I recollect that some years back Kolkata came to the news for all the wrong reasons – it was christened the “Dying City”. This after many many years under the administration of Jyoti Basu. From 1977 he held the CM post for 23 years without a break – a tough record to beat. But Bengal and Kolkata saw no progress.
I remember my trips to Kolkata – from the mid 70’s and till 2005 almost nothing changed. Traffic jams , pavements choked with hawkers, load shedding, appalling poverty , filth – it was a mess. Mother Teresa and Dominiqe Lapierre did not help by positioning Calcutta as a city in deep despair. I remember in a quiz competition in school we were asked to name the dirtiest city in the world and the choice was between Karachi , Dhaka and Kolkatta. Karachi narrowly beat Kolkatta to claim the distinction.
Things slowly changed and in the last 7 years Mamta Banerjee and the TMC have done a phenomenal job in transforming Kolkatta. I visited the city after many years in the last week of 2017 and was pleasantly surprised to see a city that I could barely recognise. The transformation is to a scale that you cannot comprehend. Broad Roads , cars zipping at 50 Km/hr ( restraining themselves as thats the speed limit), clean footpaths and pavements, well lit roads with plants, a maze of flyovers , clean billboards and shop fronts, efficient traffic police, the water bodies or “Pukurs” that dot the city are sparkling clean. In the 3 days I was there I did not see a single pothole or a dug up road or footpath – I could go on and on.
I would rate Kolkata as the Indian city with one of the best urban infrastructures in the country today comparable with Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and of course New Delhi. Coming from Bangalore ( Koramangla in specific) where traffic crawls at less than 10 km /hr and it can take you 30 min to cross the Sony Junction Kolkatta felt like a foreign city. Add to this Kolkatta has no power cuts and thanks to the mighty Ganges you will never see water tankers queuing up in front of apartment complexes.
We visited the Dhakuria lake complex – again a very well maintained park with excellent walkways spotlessly clean.
All this is indeed creditable work. Its not easy to change a dying city that has been languishing for decades. Yes good work was started by the former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and if the Nano plant at Singur had happened the industrial pace at W Bengal may have matched that of Gujarat. But full credit to Mamata Di for picking up speed and achieving the impossible. Well Done Didi.
The Indian Press is miserly – all I have heard about Kolkata sitting in Bangalore is Didi’s anger against Modi and the Muslim appeasement – not a word has been reported on how a dying city has been transformed in such a short period of time. You need to give credit where it is due and this change from a. dying city to a sparkling city should have been cover page article and news.
Its not just the infrastructure but also the cleanliness. People have started taking pride in their city – the Bengalis have always been proud of their legacy and now they have earned their bragging rights. I am sure this saga of development will continue. Its a very affordable city and the cost of living would probably be less than half that of Bangalore or Mumbai. A city with history , legacy , sights – a city waiting to be marketed. With all this going for Kolkatta its a matter of time before the builders, brands , malls , companies , jobs flood into Kolkata. And all the NRI babus who always wanted to be in Kolkata and enjoy their adda will come back. A city on an ascending curve is unstoppable and as the momentum picks up the growth will accelerate.
The trip was also special as I caught up with my college mates from REC Surat and met them after 25 years. We were knocking at 50 but as we met after so many years we felt like 18 year olds. Thanks Manik , Somen and Tutli for taking time to come over.
It was also nice to meet up the folks from ABL township – the colony where I grew up after 30 long years. the hot didis and aunties had aged gracefully. Thank you Ishani and Deepa Di for making this happen. Bengali is a very sweet language and Bengali women are amongst the prettiest you can meet but behind that pretty face and charming smile is a dominating woman – this after all is the land of Ma Durga & Kali.
A trip to Kolkata is never complete without visiting Dakshineshwar & Belur Math. We left our hotel at 5.30 AM and reached Dakhsineswhar by 6.15 AM – spotlessly clean with hardly any crowd we had a blessed Darshan of Ma Kali in all her divine glory. The Ganges was sparkling clean and majestically flowing with Belur Math on the other bank. We could feel the vibrations of the great Sage Ramkrishna in his small room at the temple complex. We didi visit Belur Math also and the Bhog we had was special, don’t miss it – piping hot Khichdi , delicious curry, and Kheer so tasty all served with so much love and affection. Whether its Golden Temple or Puri Jagannath or Dakshineswar there is something special about the Prasad they serve in these divine places.
This is also the city of food – from street food to fancy restaurants all at very affordable prices. We relished the Jhal Modi at the Maidan as we waited for a ride on the iconic tram and enjoyed sweets galore all through the trip. There is no comparison to Kolkata sweets. My fatty liver restricted me from being very adventurous but we did through justice to the amazing food of this great city. The only disappointment was our lunch at Tero Parbon at Hindustan Park where the service was disastrous.
Central Kolkata was buzzing with energy – the stretch from Victoria Memorial , Park Street , Chowringee , the National Museum – is mesmerising and brings back fond memories of childhood when we used to visit Kolkatta from Durgapur. The yellow Ambassador taxis are fast making way to the Uber’s and Ola but I pray that continue for some more time. Kolkata without the yellow taxi and its blaring horns would never be the same again.
Its a paradise for shopping – again great stuff at affordable prices. This was the time of the year when there were melas all around the city. Khadi , Handicraft and a wide variety of clothes and artwork at prices which you cannot believe. From sarees to pyjamas and kurtas, shoes, leather goods you can shop all day long in this city.
Kolkata has so much to offer – it was only on the last day that I came to know of a Jyotir Linga at Baidyanath Temple – a 1 hr drive from Kolkata. I missed it but will come back for sure to visit. There are 12 Jyotir Lingas in the country and most states market them very effectively. These are divine sites blessed with the energy of Lord Shiva – Kolkata needs to market itself better.
I have 3 suggestions to make to help the city sparkle more and attract investments.
Kolkatta and Chennai produce nearly 50% of the CA’s of the country – Kolkatta with its low cost base can easily position itself as a back office finance hub for the country. The intelligence of the Bengali and the low cost of the city will make this a very compelling proposition.
A lot of day trips can be organised to market the city better. A 7.30 to 6.30 PM trip that includes breakfast and lunch – its easy to identify 10 – 15 such packages and have buses travel on a daily basis to these locations.
Launch a company that can help cities like Bangalore – specially BBMP spruce up the city. You now seem to have the expertise to provide consultancy and execute projects that can bring cities like Bangalore to shape.
And last but not the least Kolkata needs more Gym’s. Given the rich oily diet, lethargic lifestyle, late dinner habits and probably the highest % of smokers in the country – my friends in Kolkata need to exercise vigorously. But I hardly saw any gyms. Here is an opportunity for Mukesh Bansal to open many Gyms across Kolkata – so Mukesh please don’t open any more Cult Zones in Bangalore – head to Kolkatta. If Mamta has succeeded in a cleaner Kolkata I am sure she can make it a fitter Kolkata too.
Hospitality is in Bengali blood – my friend and his family took such good care of us we felt we were with family. Thanks Subhashish and Ruma for going out of the way to make us comfortable. I am looking forward to my next trip soon.