Friday, Aug 19, 2022

Kolkata Korner

A front page story on the meeting between Jyoti Basu and Mamata Banerjee was accompanied by a list of "historic handshakes" - that between Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai, Nelson Mandela and F.W.De Klerk, Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Rabin...


Deja vu

Those 'dark days' (and nights) of the 1970s and '80s that marked Kolkata's downfall are back with a vengeance. Prolonged power cuts, outages and faults triggered by a crippling power shortage has made life miserable for Kolkatans in this stifling heat and humidity. The cruel irony is that till just the other day, the Bengal government was proudly proclaiming this to be a power-- surplus state. The present crisis has not only demolished this claim, but also exposed the pathetic lie that our Marxist rulers have been passing off. For many years, nothing was done to augment power generation or install new power plants. There is a lot of potential for generating clean power --  hydel, wind and tidal --  that lies totally untapped. It is only very recently that the reality --  of demand outstripping supply --  dawned on our rulers and though measures (like installing new power plants or capacity addition to existing ones) are being taken, they'll take a long time to go on stream. In the meanwhile, Kolkatans will have to suffer prolonged power cuts, thanks to the shortsightedness of Bengal's rulers.

Not learning from history

What makes Bengal's Marxist rulers more culpable of the crime of allowing things to come to such a pass is their inability, or refusal, to learn from history. One of the reasons (though not the main cause) of the flight of capital from Bengal three decades ago and the state's resultant decline was the notorious power cuts that earned Kolkata and Bengal a lot of infamy. The power situation improved a lot by the 1990s (to give the devil its due, it was the Marxists who led the turnaround). Bengal started exporting power to other states. But the criminal mistake that our rulers made was to rest on their laurels. And when our Marxists jettisoned their dogma (and ideology) to start wooing private capital, they should have put the infrastructure in place to meet the demands of the increased economic and industrial activity and the resultant affluence. But they placed the cart before the horse and now find themselves in a hopeless situation. Demand for power has gone up exponentially from new industrial units and commercial establishments as well as individual consumers. And the state is in no position to meet this demand. With this shortfall expected to continue over the next three years at least till power plants under construction now are commissioned, the fear is that not only would potential investors shy away from coming to Bengal, even those who've invested here may move away. This had happened more than three decades ago and one would have expected Bengal's rulers to have learnt a lesson from that. They didn't, and Bengal may have to suffer again due to this.

Adding to the crisis

Desperate situations call for desperate measures. So too with the dismal power situation. Kolkata's distressed citizens have started purchasing generators to buy some relief. Those who can afford it have gone in for their own sets, while many others have pooled resources to purchase heavy-- duty ones. In many localities, entrepreneurs have invested in huge generator sets and sell power to people at a premium. The result is that this noisy and polluted city gets more cacophonous and its air more noxious. Whenever there's a power failure, a large number of generators start to life and create an unbearable din and spew fumes; the sound and fumes make the area more uninhabitable. But then, hapless Kolkatans can't be blamed for this. Living with more noise and air pollution beats sweating it out in the sweltering heat and insufferable humidity. Those manning the state power department and our political masters have to shoulder the blame for this exacerbated mess that we find ourselves in these days.

Shifting responsibility

The Bengal government now wants the Calcutta High Court to frame guidelines to check vehicular emission in Kolkata. The reason it gives for this strange move is that its two earlier attempts to do so --  one, when it wanted to phase out commercial vehicles that are more than 15 years old and the second, when it notified that only BS-- II (Bharat Stage II) vehicles can ply on the city's streets --  were struck down by the Court. So this time, it wants the Court to decide what it should do to check the dangerously noxious fumes emitted by Kolkata's vehicles. This amounts to an unacceptable and unforgivable abdication of responsibility. The Court was right in striking down these two misguided and mischievous notices. I use the term mischievous because the state government, not wanting to upset the transporters' (bus, taxi, truck and auto-- rickshaws that contribute the most to vehicular pollution) lobby, issued the two notices knowing fully well they'd be successfully challenged in Court. The issue is not whether vehicles are marked BS II or are 15 or 50 years old; what matters is that their emissions are within the laid-- down parameters. Even BS II, or BS III vehicles, can violate emission standards. Even brand new vehicles can do so. Instead of cracking down on old vehicles and ones without the 'BS-- II' tag, the state government would do well to make it mandatory for all vehicles to submit themselves to regular auto emission tests. Possessing and displaying 'pollution under control' certificates ought to be made mandatory. And auto emission checking systems (or machinery) ought to be made tamper-- proof so that the test results cannot be fudged, as is so widespread now. This is the way to go about this problem and it doesn't need a rocket scientist to figure this out.

