Oh! Kolkata!

Calcutta has been renamed. Now, with investment on the rise, tech companies moving in, and a growing middle class, can it be reborn?
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: A billboard for new housing, outside a local fish market

In a city where avoiding the poorest of the poor has been impossible, urban balkanization—the stratification of the economic classes, through the emergence of satellite towns and gated communities—is finally enabling the better-off to do so. It isn’t so much crime that these new, upwardly mobile classes wish to avoid: Calcutta, despite the poverty, is a fairly safe city. It is something deeper. The newly rich now want to flaunt their wealth; that, in turn, creates a need for them to escape into protected neighborhoods, where they can revel in their new affluence. Along with the birth of gated communities has come an explosion in the number of private security guards, who themselves bestow status on the new rich.

These planned communities exist for other reasons, too. As Professor Chaudhuri told me, “The new upper classes are afraid of seeing ugliness.” They want to “sanitize themselves” from the freak show on the streets. They want to see only other well-off people. Wealthy Indians have always acted as if the poor were invisible, but now there is a means to render them literally so.

The Calcutta street that these new rich want to escape is an enactment of rural life in the midst of the metropolis. Women line up at the pavement pumps the way they do at the village well. Just as in the village, domestic life is lived out of doors, without any notion of privacy or, for that matter, bathrooms. And because of the heat, people who live on the street are often semi-naked, grooming themselves with no sense of embarrassment. Calcutta’s deracinated new rich may have less tolerance for Indian village life played out on city streets, but the poor will continue to stream in from the neighboring states of Bihar and Orissa as long as the prospect of a job in construction or another industry promises upward mobility.

One perverse dynamic of this migration is that poor construction workers living on the streets and in bustees (slums) are getting in the way of new satellite towns, gated communities, and special economic zones planned by the state of West Bengal. In power for three decades, the West Bengal administration constitutes the world’s longest-serving democratically elected Communist government. Yet, to win over the hearts and pocketbooks of voters unhappy with statist policies, the Bengali Communists now have to follow the Chinese path of privatization with a vengeance. Last November, violent protests erupted over the expropriation of land in West Bengal for development projects and duty-free zones to attract foreign investment from nearby Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Singapore. The army was called out—the first time in years that the military has been needed to bring peace to a major metropolitan Indian city.

Of course, in China, the land would have been expropriated and that would have been that. In China, a Communist regime can routinely act in a rampantly capitalist manner. But not in democratic India; particularly not in Calcutta. Unlike Delhi, with its grand medieval history under the Mogul emperors, Calcutta was founded only in the late 17th century by the British, and it has been a place of social conflict ever since. That tendency was exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution, which brought a profusion of jute factories and made West Bengal the Ruhr of India for a time, with most of the country’s iron and steel industry. In recent decades, Calcutta has been the heart of Indian trade unionism and Communism. “Continued exclusion of the poor in Calcutta will only result in outbreaks of riots and destructive violence,” V. Ramaswamy, a Calcutta-based business executive and grassroots organizer, told me. For all Calcutta’s aspirations to become a global city, its history suggests that the transition won’t be altogether peaceful. When West Bengal’s government tried to outlaw rickshaws in December 2006 as a “disgraceful practice,” the city’s 18,000 rickshaw pullers launched vigorous protests.

MILLIONS of pedestrians cross Kolkata's Howrah Bridge every day.

In 2001, Calcutta’s name was officially changed to Kolkata, reflecting the native Bengali pronunciation. For generations reared on Calcutta, the new name is awkward. It carries no evocative association, either with British rule or with the city’s infamous poverty. That might be for the better. Just as globalization has invigorated localisms, “Kolkata” may yet become a new global and Bengali entrepôt for eastern India, Bangladesh, and Burma, as old trade routes reaffirm themselves and Calcutta—that is, Kolkata—regains the hinterland it lost when the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent created East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). “Kolkata could be the gateway to Southeast Asia,” Professor Monideep Chattopadhyay, another urban planner, told me. Picture a future of fast highways that create a dense ganglion of connections between Kolkata in India, Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, Mandalay in Burma, and Kunming in China. Think of annual road rallies from Kunming all the way to Kolkata. In a world with weaker national borders and stronger regional identities, Kolkata may again become what it was, at once an Indian city and a Southeast Asian one.

“It could be the Harvard of India,” says Kingshuk Chatterjee, a research fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, explaining that primary and secondary education in Kolkata are probably the finest in the country, and that Bengalis fill many places at the best universities in Mumbai and Delhi. This can be achieved, he says, if the Communist-left alliance that governs West Bengal stops making political appointments at local universities.

Kolkata’s high level of education also makes the city likely to evolve into another Indian hub for information technology. More than 200 IT companies have opened offices in West Bengal, and the government hopes Kolkata will one day rival its neighbors Bangalore and Hyderabad as a major computer-technology center. “Forget Mother Teresa, think IT and young people with disposable income,” one local journalist exclaimed.

The most-extravagant visions are possible for Kolkata because, for the time being, the city has one thing that other Indian cities lack: adequate fresh water. Kolkata lies astride the vast estuarial delta of Bengal. A few miles downriver from the city, the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges, opens out to become an inland sea of Amazonian proportions. Sailing down it, I saw on both shorelines—extending for 96 miles all the way to the Bay of Bengal—a row of towering kilns for brick-making: such is the appetite for building materials, as Kolkata gets bigger by the day. The availability of water makes that expansion possible, even as rising sea levels from global warming threaten this growing mega-city’s survival.

Sailing back upriver at night, I passed under the canti­levered Howrah Bridge, Kolkata’s urban icon, spanning the Hooghly between the industrial suburb of Howrah and downtown. The bridge was constructed during World War II to speed British divisions to the Burmese front. From any direction, it looms like a gargantuan Erector Set, taking up half the sky, its draperies of steel dwarfing everything around it. Vehicular and human traffic on its span are bumper-to-bumper, toe-to-heel, as masses of people cross the river, its waters the color of faded cardboard from the silt that it carries downstream. Even at water level, the noise of the crowd and the cars is like the din of a locomotive perpetually passing. Fancy new motorcycles idle next to hand-pulled rickshaws. People tote everything from briefcases to birdcages; crates and baskets rest on their heads. Just below the entrance to the bridge on the Kolkata side is a bustling flower market with mountains of marigolds and rose petals. Hawkers sell razor blades, textiles, plastic pots, cheap radios. The in-your-face pleas of beggars, peddlers, and other supplicants are unceasing. Nobody gives up here.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

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