Monday, September 11, 2006

Rebuilding Calcutta from below

Something like the Unnayan renewal proposal calls for institutional ownership and capability that is currently non-existent. Nor has the civic consciousness of the citizens reached a stage of taking unequivocal and unassailable ownership for the future of the city – something that would then drive city planning and management.

The lack of public ownership of public domain concerns – that is the key limitation.

Privatisation of the public domain is the character of the age, and to see that happening through an apparent public domain concern is terrible, with deep damage. Building such civic ownership – when formal authorities and institutions are riddled with incompetence, apathy and corruption – is the foundational infrastructural requirement.

City and metropolitan renewal has thus perhaps necessarily to begin with community and slum renewal. Planning wisdom has to discern that empowering the vulnerable, for social and economic betterment, improved shelter and habitat, and building public ownership and cooperative action for environmental justice - may be the foundation and catalyst for rebuilding the blighted city. Public ethics is the key to renewal.

Whose city? We have to move from an elitist fixation with the city, which in the ultimate analysis is very limiting, and devoid of imagination.

In systemic terms, lack of awareness and disempowerment of large numbers of the poor allows the free-riding and pillage, and this makes the city a fount of inefficiency, unreason, ugliness, all of which should be seen and felt to be as distasteful as they are. Hence, improvement in the lot of the disenfranchised should be in the direct long term interest of anyone wanting the city to be a thriving, well managed, efficient place.

Slum renewal begins the process of infrastructure upgradation and improved urban management – which the city can only benefit from.

Public ethics, public domain activity – is a subject that needs to be looked at, and not assumed. Public issues are typically used instrumentally for private ends. Instead organisational means must be used instrumentally to serve public ends.

In a capital-starved environment, it is only the potential value of land under present depressed use that offers the resources to address the huge social development and infrastructure gap that Calcutta suffers. Howrah, with its huge tracts of industrial land, presently under closed, sick and obsolescent industry, could provide the answer. And this could also afford the means to begin the long-term process of laying the much needed infrastructure.


The well-being of Calcutta can be seen in the light of the highly polluted state of the river Hooghly, along whose two banks the metropolis lies. But the nearly extinct Hooghly dolphin, locally known as shushuk or shishumar - with powerful mythological resonances and identified as a protector of children - still finds cause to leap up from the polluted river, and cheer the onlooker. There may be hope yet for its cousins in the Brahmaputra, Karnali, Yamuna and Indus.

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