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This Is Cal, Katalysed

Charnock's city sloughs off old skin. High life zips in: skyscrapers, malls, resto-bars et al.

This Is Cal, Katalysed
Swapan Nayak
This Is Cal, Katalysed
  • West Bengal's IT minister Manabendra Mukherjee is moving out of Writers Building—that citadel of absolute power in the state—with his team into a seventh-floor space at the toniest office address in Calcutta. The ministry will face 22 Camac Street, a mall that defines the city's new youthful face.

  • Le Lingerie, at the new Forum mall, is India's first proclaimed sex accessories shop. Its clientele: the growing breed of young urban professionals.

  • ManiKanchan, a gems and jewellery park, opened in late 2003 near the software park that gets overseas business upwards of Rs 2,250 crore a year, is India's first greenfield special economic zone that will be a surefire foreign exchange earner. Seventy per cent of the space is taken. The construction of a toy park is still on down the road, but it's full up already.

    There's really no other way of saying it: Calcutta is moving. "The positive energy in Calcutta now is unmistakable," says Ranveer Bhandari, general manager, ITC Sonar Bangla Sheraton, who has returned to the city after 20 years. "And it's now irreversible, the momentum is way too strong." Just last week, Gregory Meeks, Congressman from New York, had this to say: "West Bengal is India's best-kept secret."

    For years, the city lay afflicted by a chronic condition called the Calcutta continuum, with reality caught in a loop where the past became the future. The metropolis was being crushed by its own hubris.

    But, almost imperceptibly, something has been happening here over the past few years. Tired at being stamped a dying Marxist hell, the people decided to act. A quiet movement to turn Calcutta on its head has taken shape. Islands of action have linked up to form a landmass of revival. And suddenly, the results are stunningly visible.

    Just a few symbols: a 1.57 million sq feet residential-cum-retail property called Highland Park on the Eastern Bypass; the top-of-the-line Aurora Studios in Salt Lake; a brand new mall called Forum on Elgin Road; newly restored colonial buildings and a transformed river front; a chief minister who does not hesitate to take on party apparatchiks to bring business to the state; and a host of die-hard Calcuttans who have returned to give the city a push.

    From east of Kanpur to Aizawl (and include Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan), Calcutta is the consumer hub for 400 million people. "Wealthy Bangladeshis fly into Calcutta when they catch a cold," says a doctor at the new Apollo Gleneagles Hospital. From shopping for trousseau to private healthcare, from leisure to real estate, Calcutta is the first choice for the entire region. Economists predict that the next flush of economic growth will come from the east. West Bengal was tops in per capita growth in 2001—6.22 per cent—against the Indian average of 1.85. And, by the population yardstick—13.02 million in 2001—too, Calcutta is the second-largest metro market in India after Greater Mumbai. McKinsey puts the market size at a tenth of the Indian pie. But it's only now that people have started spending. With greater disposable incomes, falling interest rates and a late discovery of consumer culture, the market is now living up to its potential

    The consumer spend in rural Bengal alone was $2.6 billion (Rs 12,000 crore) in 2001-2002, says the WBIDC quoting a CMIE study. Punjab is no longer the number one rice producer today, Bengal is. It leads 30 Indian states in vegetables, pineapple, mango, litchi and inland fisheries too, according to the Economic Survey, 2002. A bureaucrat sums up: "You'll never hear of farmer suicides here."

    The multiplier effect of this affluence and the city's position as the number two trading hub is adding to its wealth. There are more AC boxes sticking out of windows today than five years ago, more granite and marble stores, restaurants, beauty parlous, gyms, branded stores.It's a tale of two cities now—an old Calcutta that's cynical, slothful and status quoist, with every old-world value intact. The new city-on-the-make, however, thinks big, and works and plays hard. The old city is losing the battle.

    From being loath to stepping into five-star hotels some years ago, CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is today fronting the state's pitch for investments, with a passion that a businessman says is "fatally sincere". His stable government is tom-tomming the secular environment and the good law and order situation and finding buyers too. Says Prasun Mukherjee, a Jakarta-based investor: "Even if UP were to offer me land free for a software park, I would refuse. The transfers and the changing governments there are a nightmare." West Bengal is also emphasising that it's the only major state with surplus power (200 million KWh) "and that's not because industries have left", says Sanjeev Goenka, vice-chairman, rpg Enterprises, which runs Calcutta's power supply, "it's good management".

    Earlier this year, the CII organised a West Bengal road show—six one-on-one meetings between the CM and corporate leaders from diverse sectors—in Mumbai. Ratan Tata, Adi Godrej, Hemendra Kothari and others met Buddhadeb for one-and-a-half hours each to hear him sell West Bengal as a business destination. The CM later addressed 150-odd business and industry leaders. "The follow-ups have been really encouraging," says Amitabh Khosla, regional director of CII. In Delhi, Buddhadeb made presentations to the consular corps—representatives from frontline developed nations. He famously said: "Violence at the workplace will be treated as a law and order problem."

    Says CII's regional chairman and MD, Patton Group, Sanjay Budhia: "This government is perhaps full of good intent, but poor perception is a spoiler." Adds he: "So when I tell investors that I run a factory of 800 workers and I haven't lost a single manday in all these years, they do sit up and listen."

    The CM's image-building backroom boys include young, laptop-carrying bureaucrats like Atri 'presentations' Bhattacharya, executive director of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation that sells Bengal through a smartly-produced dossier with an extensive section on eating out in Calcutta. "Quality of life is our main pitch," he says.

