First ImpressionsIf first impressions are lasting impressions, visitors to Kolkata definitely harbour a negative image of this city. Step out of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport or the rail stations at Howrah and Sealdah, and touts and beggars will pounce on you. The most offensive are the cabbies who employ every trick in the book to cheat unsuspecting visitors. Those manning the pre-paid taxi counter in the airport’s arrival lounge are a brusque lot, miserly with information and low on courtesy. It’s easy, anyway, for a first-time visitor to miss the pre-paid counter, especially since there aren’t any signs directing passengers to it. Stepping out of the arrival lounge is akin to falling overboard into shark-infested waters: hordes of cabbies quote preposterous rates and literally drag passengers away to their vehicles. The same is the experience outside the rail stations. Add to that the porters and beggars, all out to make a fast buck, and Kolkata would, to the first-time visitor, appear to be a wicked, notorious city inhabited by cut-throats and crooks. It’s not so at all, but can we blame visitors from gaining this impression? High time the authorities step in to regulate the cabbies. But that’s asking for too much-after all, these cabbies belong to the CPI(M)-affiliated CITU.
The DelugeA relentless, overnight downpour earlier this week submerged most parts of Kolkata. The 181 mm of rain over eight hours was enough to cause havoc. To add to Kolkatans’ woes, many areas continued to remain under water even 36 hours after the deluge, thanks to clogged sewers and non-functional pumps meant to drain out rainwater. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s lack of preparedness came under sharp attack and an embattled Mayor, like all his predecessors, has promised to clean the sewers and ensure the pumps work the next time the skies open up. But as environmental experts have pointed out, such measures may not be enough. The major reason behind the clogging of the city’s storm-water drains and sewers, they state, is plastic: large amounts of discarded plastic carry bags clogged the outlets. The government doesn’t have the will to ban plastics. The plea is that those employed in plastic-manufacturing units would lose their livelihood. That’s a foolish plea. If plastic is banned, people will be forced to use bags made of paper, juts and other environmental-friendly items. Units manufacturing these will come up and jobs will be created in those. There’ll be dislocation, but that’ll only be very temporary. The city would be a cleaner and healthier place to live in. Any takers for such a dream? Or is it a pipe dream?
Yet another reason behind the flooding of Kolkata is the city’s topography and its vanishing waterbodies. Kolkata’s gradient is towards the east; earlier, rainwater would drain into the wetlands and waterbodies in the eastern and northwestern fringes of the city. Over the years, these have been filled up. The creation of Salt Lake by filling up large waterbodies that used to exist there is now being seen as a monumental tragedy. But even as realization of the folly has sunk in over the last few years, land sharks and promoters have had a free run filling up more waterbodies and reclaiming wetlands. Laws have been flouted, often with the help of Left politicians. Of the 20,000 acres of wetlands that existed in the city’s northwestern fringes in 1945, only 8,000 acres exist today and they, too, are under threat. All over the city and its suburbs, unscrupulous promoters, with the patronage of local politicians, are filling up ponds and lakes. As a result, there’s no place excess water can drain into. The silver lining is that the CPI(M) state secretary, Biman Bose, has announced a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards such elements. This week, after the waterlogging, he issued a call to citizens to form committees to protect waterbodies. He was drawing inspiration from (where else but) Shanghai, where people formed resistance committees to prevent wetlands from being gobbled up. As in Shanghai, so in Kolkata.
