March 30, 2020
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Keep An Ear Out For Whispers

Desolate townships lie all but abandoned in Bengal—the dregs of an industrial dream

Keep An Ear Out For Whispers
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Unfinished buildings in Rajarhat, near the Calcutta airport
Photograp by Sandipan Chatterjee
Keep An Ear Out For Whispers

“Sometimes, when I go for an evening walk, I feel a chill creeping up my spine and I quickly rush back homewards,” says Prashant Dhokalia, a resident of New Town, the urban district springing up in the fringes of Calcutta in the last decade and a half. The IT professional, who had rented an apartment in a high-rise tower in the vic­inity, had moved to the township along with his wife five months earlier when he landed a job at a software firm in nearby Sector 5, Bengal’s IT hub.

What struck him was the utter urban deso­lation—for miles, row upon row of uninhabited buildings. Fully-constructed complexes stare at one vac­­antly through darkened hollows of spaces left for doors and windows. Steel meshes from unfinished constructions serve up an unnerving grin. “Our landlord had said most of the empty flats would fill up, but I have come to learn that it has been years since these were built. But no one lives here. We are the only residents occupying a building with 90 flats.” Dholakia admits that the nights are especially ‘creepy’; the couple is considering moving out at the first opportunity.

New Town is just one of Bengal’s ghost towns—not the abandoned habitations from the past or haunted houses of yore, but magnificent megacities and towering townships custom built for future affluence whose time hasn’t yet come. Most are large enclosures, planned as gated communities, housing anything from bungalows to villas, penthouses, duplexes and condominiums complete with gardens, playgrounds, parks, even swimming pools and basketball courts. Several have spaces earmarked for shops and markets or for entertainment and cultural activities, like clubs and auditoriums, even multiplex theatres. Other than lone occupants like Dholakia, they lie deserted.

The one that stands out amongst such virtually uninhabited townships is the Kolkata West International City (KWIC). Spread out over 3,777 acres in Howrah district, not far from the Hooghly, it was the ‘dream city’ envisaged during the former Left Front government’s short-lived industrial-friendly period. Initiated during former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s second term in 2006, it was a joint public-private venture between the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), Singapore-based Universal Suc­­cess Group (USG) and Indonesia’s Salim Group. The land was leased to the two international companies by KMDA for a grand Rs 91.82 crores for building three information technology hubs, 6,100 residential bungalows, four apartment complexes and amenities such as schools, hospitals and markets—a self-contained township. A huge, arched marble gate with a canopied mural depicting two leaping steeds, and held up by imposing white pillars, stood at the entrance to the satellite town that spread out beneath the Kona Expressway—the busy national highway running through Bengal—like a walled city.

Ten years on, KWIC is a forest of empty houses and wasted plots of land. A winter afternoon’s sun ignites the glass panes of a balcony door, as though someone has lit a fire within. You peer in. But there is no one. A gentle breeze blows over the basketball court, ruffling the nets through which no ball has ever passed. The only people in sight are the caretakers, security personnel and several KWIC officers. One of them, Mukesh Singh, a spokesperson, is reluctant to write off KWIC. “80 bungalows have already been sold,” he points out, admitting that it is a measly portion of the 907 bungalows on offer (which, in turn, is a fraction of the original plan for 6,100). Still, a few families do live in the premises. “There are those who live here permanently,” explains Singh. “Others come and go, spending the weekend perhaps. There are bungalows owned by non-resident Indians too, who visit during holidays.”

Officials drum up the ‘livability’ of the KWIC, including plentiful electric supply or proximity to Calcutta (24 kilometres away). But, as one explains, “residents buy water,” adding that efforts are on to try to access municipal pipelines. Those with individual transport should have no difficulty living here, they reason.

Loneliness works in curious ways. The sole resident Outlook met echoed the KWIC officials. “I live here with my husband, son and his wife and child. It’s very safe here. And water and electricity are not problems,” says Pushpa Gupta, a homemaker. “The people inside the compound are desperate to get neighbours and would present a rosy picture,” remarks a caustic local.

As the Left Front’s plans for economic resurgence failed, industrial hubs and big-budget megacities were embroiled in litigation and suffered huge losses.

Yet, gentle signs of resignation wink at you. A decade later, the horses have been removed from atop the gate. “They have trotted away,” joke locals. Mukesh Singh explains, “They were symbols of the Salim group. They have been removed when the Salim group pulled out of the project.”

Indeed, it is in such withdrawals of promised investment which answer the question as to why such necropolises have blotted the Bengal landscape.

“Most of the alternative urban cen­t­res were planned during the last reg­ime’s second term, when Buddhadeb Bhattacharya initiated the industrial phase in Bengal,” says political analyst Tarun Ganguly. “Since the state had lagged behind in industrial development for years, Bhattacharya was on a ‘do-it-now’ mission and invited several foreign and domestic investors in quick succession.” Built in anticipation of the great industrial windfall that never came, residential spaces like KWIC and New Town had few takers subsequently.

It all started with hopeful synchronicity: around the time when the Salim Group was setting up the International City, Tata Motors’ Singur factory was being built less than 50 kms away. Rumours claimed that families of Tata Motors’ top manag­e­­ment would be housed in the swanky KWIC apartments, as would be IT professionals.

In the skeletal remains of both projects are written Bengal’s recent political and economic history. The Left Front government’s aggressive land-acquisition policy resulted in bloodshed in Singur and Nandigram, another village where the government had planned a chemical hub. Farmers in both places, reluctant to part with their land, fought tooth and nail with the help of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. The violent clashes that ensued were speckled with tragedy, most notably the killing of 14 men, women and children who were shot dead in March 2007 in Nandigram allegedly by ruling party goons posing as police. Mamata’s anti-government movement catapulted her to the height of mass popularity, enabling her to win the 2011 state elections by a landslide.

In its last years, the Left Front’s grand plans for economic resurgence petered out mis­­erably. Industrial hubs and big-budget megacities got embroiled in all manner of litigation and suffered huge losses, forcing promoters to withdraw. The pull-out by Tata Motors, which refused to set up shop in a politically volatile atmosphere, set off a domino-effect of industrial abandonments. The change in government in 2011, with Mamata’s reluctance to acq­u­ire land for industry, exacerbated the process.

The abandoned Singur factory was the forebear of the dereliction of New Town and KWIC. With the township that was to grow around it, the Nano plant had stood like a silent tomb over 997 acres of disputed land, mired deep in litigation. A similar sight greets one at the International city—now owned by USG’s Prasoon Mukherjee—and several projects in New Town, their tall towers clawing  the sky in ineffectual rage.

Last month, the Supreme Court had ruled in the West Bengal government’s favour when, after a long legal battle, Mamata won the right to return the disputed land to the farmers of Singur. She has been quick to implement the order, and the pro­­cess of dem­olition has begun. Tractors once rolled over the rich agr­­icultural land; heavy vehicles now run over the factory floor, tearing it apart till its foundation. What was to be a totem of Bengal’s new age of industry is a heap of twisted iron sheets, mangled steel plates, brick and stone debris and fly ash. Will the rest of Bengal’s ghost towns follow its unhappy lead?

By Dola Mitra in Calcutta

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