In spite of Mumbai’s Bollywood glitter and New Delhi’s political whirligig, Kolkata has remained India’s cultural and intellectual capital since the Bengali renaissance in the 19th century. Few other cities in India have such a deep layer of a most privileged class of elites – artists, musicians, filmmakers, painters, poets, writers, economists and academics – whose overwhelming presence dwarfs everything else, including unfortunately, the entrepreneurial spirit of the people. Which has created a most damaging myth, a dangerous half-truth, as Sharmila Tagore lamented – an oft-repeated dirge – that Bengalis do not make good businessmen.
All one has to consider is that some of the giants of early Indian industrialisation had their roots in Kolkata including Martin Burn of Biren Mookerjee, Bengal Chemicals of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Calcutta Chemical Company, Bengal Immunity, Dey’s Chemicals, Banga Laxmi Cotton Mills, Sen Raleigh Bicycles, and Gwalior Potteries, among others, as researcher and entrepreneur Kaustav Bhattacharyya has written.
Today India and the rest of the world are waiting for the Serum Institute of India to produce billions of vaccine doses to fight Covid-19 pandemic. But as Bhattacharyya pointed out, “Bengal Chemicals was one of the largest chemical and pharmaceutical companies in India, and was considered the progenitor of the Indian pharmaceutical drug industry.” In 2019, according to the department of pharmaceuticals, ministry of chemicals and fertilisers, India exported $19.4 billion drugs. Kolkata, that seeded the drug industry, is still a major hub of pharmaceuticals.
The Pune-based Serum Institute sprang from a fertile entrepreneurial soil of Kolkata, albeit not directly. Entrepreneurialism did not die in Kolkata; it left during the toxic unionism encouraged by the Left Front’s long rule.
When the CPI(M)’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, after visiting Beijing for investment in 2005, tried to bring back industrial investment to Singur, Nandigram and Salboni – the proposed locations for a Tata Nano car plant, a chemical hub and a steel project – he met with his political nemesis in Mamata Banerjee, the dragon slayer who after winning a most transformative democratic election in 2011 began to reimagine what Kolkata could become.
Nonetheless, in spite of several foreign trips and annual events such as Bengal Business Conclaves to attract international businesses to invest in the state, she has yet to make Kolkata a promised land, a “Gateway for Asia”, as she said at last year’s Digha international business gathering. Hopefully, she will. The power she wields strengthens India’s federalism.
Kolkata is crucial to India’s developing story. With a Kolkata to Kanyakumari East Economic Corridor and Kolkata-Delhi-Amritsar Industrial Corridor, Kolkata would embrace the entire country in its arms, as it were.
The city is not only pivotal to India’s march towards a $5 trillion economy, geopolitically its economic growth is crucial to India’s emerging profile in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s an indispensable magnet city for India’s eight northeastern states that border with Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
In parallel with its intellectual and cultural pre-eminence, Kolkata must and can grow rapidly to play the same role in the east as do Delhi-Gurgaon in the north, Mumbai-Pune-Ahmedabad in the west, and Bengaluru-Hyderabad-Chennai in the south. It is in the light of this quadrilateral structure, one might say, a secular version of the “chaar dhaam” ancient ethos, that Kolkata’s economic and geopolitical position has to be repurposed.
Few cities in India are undergoing the intellectual and emotional tussle that’s going on today between the progressives who see the future of Kolkata as an industrial and digital hub, an AI city with high rise shining towers in constant communication with New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris and London; and the conservationists who want to preserve and restore Kolkata’s magnificent colonial heritage and want to make the city a tourists’ Mecca à la Athens and Rome. Annually it attracts 1.6 million foreign tourists. Last year Tokyo had 15.8 million overseas tourists.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has her own vision. She wants Kolkata on the Hooghly to be like London on the Thames. What a difference a generation makes! Jyoti Basu, a London Middle Temple barrister, whose political party CPI(M) ruled West Bengal for more than three decades, looked more towards Beijing for inspiration than the city that nurtured him as a die-hard communist, in spite of the fact that he visited London almost every year in the 22 years of chief ministership.
Kolkata faces three challenges in order to become a most desirable city once again.
Mamata Banerjee’s government needs to take definitive steps, more than annual business enclaves, to rejuvenate the entrepreneurial spirit of this dynamic, multicultural, secular and cosmopolitan city, and reverse the capital and intellectual outflow that took place during the long barren communist rule that emaciated the city; but fortunately not its soul. Kolkata needs to grow its manufacturing muscle and become a leading global trader, as it had been historically since the times of the late Mughals.
Can the twin objectives, entrepreneurialism and industrial muscularity, be achieved while preserving its historic architectural legacy so that Kolkata, apart from becoming a domestic and overseas tourists’ must-visit attraction, also becomes a most desirable city for entrepreneurs? And a shining city on the Hooghly! That’s the 64 million dollar question worth exploring.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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