Two weeks ago, Kolkata Korner lamented the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s perfunctory tree-plantation drives that resulted in 28,000 of the 30,000 saplings that were planted by the civic body meeting an ignominious death. An angry forest department which handed out these saplings for free had said it would now charge for them, but the civic body pleaded it doesn’t have funds to buy them. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who’s known to be eco-friendly, stepped in and asked the KMC to lay off tree plantation drives. The responsibility for increasing the city’s green cover has now been entrusted to the forest department, which has already drawn up plans to plant 2.31 saplings -- and this time, tree guards would be erected around the young saplings -- this year. The department has drawn up a reasonable target of ensuring that at least 70 percent of the saplings survive. A high-level monitoring panel for the ‘Green Kolkata’ project has been formed with the Chief Secretary at its head and large sums of money have been sanctioned. The plan includes creation of eight urban forests in the city, up from the existing two forests. As for the KMC, it has been relegated to implementing tree plantation drives only in its own parks and distributing saplings to organisations and individuals. Surely, the Mayor isn’t happy over this rap.
That’s what transport minister Subhas Chakraborty truly is. Despite the controversies he courts and his alleged links with criminals, he continues to be a minister, thanks to his nonagenarian patron Jyoti Basu. His penchant for putting his foot in his mouth has often landed the Left Front government in an embarrassing spot, but Chakraborty remains unrepentant. His uncalled-for comments and interventions on subjects that elude his intelligence, to put it charitably, are inexplicable. Like those he made recently on the Tata's Rs one lakh car project. According to Chakraborty, there was no way Tata could make such a low-priced car, given the cost of components and accessories. Now, everyone knows a prototype of the car is running at a test centre at Pune; the Tatas are ready to invest huge sums of money in this dream car project in Bengal. The state government has showcased the Tata’s decision to invest here as a prime example of Bengal emerging as a prime investment destination. And then along comes Chakraborty to express his ill-informed doubts over the project. Provoking even his own party leaders to question his intellect, wisdom and judgment. The Tatas, as one of Chakraborty’s senior colleagues commented, are professionals and wise; they know what to do with their money and wouldn’t chase pipe dreams and the last person they need to tell them about the viability of their projects is Subhas Chakraborty. This is exactly what senior party leaders told the Minister a few days ago. And he’d be a wise man if he follows their advice to keep mum.
Controversies are not the exclusive domain of Subhas Chakraborty; even the Chief Minister sparks some at times. Like the one triggered by his unbecoming remarks that Jagmohan Dalmiya should not contest the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) president’s post this time. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee deputed Chakraborty (who’s also the Sports Minister) to convince Dalmiya (who now holds the CAB president’s post) not to contest the elections. But Chakraborty failed to convince Dalmiya, who, it seems, is worried about the fate of his supporters in the sports body if he steps aside. Kolkata Police Commissioner Prasun Mukherjee, who’s being backed by the CM, filed his nomination papers and it appears that Dalmiya will also do the same, setting the stage for an interesting contest. The grapevine has it that the names of former CAB chief B.N.Dutt and former CM Siddhartha Shankar Ray (who headed the CAB many years ago) as well as the Sports Minister himself were suggested as compromise candidates to Dalmiya. But Dutt is ill, and the names of Ray (a Congressman) and Chakraborty (the CM doesn’t trust him) didn’t inspire much confidence in either camp. CAB insiders say Dalmiya has strong support among the various clubs that make up the CAB and the police chief would face a stiff challenge. If Mukherjee loses, as he well could, it would be a huge embarrassment for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. A prospect that the sports minister relishes.
Those Quaint RickshawsHand-pulled rickshaws, unique to Kolkata, will stay on the city’s roads for a while longer. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had, last year, said they represented an archaic and inhuman mode of transportation. But the draft law to ban these rickshaws took, not surprisingly, more than a year to prepare. And immediately after the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Act, 2006 was introduced by the CM in the state Assembly on Thursday, it was referred to a select committee for discussion. The reason-some Opposition parties and sections within the ruling Left Front were opposed to the ban on the ground that it would displace poor rickshaw pullers and reduce them to penury. But the CM, determined to see the Bill through, said it would be passed in the next session of the Assembly. What the select committee would, perhaps, do is recommend measures to rehabilitate the rickshaw pullers (mostly poor migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) in some other vocations. That’s easier said than done-what vocations would the rickshaw pullers, most of them well past their late 40s, fit into even after re-training? This is not to argue for continuation of these rickshaws that are not only inhuman, but also slow down the city’s traffic. But providing alternate means of livelihood to the rickshaw pullers is something that the state would be ill-equipped to do.
