a frank talk with you", tries to answer the first one. It is an advertisement released by the Corporation itself, which writes up such pieces from time to time in order to refurbish its image. As any other official self-publicity, it carries a few informative Statements, many anticipations, and has its clear limitations. But it is also greatly significant: in its own words, the call to "the conscientious citizen” expresses, beyond the past and present shortcomings, a clear truth: if Calcutta remains "nobody's city", nothing decisive will be achieved in the future (J.R.).

The Lord Mayor’s show10

  • 10 By courtesy The Statesman..

28The Statesman
1 May 1980

29It would be interesting to know precisely what the Administrator of Calcutta Corporation had to say at the mayoral Conferences in Milan and Turin where the theme of discussion was "future of the city and the city of the future". Most of us who have to live in Calcutta are increasingly being forced to the gloomy conclusion that the city might have a proud past, but no future to speak of. Nor is pessimism on this score redeemed by Mr. Prasanta Sur's promise to amend the law so that the municipal hierarchy resemble that of the State Government with a Mayor and six to ten Councilors optimistically entrusted with specific responsibilities, the General Council with elected representatives of 100 wards, borough committees covering ten contiguous wards, a Deputy Mayor and five aldermen, as well as some ex-officio members. All this may be extremely gratifying to the self-esteem off the local member of the Ali-India Mayors' Conference, which periodically demands higher rank in the official table of precedence. It will also undoubtedly enable the CPI(M) which already Controls the West Bengal countryside through the Panchayats Act, to consolidate its political influence in the metropolis. But only the very naive will expect tangible improvement in the quality of life in a city which quite literally is Splitting at the seams.

30But then, the Minister for Municipal Affairs and Urban Development is no interested in reform of what must surely be one of the biggest, most corrupt, inefficient and negligent institution in the country. It did not tum a hair when Rs. 85 crore were lost between 1972 and 1977 because tax notices were not served; nor, in spite of Rs. 36.31 crore deficit this year is it making much attempt to serve the 100,000 notices which were reportedly not delivered.

31Instead, the Administrator proposes to saddle people with a whole new range of imposts, each of which will only increase scope for bribery and be of immense profit to the Corporation's incorrigibly venal employees. Mr. Sur's plan to raise an additional Rs. 1.5 crore by selectively raising house tax must similarly be condemned. It is true that much of the property in the city is undervalued (with the connivance of officials who will endorse anything for a fee) just as vast chunks of unauthorized construction are not assessed at all, again because of political patronage. It is true too that any authority needs funds to discharge its duties. But the point is that before asking for more, Calcutta Corporation must demonstrate that it makes some use of the money that it does receive.

32Piles of malodorous garbage, an eyesore as well as a serious health hazard, testify to the collapse of the conservancy department. Heaven alone knows how its 1450 garbage cleaners and 200 lorries (supposed to make 500 daily trips) are occupied though the suspicion is that the men, and those of the vehicles that are still in running order, are engaged in lucrative private business. On the rare occasions when the conservancy people are persuaded to attend to their tasks, they choose to hire lorries which means money for favoured contractors. All other services —water supply, health and bustee improvement— are equally neglected. If the army of men on the payroll (some to sweep streets or clear drains, others to trim pavements which were once covered with grass) ever report for wages, many no longer survive but their emoluments are religiously doled out to others. To ask for higher taxes is, in the circumstances, sheer impertinence. Calcutta Corporation might as well not exist for the bulk of the city's inhabitants.

The day for a trank talk with you11

The Corporation of Calcutta

33Calcutta Corporation has been trying to improve the civic life of this second most densely populated city in the world. Is there any wonder if a city of over three million people throws up problems —vexing and overwhelmingly large? Many are solved and being solved. Yet, so great is the magnitude of the problems, efforts of the Corporation go unnoticed. And the general complaint is that the Corporation is slack in its endeavours. Is this true? To find the answer let's take a look at the activities of your Corporation.

34A well-equipped and well-staffed Corporation conservancy department clears from public places as much as 2500 tons of garbage every day. To improve its efficiency, a depot for each of the 100 wards of the city is proposed to look after the interests of the respective wards. Also, more and more garbage disposal arrangements are made.

35Repairing of drainage and roads is earnestly taken up and you have already found a change for the better. Duration of water logging is considerably lessened and the roads have become more traversable. Many kucha roads are converted and are being converted into pucca roads.

36Daily distribution of over 180 million gallons of water is being efficiently carried out.

