October 23, 2020
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Kolkata Korner

The Calcutta High Court freezes Buddha's pet project — the Book Fair — for now, while Dada fans have much to moan about, and the government executes yet another U-turn

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Kolkata Korner

Green Victory
At a time when nothing but bad news has been flooding Kolkata (and Bengal), this is something that would warm the cockles of every Kolkata-loving heart. The Calcutta High Court, has  asked the organizers of the Kolkata Book Fair to keep away from the Maidan till the case against them comes up for hearing next Monday (Jan 29). A lot has been written on the damage caused to the Maidan year after year by the Book Fair. The state authorities shifted all fairs, except the book fair, out of the Maidan since fairs cause pollution (a dangerous increase in the suspended particulate matter and respirable particulate matter, dangerous enough to cause even death, says the state pollution control board) and cause irreparable damage to the Maidan.

But the Book Fair—which causes the most damage since it records the highest number of footfalls among all fairs—has been allowed to continue since, as Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee says, it is an important international event of tremendous cultural significance to Kolkata. Arguments that the Book Fair wouldn’t lose its sheen if shifted elsewhere have been brushed aside and while the Booksellers’ & Publishers’ Guild have refused to even entertain thoughts of shifting to any alternate venue, the state government has failed miserably to get the permanent fair venue in the eastern fringes of the city ready even after two years. 

The Court has today observed that the various state agencies (the pollution control board, fire brigade, the municipal corporation and the police) that have granted permission to the Guild for holding the fair have done so without proper scrutiny and care. While it remains to be seen what happens on Monday, one thing is certain: that the Kolkata Book Fair will not start as scheduled on January 31. And the event (as well as its organizers) will find it difficult to shake off the bad press and publicity it has earned over the past few weeks. And that can only brighten the chances of the fair eventually shifting out of the Maidan. 

Tube Travails
This was something Kolkatans have been waiting for, and when the moment came, their TV screens went blank. Sourav’s comeback was missed by a majority of Kolkatans; and the resultant rage was understandable. I&B Minister PR Das Munshi, who was in this city that time, spewed venom at Nimbus, the channel that had bagged the exclusive TV rights to broadcast the match, even going to the extent of calling the channel unpatriotic. But the point everyone missed was that Kolkatans would have been able to merrily watch the Nagpur match had the state government implemented the Conditional Access System (CAS) here three years ago. That time, despite repeated requests from the union government, the state government dragged its feet in deference to the wishes of the powerful cabal of cable operators to scuttle the plan. Under the CAS regime, the cable operators would not be able to under-report the number of their subscribers and, hence, they were opposed to CAS. Cable operators of Kolkata declare just a fraction of their actual number of customers and, hence, rake in lakhs of Rupees every month illegally. But now, since implementation of CAS in phases has been made mandatory and 15 percent of Kolkata has come under CAS, all those with set-top boxes, including about 25,000 homes in Behala (Sourav’s locality), could cheer and celebrate Dada’s spectacular show on Tuesday. As for the rest of Kolkatans, they should blame the state government, which, rather than catering to the interests of the people, seems more interested in protecting crooks and vested interests.

Another U-Turn
U-turns seem to have become the CPI(M)’s (and that of the government it leads in Bengal) favourite path of late. It executed one more recently: on the entry of multinational retail giants. Even as recently as October 2006, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee questioned the need for these entities to come to India. Just three months down the line, Metro AG of Germany has already entered Bengal, Wal-Mart has bought land and others are planning to set up shop here soon. What’s more, a booklet brought out by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation recently celebrates the entry of the retail giants. It reveals the state government’s policy of "encouraging" all types of retail activities since "the retail market in West Bengal holds a lot of promise". Indian retail giants are also doing "roaring business" and more are poised to enter the state, it states. The booklet was brought out at the time the CPI(M) central committee was meeting in Kolkata early this month. At that meeting, the party reiterated its opposition to entry of retail MNCs on the ground that arrival of these retail giants would wipe out small, subsistence-level retailers! Another classic example of the party saying one thing and its government in Bengal doing exactly the opposite. 