Relief for TV Viewers
News about the Delhi High Court’s order on implementation of the Conditional Access System (CAS) in the three metros (Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata; Chennai has already implemented it) must have been welcomed by millions of cable TV viewers. More so in this city, where viewers have been at the mercy of unscrupulous cable operators (who provide the last mile connectivity to our homes). There can be no argument against CAS. Viewers will have a wide choice of 150 channels and will have to subscribe to them through the set-top box. Yes, cable bills will go up, but only for those who want to watch many channels. More than 70 channels will be free-to-air and anyway, an overwhelming majority of viewers, including the poor and the lower middle classes, watch only these channels. Viewers will have to pay for watching channels like Discovery and Star Movies. Do the poor or lower middle classes watch such channels? No. The immediate fallout of CAS is that the monopoly of the local cable operator will go, and that’s welcome news. These cable operators under-declare their subscriber base to cheat the broadcasters and multi-system operators. The amount of money they make illegally in this manner is mind-boggling. Kolkata, for instance, has 20 lakh cable homes, according to modest estimates. But cable operators say only five lakh homes here subscribe to cable TV. They charge, on an average, Rs 200 per cable TV connection and multiplied by the 15 lakh connections they don’t declare, their illegal earnings are a whopping Rs 30 crore a month! No wonder, then, that they and the political parties backing them don’t want CAS.
A Welcome Step
The Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s decision to remove all those ugly hoardings from Dalhousie Square (or BBD Bag, as the area is now known as) is definitely a welcome one. The entire area that houses the Writers’ Building, the GPO and other old colonial structures has been declared a heritage zone. But huge billboards and hoardings act as visual pollutants there (and in most other parts of the city as well). While the KMC’s move to remove them has to be lauded, it remains to be seen if the civic body can resist pressures from powerful lobbies and go ahead. Advertising agencies that will be hit by the ban are up in arms; some of them even claim hoardings add to the beauty of a place! Imagine a huge billboard advertising underwear adding to the beauty of a Gothic structure! But such specious arguments aside, what the government needs to do is to immediately legislate laws to ban hoardings that have mushroomed all over the city, especially at major traffic intersections. That would be a significant step towards Kolkata’s beautification.
The CPI(M)-affiliated Coordination Committee of state government employees has some healthy advice for the tourism department-open bars in the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation’s lodges. The committee’s suggestion has been driven by its need to protect the interests of the corporation’s employees (and, hence, the Coordination Committee members) who man these lodges. If the government allows liquor to served in those properties, they’ll start making profits. And then, there’ll be no need to privatize them. The committee’s leaders, of course, haven’t stated this explicitly; they’ve said the lodged can’t compete with private hotels that serve liquor and the government needs to be practical and allow free flow of liquor in its lodges. But whatever be the rationale behind the suggestion, it definitely is a practical one. It now remains to be seen if the government is as pragmatic as its employees.
Amidst all this news of chaos and controversies comes the welcome news of a software firm headquartered in Kolkata having bagged the prestigious contract of designing the entire software that’ll run Beijing’s new international airport. Skytech, with its head office at Salt Lake here, has been working for the past two years to develop the software for all operations in the airport ranging from security to baggage handling, landings and take offs, passenger movement and administration. A team of 50 young software engineers are developing it at the firm’s Salt Lake office. Skytech’s CEO Dibyendu Kishore Choudhury says the entire software will be ready by next year. Skytech competed against much bigger rivals to bag the contract for the 3.36 lakh square metre airport that handle 1000 landings a day and nearly eight crore passengers by the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Skytech makes for just the right inspirational material for Bengal and Bengalis.