Saturday, February 24, 2007

Partnership to privatise public space

Notwithstanding my effort to be blind and deaf to whatever is happening around me that fills me with rage, I can’t help being agitated over some recent developments in Calcutta. They are deeply disturbing, insidious and diabolical. Blinded by power and arrogance, caring a fig for law or accountability, and institutionalising such conduct, the ruling CPI(M) is in great haste to make deals with private builders. This involves handing over of public space, for dubious public ends, but explicit gratification all around.

On the Rash Bihari connector of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in south-eastern Calcutta, lies Rajdanga. There is a large park here, providing sorely needed open space for play and recreation for the local population – in an area becoming densely built-up, which used to be green fields just some years ago. The state govt has entered into a “public-private partnership” under which the land would be converted into a sports stadium, as well as a 16-storey residential-commercial complex. A private developer has been favoured for this project. A partner in this enterprise is a local “club” (or kelab, meaning youth association), which is a CPI(M) group, who would own the stadium.

This kelab has other antecedents. They have appropriated pavement spaces along the Bypass, and in the name of constructing bus-stop shelters, given out advertising space from which hefty revenue is obtained. So public land is seized by a private group, protected by the rulers – as its their own boys – and this is the means to considerable enrichment of the private group, even as the public languishes deprived of basic civic amenities.

A couple of years ago, the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) initiated a move to demolish the bus-stop shelters. This was resisted by the kelab, and finally after a meeting with the state Urban Development minister, where the CMDA, ministry officials, police and kelab members were present, it was decided that the matter would be left alone. The patrons of the kelab include a cabinet minister, a former assembly member, and other powerful party members. But strangely, the state sports department is not involved in this stadium project.

The CPI(M) front partners in govt - CPI, FB, RSP – have criticised this deal, as “an attempt to assist a local club backed by the CPI(M) and fill the coffer of a private builder in the guise of public-private partnership.”

And not far from the Rajdanga park, in the stretch between Ruby Hospital and Anandapur, the pavements have been appropriated by the ruling political parties, and let out to vendors. A minister in the state cabinet is behind the (illegal) installation of diesel generators to supply power to these vendors.

Thanks to the complete inactivity in the public domain of the educated and middle-classes and any attempt to define and act on what could be called “public” issues and needs, which are inclusive of all; like scoring a goal in an empty playing field, private / sectional interests are cynically advanced, as the state retreats from public action leaving all to the play of private capital. The distinctions between party and state, between state and civil society, public and private interests - are all blurred, as flagrant loot of public resources takes place. At the same time, genuine grassroots and civic initiatives are ignored, or even crushed.

Something similar is happening with Bedi Bhavan, an abandoned, crumbling old mansion near the Golpark end of the Dhakuria in south Calcutta. Here, a private builder would construct a 4-storeyed guest house and a car park on 22% of the land, with the remaining 78% being used by the builder for commercial purposes against a payment. Given the market value of what is very expensive, prime land, such an arbitrary deal with a particular builder, and the absence of the state PWD department in the project, raises fundamental questions. Again, a number of ministers in the state cabinet have criticised what is apparently the chief minister’s decision. The chief minister has said that as the tender had already been finalised, there could be no back-tracking.

A very public spat is going on between the state cooperatives minister and the principal secretary in the department. The minister has called the civil servant “mad” and accused him of obstructing his efforts to weed out corruption. But the official in question has said that he had merely pressed for verification of the antecedents of individuals nominated by the minister for the annual general meeting of several cooperatives. Now he is apparently going to file a criminal defamation suit against the minister. In the light of the CPI(M) govt’s habitual arrogant, power-drunk (ab)use of power through arbitrary actions, cocking a snook at law and procedure – one can get an idea of what might really be happening here.

The two noteworthy things are: the CPI(M)’s unstoppable momentum in deal-fixing; and the opposition now emanating from within the system. However, one should not read too much in the protests by the CPI(M)'s partners in the Left Front. These opportunists are only airing their grievance at being marginalised in decision-making. If they were genuinely bothered about the public interest and about probity and good governance - they would not have clung shamelessly to power for 30 years.