37To make marketing pleasanter, the major markets are being transformed into supermarkets. Others are waiting in the wings.

38To impart basic education to all, and especially to the less privileged, many municipal school buildings which faced demolition are renovated; new primary schools will be opened soon.

39Health being of primary importance to the citizen, hospitals, clinics and maternity homes are gradually being set up; smallpox is totally eradicated and death rate due to cholera is effectively checked.

40Above all, to facilitate and democratize the civic administration, the Corporation has introduced a new amendment by which the governing of the city will repose in a body known as "Mayor-in-council". The first of its kind in India!

41The Corporation has done all this in a spirit of duty and dedication to the welfare of the people. Shortcomings have been there; and indeed there are many. But, with your fullest support, these can be overcome. As a conscientious citizen, you can help prevent encroachment of streets and public places by hawkers; unauthorized construction of shops and buildings; pilferage of public property including illegal tapping of electricity; wastage of water from laps left open; indiscriminate littering of garbage. But most important of all is paying your Corporation taxes in time for your Corporation to continue its development and welfare activities.

42Despite the many odds stacked against it —scarce resources at its command and the numerous ills besetting this great city— your Corporation is trying its best to give a city you love to live in, a city you deserve. And with your support, your Corporation will.

43In aiding your Corporation, you stand to gain manifold.

Notes de fin

1 Calcutta Research Series, edited by Leslie Green. Ten volumes were published by Asia Publishing House, Bombay, for the Institute of Public Administration, New York. All the studies dealt with the problems of urban administration in the metropolis (see bibliography). On the history of the local administration in Calcutta, see Keshab Choudhuri: Calcutta: Story of its Government. Orient Longman, Bombay, 1973. On administration and management of Calcutta metropolis, for the last twenty years, the most authoritative writings are those of Professor Mohit Bhattacharya from Calcutta University.

2 Ali Ashraf: The City Government of Calcutta: A Study in Inertia, Calcutta Research Series, Vol. 9, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1966.

3 Ashish K. Biswas: Work Apathy, a Tradition, The Hindu, Madras, 6 January 1982.

4 One must also emphasize, naturally, that all is not black in the city administrative picture. Men of integrity and public-spiritedness, men of dedication do their job and keep the city running. Besides the fortnightly comments on the Corporation's achievements and prospects appearing in The Calcutta Municipal Gazette, one could find a lively account of the Corporation's activities, involvement and problems in Calcutta is, authored by S. Samaddar, Administrator of the Corporation from 1974 to 1978, and published by the Corporation of Calcutta, Calcutta 1978.

5 Here is the estimated budget presented by the Corporation Commissioner for 1980-81: expenditure Rs. 40.4 crore; receipt: Rs. 37.9 crore; annual deficit: Rs. 2.5 crore; outstanding deficit: Rs. 37.7 crore, i.e., 99 per cent of the annual revenue receipt. The situation looked better in the estimated budget for 1983-84 only because expenditure and receipt rose quickly in a few years. Thus, a larger accumulated deficit seemed proportionally smaller. See for instance, the revised budget estimate for 1982-83: expenditure: Rs. 75.5 crore; receipt: Rs. 59 crore, annual deficit: 16.5 crore; outstanding deficit: Rs. 37.5 crore, i.e., 63 per cent of the annual revenue receipt. For the budget estimate for 1983-84 the figures are: expenditure: Rs. 66.6 crore; receipt: Rs. 64.8 crore; annual deficit: Rs. 1.8 crore; outstanding deficit: Rs. 39.3 crore, i.e., 60 per cent of the annual revenue receipt. For an official analysis of the last budget estimate for 1983-84, see The Calcutta Municipal Gazette, Vol. C., No. 12, 18 December 1982, pp. 2684-2699.

6 The first Mayor-in-Council was elected in 1985.

7 Quoted by Professor Mohit Bhattacharya in an insight analysis of the new Bill published in The Statesman on 22 September 1980 under the title "Corporate Scheme for Calcutta".

8 "Implementation of the new Act-a tough job". Editorial in The Calcutta Municipal Gazette, Vol. XCIX, No. 24, 8 May 1982.

9 This report was published in The Statesman on 3 July 1982, under the title "Circular to State Staff Unheeded". It is reprinted here by courtesy of the newspaper.

10 By courtesy The Statesman..

11 Advertisement released by the Corporation of Calcutta in The Statesman on 15 August 1980.


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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