Monday, March 19, 2007


When I was growing up in Delhi I used to be sent back every summer holiday to spend time with my grandparents, while I used to get to fly sometimes, very often travelling back meant taking the Howrah Rajdhani. Once, during these trips, my mother looked out of the window as we crossed Asansol and headed towards Durgapur, and told me that this is where the industrial revolution in India started in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The place looked like an industrial wasteland, hell on earth. Hundreds of small smokestacks, with only the occasional one still belching its pollution into the sky. Otherwise, broken buildings and even more broken machinery.
I once remember a Hindustan Motors lamenting how Indira Gandhi killed Uttarpara by allowing Maruti to be born, ignoring the fact that successive governments are the only reason that the Ambassador is still produced and only now are government bureaucrats moving onto Tata Indigo's and Maruti Esteem's, because lets be honest, the Amby has lived out its life by a few decades. Now even HM is talking about updating the Amby, finally! (I don't expect anything, though)
My ancestral village, rather town, is the once colonial port of Hooghly and its adjoining town (though ex-French colony) of Chandanagar, about two hours north of Calcutta. In fact, Singur falls in Hooghly district. Hooghly and the next big town in the region of Bardhwan were once hubs of India's engineering and jute industries. The last time I returned to Hooghly, which admittedly was quite a long time ago, all you could see from our century-old waterfront house was the massive river - which is over a kilometer wide over there was the skeletan remains of old factories. Even though I haven't been 'home' (though I was born in Calcutta) for a while, I am pretty sure it remains the same.
I do not claim to know the intricacies of Bengal politics, which ever since 'that' battle has pretty much all over the place and not helped by famine (stories of which my grandparents have told me) - and mixed in the wonderful fact that Bengal was always a communal hellhole. While people in Delhi never fail to remind you what they endured in 1947, the only people they can't tell anything to are Bengali's, because Bengal (and specifically Calcutta) burned for a lot longer, even though the scale of Punjabi's killing each other is unparalleled in world history, and that has a lot to do with Punjab's history ever since Alexander.
Anyway, back to the point, maybe the land distribution the communists started in 1977 (officially) was a reaction to the famine of 1942-43 which was still well entrenched in public memory, though most voters of today were born well after it. But restrictive land-laws began the flight of capital from Bengal, and worse for the state the flight of human resources had started a lot earlier. My father's ISC batch from Calcutta in 1971 had quite a few people who went on to bigger things - but other than the standard guys who ran away to the IIT's, that was one of the first batch where the best and the brightest did not go to Presidency - they went to Stephen's instead at the results of Naxalbari spread across the state, and ironically almost 35 years later are consuming parts of the country in a psuedo-civil war.
Buddhadeb came to power with a vision of transforming Bengal, making it the industrial and intellectual power it once was, and make sure that its best and brightest had votes in South Calcutta (ironically Mamata's constituency) instead of South Bombay or South Delhi (if they stayed in India if at all). And man he tried, but trying to undo a 25-year long mess in a few years would have consequences. And the consequences have not been pretty (YouTube video link to Nandigram violence).
I do not understand why there are politicians who are steadfastly refusing development, because Bengal really needs a degree of re-industrialsation, while there are others who want to shove it down people's throats. Maybe the Communists in Bengal, who are so used to staying in power have forgotten that we do happen, as does West Bengal, to be a democracy and any development should take place with that age-old Indian idiom of 'adjustment'.
I do not pretend to be a Bengal scholar, there are several people far more capable of that than I am, however, there are very few (if there are any at all) who do not share an ideology so far to one side that it is difficult to get a balanced view. Then again, I cannot change history, but seeing what is happening in Bengal is quite depressing. Anyway, I have another strange 'untopical' post coming up, and as I will be travelling outside our shores later this week, I don't think I'll be posting much this week, and lets give some regular topics a rest, shall we.


thalassa_mikra said...

K, I can certainly speak about my ancestral land, which is the industrial heartland centred in Durgapur, Bardhaman.

The Durgapur region has been one of the few success stories of the WB govt.'s recent initiatives.

New factories are coming up rapidly (one in my ancestral village), technological institutes are literally sprouting up on farmland (one in my village, another in the neighbouring village), and there's a major boom in house prices and land values.

Astonishing amounts of money are being paid for prime commercial property on the GT Road and small town main markets (boro bajaar) in Bardhaman district.

Here's a Wiki entry that tells the Durgapur story -

You know, I'm surprised at your description of the smokestacks. You must have seen the Durgapur Steel Plant, which is visible from the train. DSP never stopped production, though productivity did decline in the early 80s.

That by the way is the crux of the decline of Bengal's industry in recent years - obsolete machinery, lack of investment in modernization and R&D, limited local capital and lack of investment from outside the state.

Durgapur presents a very different picture of Bengal's industrialization than Nandigram. It's a more reassuring, optimistic picture, although the environmental challenges worry me immensely.

Oh by the way, Asansol and Durgapur are the two largest towns in Bengal after Calcutta.

Horn Please!! said...

Conspiracy theory - the colonials and the fascists pay off the Communists using the religious route (ah-ha!!) to create confusion so that "they" can still mess around with us.

After all, how difficult is it to imagine that the loss of Corus/Brit Steel could be a cause for a hit-back at the Tatas in the last bastion?

Anyways, I am off to the Sunderbans (as a tourist for the first time, though been there as shippie and as traveller 10 times before . . .) and will report from Behala and points beyond. Have just learnt how to upload photos and old articles so my blog comes back again . .

Bonatellis06 said...

"Home" has changed a lot .. and you will be surpised how.

Anonymous said...

Do you know that 40% of Sunderbans have been lost to water due to global warming.