Monday, Nov 28, 2022

Kolkata Korner

I know there'll be howls of protest to this, but the fact is that most Bengalis love status quo and are a lazy lot... The average Kolkatan is laidback, complacent, work-shirking, 'adda'-loving, largely incompetent and inward-looking..

Foretaste Of Disaster
The monsoons have just arrived, and this city is already reeling from its effects. When the skies opened up last week, large areas of the city went under water. Nothing new in that, but this time, just moderate and short duration showers were enough to turn Kolkata into a watery mess. At least, till last year, it would take at least a few hours of very heavy showers to inundate the city. Even as this is being written, some parts of the city, as in Behala and other pockets, are under water. This can only be very bad news for all of us; once the monsoons unleashes in its full fury, life in Kolkata will definitely come to a standstill. To make matters worse, power generating units have buckled under the weather: some got flooded, while equipments in others have been damaged or have developed snags. And massive power cuts have resulted. Those entrusted with the task of ensuring an adequate supply of power to consumers are pleading helplessness and offering various excuses ranging from wet coal--yes, wet coal: they say it leads to decrease in power generation, though why coal can't be transported to power plants without getting wet beats me--to that old and discredited excuse of step-motherly treatment (Bengal not getting its due share of power). Here, it must be mentioned that the city's power utility, the private sector CESC, stands out for its efficiency, but it has to depend on government entities to meet a major part of the city's requirements and, is thus, hamstrung by their incompetence. Kolkatans, thus, better resign themselves to wading through streets and 'powerless' days and nights when it really starts pouring.

Annual Feature
Inundation and acute power shortage have become synonymous with the monsoons in this city. It's the same story every year; before the monsoons, we're told by the Mayor (and the power department) that steps have been taken to spare Kolkatans of their annual monsoon misery. They trot out various excuses once the waterlogging and power outages happen, and give out solemn assurances with straight faces that they'd get to work immediately after the monsoons to ensure there's no repeat next year. Come next year, and it's the same story again. We've become inured to these assurances and excuses, and we allow the Mayor and others to get away so lightly with their incompetence, inefficiency and callousness. It is we, the citizens, who are to blame. Why do we accept excuses? We all know that water gets logged after showers because the drainage system is weak and unable to cope with the excess water that needs to be drained out fast from many areas in the city. The solution is to improve the drainage system, ensure they're clean and unclogged, de-silt all canals, preserve waterbodies and press into service heavy-duty pumps to drain out the rainwater. Only a small part of the city has proper sewers, and these were constructed by the British a century ago. After Independence, none of those who presided over the expanding city's civic affairs had ever thought it necessary to build sewers! The work on cleaning the existing sewers and building new ones started some years ago with funds from the British is progressing, like everything else in Kolkata, at a snail's pace. I've seen canals and storm water drains being dredged--the muck and silt that's scoured is dumped by their sides and it takes just one shower to take it all back to where it was taken out from in the first place! Meanwhile, waterbodies are being filled up with impunity by unscrupulous builders with the connivance of politicians. Heavy duty pumps bought with taxpayers' money don't function for a variety of reasons arising out of negligence of the civic staff. But all these failures and failings are accepted stoically by Kolkata's citizenry. And it is for primarily this reason that things never change, and won't as well, in Kolkata.

Inexplicable Nonchalance
Strange though it may sound, a majority of Kolkata's residents don't actually mind life coming to a halt for a day or two during the monsoons. I know many who actually look forward to a couple of days of waterlogged streets--it means staying indoors and away from their workplaces; they'll invariably have 'khichdi', read novels, chat, watch TV and movies and laze around. That's another reason, I suspect, the Mayor and Kolkata Municipal Corporation get away with such criminal inaction and monumental incompetence. I know there'll be howls of protest to this, but the fact is that most Bengalis love status quo and are a lazy lot. Dynamism is a characteristic that's alien to them, at least to the chaff that's left behind by the best and brightest who flee the misery and lack of opportunities here to greener pastures elsewhere. A society gets, after all, the rulers it deserves. The Mayor is but a part of Kolkata's citizenry and, thus, can be no different from the average Kolkatan--laidback, complacent, work-shirking, 'adda'-loving, largely incompetent and inward-looking. Whatever action happens is because of the minority who actually work conscientiously. But with the majority happy to sit back and accept things as they are, the constituency for change, for improvement and for things to move ahead fast is very weak. That's why Kolkata will sink everytime it rains, and it will sink deeper and deeper with each passing year. 