    The presentations are clicking. "Every year, over the past three years, upwards of Rs 2,000 crore domestic investments have flown in," says a beaming industry minister Nirupam Sen. Behind him, on the wall are framed portraits of Lenin and Tagore and in front is a top-of-the line pda. Sen has, to his credit, revived the iron and steel sector with 54 projects (total investments Rs 6,982 crore up to 2003) in the state and is focusing on food and agro and IT/ITES along with it.The Salt Lake electronic complex is booming at a steady rate of 119 per cent, where 175 companies in IT and BPO are raking in business from across the globe. The view from one of the tallest buildings in the area is of glass-fronted global business centres with majors like Tata Consultancy Services, PWC, Wipro, IBM, Computer Associates, AIG, Siemens, Reliance Infocomm and Cognizant Technology. Siddhartha Mukherjee, head of Calcutta operations, Cognizant, is thrilled: "We have been able to scale up our operations pretty fast and service our blue-chip customer base in the US and Europe without any hiccups."

    Mukherjee represents a new crop of professionals—another set of poster boys for a revivalist city—triggering boom, pushing for change and creating the demand for better living. Better infrastructure (new flyovers, extension of the metro rail), better quality of life and real estate. The result is visible in big-ticket building projects all over.The prime mover was Harsh Neotia, managing director, Bengal Ambuja group, who introduced the joint-venture concept of condos in the state. Now, at least half-a-dozen of them are in different stages of construction. Says Neotia, the most visible face among the change-makers: "Actually, we were too reticent, too shy to talk about the good things, now there is a realisation that showcasing is important."

    He is, clearly, the role model for a new breed of honorary Bengali entrepreneurs—Sumit Dabriwala, Rahul Saraf, Pradeep Chopra and Pradeep Sureka to name a few—all of them betting on the future of Calcutta. Smart, well-educated, well-travelled, hard working, they speak impeccable Bengali and wear their love for Calcutta on their Armani sleeves. "We have an obsessive passion to sell this city in our work, and often, we sell it together," says Dabriwala, developer of Highland Park.

    The 2-lakh square feet Forum mall on Elgin Road is now the preferred hangout destination of the young and aspiring. Says Rahul Saraf, the developer: "When I went marketing Forum, people were sceptical. When I actually flew down the owner of Bizarre to give her an idea of life in Calcutta, she was amazed to find that many young women in the nightclubs were in her creations. Today every space is taken." Shopper's Stop is the anchor store, with Nike, Lacoste, Swarovski, Amoretto, Ritu Kumar, Bizarre, Anokhi and Be being other attractions. Plus a food court and a four-screen multiplex, Inox.

    The 6.5-acre Charles Correa-designed City Centre in Salt Lake, with a four-screen multiplex, a designer residency, a shopping mall with food court, banquet hall and an entertainment arena, will be ready in a couple of months. Kishore Biyani—inventor of the hypermart in India—intends to open up the third Pantaloons store and will be adding to the two Big Bazaars. Shopper's Stop too plans two more stores in Calcutta. "The Park Street Music World does the most business among all our stores in India," says Goenka. Encouraged by the retail boom, the group is starting up Giant, a hypermart.

    Actually, the good life is now upon the city with a vengeance. No stand-alone club was set up in Calcutta for 25 years, but four have been added in the past three years. Until the turn of the century, Calcutta had no spa. By the end of 2003, it had six along with Solace, the only health club with a Reebok studio in east India. For two decades, no new upmarket restaurant opened shop, but the last few years have seen at least 25. One stand-alone coffee bar existed here until 1999, now there are 10 plus. Calcutta had barely a couple of Italian restaurants until the mid-'90s, today there are at least 12.

    Says homemaker Paromita Chowdhury: "I really look forward to the weekends now as we always eat out or do takeaways. Reason? There is such a vast range to choose from." Every locality—even staid North Calcutta—now has restaurants and franchised outlets of Domino's, Shiraz, Rehemania, Shabir's and a dozen other value-for-money options. And whereas eating out at places such as Oh Calcutta! and Grain of Salt—gourmet menus that cost up to Rs 1,200 for two—would have been unthinkable for Calcuttans on a regular basis in the past, there are queues outside both places today. At Sheesha, a hookah bar on top of 22 Camac Street, Meetu Jain, a pierced and streaked young lady who has come to sway to the r&b funky progressive beat this Wednesday night, is taking cool drags from her Rs 400-an-hour, mint-flavoured hookah. "It's my birthday, I get to do what I want," she says.

    Astor Hotel's Cloud Nine is swinging to rock, lounge and hip-hop as young men and women troop in from different clubbing destinations on a Saturday night. "We started as a resto-pub, but as clubbing caught on more and more people would take to the dance floor.So, we changed our profile," says the manager.

    We head for Someplace Else. Incognito, London Pub, Big Ben and, of course, Tantra, we are told, are absolute musts. While Someplace Else, our previous stop, is the domain of the 30-plus, double-deck Tantra's seriously young. Suddenly, the music stops and Natasha from Dubai hops into the bar area. What follows is the most audacious pole-dance performance one is likely to come across anywhere east of Persia.

    Actually, for long Calcutta has been trying to do the pole vault. Poor perception, which always takes time to catch up with reality, has been the problem. Regressive responses from the Left on processions don't help, as the decade-old image of Calcutta sticks on. During the CM's Mumbai road show, the ceo of a pharma major asked: "Doesn't Calcutta have a terrible power problem?"

    Says Cognizant's Mukherjee: "The intrinsic brand equity of Calcutta is experienced more by people within, rather than outside." To address this, the Indian Chamber of Commerce has a special "perception committee". Neotia is optimistic it'll work: "The momentum has caught on, all we need to do is to play our notes right and we can create a beautiful symphony."

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