Colossal Waste
More than Rs 100 crore has been spent on concretizing tram tracks in Kolkata. Much more will be spent over the next couple of years to concretize all the tram tracks, running up to 68 kilometres all over the city. But all that is money down the drain! A glaring case of faulty planning, shortsightedness and inexplicable lack of intelligence, no less. The tracks, in the middle of roads, were earlier paved with uneven asphalt-coated bricks that would force motorists to slow down. And this resultant slowing down of traffic on or near tram tracks would enable passengers to easily cross the road, board trams or even wait by the side of the tram tracks for a tramcar to arrive. But now that the tracks have been concretized and driving on the roads made much easier and faster, boarding trams has become an extremely hazardous exercise. Tickets sales in trams has dropped by 70 percent and if things continue like this, the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC), which is already in debt, will sink deeper in the financial morass and the state government would have to pour in more scarce resources to keep this Kolkata heritage on its tracks. But this needn’t have been the case—while concretizing the tracks which involved uprooting the rails, the tracks could have been shifted to the sides of the roads (to run beside pavements) so that boarding or disembarking from trams would have been easier. That way, more people would have used trams, especially the elderly, women and children who find Kolkata’s speeding and rashly-driven buses too crowded and troublesome. Yes, shifting the tram tracks would have added to the expenses, but it would have been money well spent. It would have made more sense to make a one-time investment to help the CTC earn more rather than sanctioning bailout money every few months. But then, foresight, far-sightedness and even common sense are what Kolkata’s planners have always lacked. 

Airport Blues
Some weeks ago, I had written about the poor state of Kolkata’s airport. Things have only deteriorated over the past few weeks. I had an early morning flight the other day and reported more than an hour before the flight. After checking in, to my horror, I discovered two serpentine queues snaking their way through the lounge. It took me 45 minutes, no less, to reach the enclosure for security check. Forty minutes of shoving, prodding and loud quarrels with people trying to jump the queue. The departure lounge was more crowded than the Howrah railway station, with passengers even having to squat on the floors. It sounded more like a bazaar, what with passengers complaining to uncooperative airport staff and breaking into frequent verbal duels with staff of airlines that were reporting flight delays. It all started from the entrance to the terminal building—a major portion of the portico where passengers alight from their vehicles has been fenced off (probably for some hare-brained project) and the scene there resembles that at a busy intersection during rush hour, with cars blaring their honks and trying to edge past each other, drivers swearing at each other and passengers trying to squeeze through bumper-to-bumper traffic. And yes, luggage trolleys were nowhere to be found. Last time, I had written about what a poor impression a visitor to this city would get on landing at the airport. I’ll add to that—a visitor flying out of the city would carry an even worse impression. 

Smiling Skies
Going on to more pleasant things, the weather this season has been the best in recent memory. Unlike the past few years when woolens would remain packed away, Kolkatans had ample opportunity to bask in the winter sun and cover themselves in the woolies this year. What’s better, the dream run is continuing even now, thanks to the cold ‘North Wind’ (bless it) blowing in to keep the mercury down. The fabulous weather this time has revived memories of the glorious wintry days of yore when picnics, parties, races, polo and cricket matches (with players in white flannels, mind you), leisurely strolls in the city’s many parks, bird-watching and much, much more used to be prime-time activities on Kolkatans’ winter schedules. We witnessed a slow revival of all these this year, staring with the polo tourney that attracted many, including one who was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world—Maharani Gayatri Devi. Hopefully, the winters will be the same (if not better) next year and we can have more fun. 

Now, this is a book every nature-loving Kolkatan must possess. Photo Guide to the Birds of Kolkata, a well-illustrated book by JM Garg (a railway officer), lists all types of birds that are to be found in this city. This book, the first of its kind, is the result of ten years of painstaking efforts by the amateur ornithologist who spent holidays and weekends over a decade photographing birds all over the city. The moderately-priced book contains photos of all types of birds in various stages of their lives and engaged in various activities like preening, flying, hunting and mating. It contains brief descriptions of the birds and is, thus, an educative book as well. A surprise finding of Garg is that Kolkata, despite its vanishing green cover, is home to a lot more bird species than many other cities. Next, the railway officer plans similar guides on Kolkata’s butterflies and trees. Cheers to such noble ventures.

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