Puerile Comparisons
Try saying this to an average Bengali, and he'll quickly jump to Kolkata's defense. This (the water-logging, the power cuts, the rotting garbage on the streets etc) is not unique to Kolkata at all. I was told by an outraged young man the other day that in Gurgaon, power and water are in acute short supply; Kolkata is much better off in this regard. Waterlogging, he added, happens in Mumbai and other cities as well. There's no disputing what he said, but there are qualitative differences here. Gurgaon's power and water shortages will soon be solved and the authorities are seriously planning measures to take care of that city's projected requirements in 2050; that is called planning ahead which those in positions of responsibility here either neglect or are simply incapable of doing. And anyway, most residents of Gurgaon can afford round-the-clock power backup and to buy water; very few Kolkatans, thanks to the Bengalis' inexplicable subscription to a discredited ideology, can afford such 'luxuries'. Mumbai's waterlogging is nowhere as endemic as Kolkata's; it happened two years ago due to excessive rainfall. And Mumbaikars, unlike their counterparts here, didn't just put their feet up to enjoy an undeserved holiday when their city went under water. But most Bengalis here won't acknowledge all this and will, instead, argue that Kolkata is, by far, an attractive city to live in as compared to the other metros. One bhadralok even argued that, among other things that make this a better city than others, no bomb blasts have taken place here! Ah, is that because perpetrators of the blasts in other cities take refuge in and pass through Kolkata and, thus, wouldn't want to disturb their safe haven? Be that as it may, the fact remains that the average Bengali's refusal to acknowledge shortcomings and willingness to learn from others is a major character flaw that is behind all that's wrong with the city and the state today.

Neighbour's Pride
Floods happen every year, or almost every year, in West Bengal. Lakhs of people get marooned, many are even washed away, properties and crops get destroyed and relief is always too little, too late. Neighbouring Orissa, too, experiences floods every year. Floods are, after all, a natural phenomenon and can't be avoided. But in Orissa, people's sufferings due to floods have been reduced to a bare minimum by imaginative and efficient planning using the latest technology by a government agency--the Orissa State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA). This agency--winner of many laurels and the union government is asking other states to model similar agencies in the state on the lines of the OSDMA--has detailed topographical maps of every nook and corner and when rains occur in catchment areas, can predict much in advance if any part of the state will get flooded. And when floods are imminent, it swings into action by scrambling all government departments to send advance warning to residents of the areas likely to be affected and transporting them to safer places like high grounds that are then stocked very well with relief materials. In case advance evacuation is not possible and people get marooned, IAF helicopters that are requisitioned are used very efficiently--OSDMA officers ensure every trip is utilized optimally to reach relief to the maximum number of people. They can do this because they have the precise number of people marooned at each point on their laptops and know exactly what to reach when and where. In West Bengal, by contrast, IAF choppers are kept on standby for days without any sorties being flown because no one knows what is required and by how many and where. The choppers search for marooned people and drop relief materials going by visual estimates of the requirements on the ground. As a result, adequate relief never reaches the affected people and the whole exercise is an inefficient, incompetent and insufficient one. And I'm not the one saying this--this allegation, and a comparison with Orissa, has been made by IAF authorities who've expressed their frustration with the way things happen in Bengal. But the IAF's criticism, far from being taken in the right spirit, has raised the hackles of arrogant Bengalis who're bristling at being told that Orissa's disaster management is far better than Bengal's non-existent one. For them, it's nothing short of sacrilegious to compare Bengalis with any other community! And that is why, I say, Bengal will continue to wallow in their quagmire of inefficiency and incompetence. Because Bengalis suffer from the –frog-in-the-well' syndrome.


P.S: Honourable exceptions, needless to say, exist among Bengalis; there are quite a few who're able to accept criticism and acknowledge the community's shortcomings, including our hypocrisies. They strive hard to bring about change. But, unfortunately, they're in a minority. It's only when all Bengalis, or at least a majority, learn to accept that they're not a superior race and have failings, like everyone else, and that the community and state is lagging behind miserably, that hope for change can emerge.