No easy solution

But this won't be acceptable to the state government. If a tamper-- proof emission testing system is put in place and if a law is enacted to ensure that only those vehicles that pass this test can ply on Kolkata's roads, most of the buses, trucks, taxis and auto-- rickshaws would have to go off the roads. Upgrading the engines of these heavily polluting vehicles and installing devices like catalytic converters that'll help them pass the emission test is an expense that owners or drivers of these commercial vehicles would rather not incur. Leaders of the CPI(M)'s labour arm, the CITU, have promised these transporters (who are affiliated to the CITU anyway) that they needn't bother about trivialities like emission checks and pollution. These transporters are a vote bank of the CPI(M) and provide critical help to the party in times of rallies, bandhs etc. So they can't be antagonized. And with the party's interest being considered supreme, lesser important matters like cleaning up Kolkata's air and penalizing polluting vehicles have to take a backseat. The state government can, thus, be expected to fudge the issue again and again in order to protect the transporters. But it would be interesting if the Court asks the state government to do exactly what it doesn't want to: put in place a foolproof emission checking machinery and ensure only those vehicles that pass the emission test ply on the city's roads. The Court could also appoint an independent person monitor the emission test centers and report on their performance to the Court. That would leave the state government no room to wriggle out of a tough situation. And Kolkatans could, literally, breathe easier (thanks to reduced vehicular emission).

Bengalis' delusions

Most Bengalis, at least the ones who were born, grew up and stay in Bengal, suffer from the (false) impression that the world revolves around Bengal; they harbour a highly exaggerated sense of Bengal's, and Bengalis', importance. A local English daily provided yet another example of this the other day. A front page story on the meeting between CPI(M)'s Bengal patriarch Jyoti Basu and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and their handshake of sorts was accompanied by a list of "historic handshakes" --  that between Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai, Nelson Mandela and F.W.De Klerk, Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Rabin, and the Presidents of the two Koreas. This newspaper thus equated Basu and Banerjee --  both but politicians of Bengal; Basu hasn't even been a Central Minister and Banerjee had a couple of unremarkable and short tenures there --  to global leaders like Nixon, Mandela and Arafat! The sheer ridiculousness of this whole comparison, when none can ever be made, was amazing. And there's more --  those who compiled this 'historic' list thought it fit to include in it one between Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan earlier this year! This inclusion in itself ought to shame and silence those who speak about Bengalis' intellectual prowess.

Hilsa crisis

Here's, at long last, one positive step that the Bengal government has taken. And it should gladden the quintessential Bengali who loves his (or her) Hilsa. I'm talking about the government's decision to ban sale of Hilsa that's less than 500 grams in weight. Hilsa that's less than 500 grams is the young fish and netting such a fish (that is yet to spawn) is a small step towards extinction of the delectable fish. The state fisheries department has met with fishermen and fish traders' associations and has held awareness camps for the former to explain that netting the small fish would lead to extinction of the Hilsa. Already, the annual catch of the fish has gone down substantially from 24,000 tonnes four years ago to 20,000 tonnes last year. Two sub-- species of the Hilsa can't be found any longer. Thus, the ban couldn't have come at a better time. And hopefully, it would be implemented as strictly as the fisheries minister has promised. 

P.S. This is something all Hilsa-- lovers ought to know: it is essentially a saltwater fish that lives along the coastline, but spawns only in fresh water. With the onset of the monsoons, when the rivers carry larger quantities of fresh water into the sea, the Hilsa travels upstream to lay its eggs and then travels back to its natural habitat. The Hilsa caught during this return journey after spawning is the tastiest. Netting the seaward-- bound fish after it has laid its eggs doesn't cause any harm to the population of this fish. Fishermen who net Hilsa that has eggs or the baby fish can always throw them back into the water. So all ye Hilsa-- lovers, buy only full-- grown fish without eggs. And relish your fried Ilish, shorshey Ilish and bhapey Ilish when the monsoons set in (hopefully very soon).