In 2005, when I went to Kolkata I had been pleasantly surprised by the optimism in the air. Growing up, Kolkata was a city of processions with people carrying placards saying “I am an educated unemployed. Give me work.” , a city where when parents told children “Be the best in class. Else you will starve” kids took their parents more seriously than their contemporaries in other parts of the country, a city of closed jute mills, haunted in their desolateness, with the red flags dotting the perimeters resembling raw, festering wounds inflicted by the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts” of CITU trade-unionism. In a surprising turn-around I could not have foreseen, that same city seemed to have gotten rid itself of the despondency and stagnation that had characterized it for decades. Buddhadeb was being considered to be a transformative figure responsible for this change, determined to roll back the darkness of the Jyoti-Basu era, with his genuine focus on capitalist evils like investment. Sector V was bustling with IT majors lining up to open offices. The manufacturing and heavy industry sectors were looking to take off, with ambitious projects not seen in Bengal for decades being inked. A new township was coming up in Rajarhat. Change was everywhere and one could not but feel heady with all the feel-good.
This time, however, the mood was different. Dark clouds had once again gathered and despair had spread far and wide. Nano is gone, taking with it dreams of Bengal becoming a manufacturing hub. Construction lies stopped in large parts of Rajarhat after the Vedic Village fiasco and amidst turf wars between a resurgent Trinamool and CPM. The CPM leadership, under severe siege, has stopped all development work because they do not want to give Mamata another opportunity to mobilize support before the elections and are instead concentrating on the worst kind of populism, to wean back minority votes back from Trinamool. Illegal hawkers, who had made the footpaths hell in the 70s and the 80s and who had been uprooted in the 90s, have once taken full control, forcing people to walk on the streets and clog up the city’s arteries. A large cut-out of Shahrukh Khan, sweating with what is supposed to be passion, sits near the Metropolitan Bypass with a golden helmet in his hand, looking like a gigantic sweaty man taking a dump by the road with a lota in tow, served as a reminder that even sport is not going to provide respite to a tired city.
And towering over all of them are gigantic images of megalomaniac Didi folding hands with her slogan “Ma Mati Manush” (Mother, Earth and Human), prepared to set fire to Mother, Earth and Human so as to become the Chief Minister. Flapping their dark wings are the Nazgul, Kolkata’s ‘intellectuals’, an euphemism for jobless theatre-workers, disgruntled college teachers, washed-out film actors, beaten-up ex-Naxalite wastrels and tuneless songsters, many of whom slighted under CPM rule with small plot-hand-outs from the Chief Minister’s quota in Salt Lake have gravitated to Mamata Banerjee if not for anything else but the opportunity to sing and perform in Railways organized jamborees.
If anything captured the spirit of total administrative paralysis it was the fire in one of Kolkata’s most loved landmarks, Flury’s in Park Street, Kolkata’s historic eatery district, that happened while I was in the city. Twenty-six people died as the administration took three hours to bring in hydraulic ladders, firemen, each of them above forty-five (because recruitment has been frozen), were seen running about, lacking the requisite training to use the ladders (since they evidently havent done fire drills in a while). Spare a thought for the firemen also because they were forced to enter a building full of smoke with handkerchiefs on their noses, because there is no money for masks.
What makes this even more tragic was that there was a fire station on that street itself but it didnt have a working lift and so lifts had to come from far off. While this running about was going on, people were leaping to their deaths, choosing to put their faith in miracles rather than in the West Bengal government.
And if this is the state of affairs in downtown Kolkata then one can imagine the bandobast for normal people living in other parts of the city, in the suburbs and in the villages (Only exception being Salt Lake which is where the ministers and the government-land-allotted intellectuals stay—the ladders were located near there coincidentally). The final icing on the cake. West Bengal is perhaps the only state (this I am not sure) that actually has a Fire Minister, a man who was seen the next day shamelessly absolving himself of all responsibility for the sorry state of fire services. Disgusting !
Perhaps what summed up Bengal’s problem most appropriately was a poster I saw in honor of dead comrade Jyoti Basu. Below the picture of the late patriarch was a line that encapsulated his greatest achievement in the eyes of his fans—-“Ajibon Communist” or “Communist for life”.
West Bengal, like Basu, had also stayed “Communist for life”. And the outcome of that is there for all to see.