Interestingly, the Calcutta High Court has directed the state govt to clarify various issues pertaining to land acquisition and discriminatory award of compensation for the oustees from the land in Singur forcibly acquired for the Tata car plant. This followed a petition challenging the land acquisition. Those who agreed to give their land received a "bonus" in compensation, while others received a lesser amount. Here too one sees the couldn't care a fig attitude of the ruling party. It thinks it can do as it pleases and no one can do a thing.

In Bonhooghly in the northern fringe of the city, a run-down refugee housing colony is being redeveloped by a private builder. The people will get tiny apartments in a block on a small section of the land, and for this the builder will get the substantial remaining part of the land for his own commercial purposes.

Land-sharing – is something whose time is long due in Calcutta. But the underlying principles must be: to serve the public interest; to provide decent shelter and basic services for the city’s vulnerable sections; to make good the immense social and human development gap between these sections and the mainstream; to improve the quality of the living environment in the city; to involve people in city renewal; to develop diverse public management capacities in state, civil society and community organisations; and to fill the local and state govt’s coffers.

What we are seeing in places like Bonhooghly, and especially in the light of the deal-fixing proclivities of the CPI(M)-govt – does not even begin to touch this public agenda. More importantly, all this bodes grim portents regarding basti (slum) land in Calcutta, where over a third of the city’s population resides. I fear we are going to see the handover of basti land to private builders, with some token crumb of alternative accommodation for the dwellers. The builders' lobby is very active on this matter. I can see the Calcutta Basti Federation - a CPI(M) front, whose leader has strong underworld links – being the “public partner” in this scam. This will only spell doom for the city’s labouring poor. And for the future of my city.

A proposal had been developed by Unnayan in the late 90s, for comprehensive renewal in the Beliaghata canal-side area. This laid out a model of transparent, wholesome, social-aesthetic market-led intervention, in favour of social, environmental and business interests. Not surprisingly, that proposal did not see the light of day. Squatters evicted from along the city's canal-banks and railway tracks are now being provided small quarters in Nonadanga, at govt expense. But the Unnayan proposal had squatter resettlement as a major goal. The truth is that there is no interest in land-sharing, because there is the option of land-seizing.

Privatising public space - and the gleeful, unctuous participation in this of those who should be the conscience of the city! A few days ago, a heritage mall on the Bypass was the venue of a performance of Macbeth by the troupe of a well-known theatre personality from Bombay. This was an invitation-only event by the private builder who had been given valuable public land for this private mall. A darbar for the city’s elite, by a new maharaja, a maharaja enabled by a communist party in govt, in the democratic republic of India. How great the invitees must have felt, and what esteem they must have held themselves in as they basked in their elite-hood. The theatre man honoured the builder for being “a patron of the arts”. Yes, a kind of art, which necessarily despises common people and their basic needs.

Criminal conspiracies to loot public space, and concerts celebrating privilege! Like the protagonist in the Hindi film Pyaasa, I want to scream:

jalaa do, jalaa do, ise bhunk daalo ye duniyaa
mere saamane se hataa lo ye duniyaa
tumhaarii hai tum hii sambhalo ye duniyaa
ye duniyaa agar mil bhii jaaye to kyaa hai

Burn down, burn down, raze this world!
Remove this world from my sight!
Its yours, you take care of it!
Even if this world is attained – so what?

A clip of this song is accessible here.


Deva said...

At the time of the ruckus over Bedi Bhavan some years ago, I had stuck my neck out and pointed out in a newspaper that it was one of the most spectacular architectural edifices in Kolkata and needed restoration and conversion rather than demolition.
Some time after this I happened to meet a Swamiji of Ramkrishna Mission, the owners of Bedi Bhavan, and asked him why they were destroying the building instead of restoring it and using it as a museum, library, guest house etc. The Swamiji was at the time involved in the restoration of Swami Vivekananda's house in North Kolkata. However, he replied that Bedi Bhavan was a fairly recent building and not really a heritage structure.
Does this mean that a heritage building has to be very old or associated with an eminent personality? Are modern buildings necessarily so bad that they cannot qualify as heritage? This is certainly not the case in other countries.
It was also reported in a paper that Bedi Bhavan had brought ill luck to all its owners. Could this also have contributed to its demolition?

Anirban said...

Dear Rama, thank you for sharing this with me. It indeed is quite frustrating to read about all this and not being able to do much.

Anonymous said...

Both the projects are good. Some people always complain.

rama said...

Hi anon, its with "aware citizens" like you that governance in India thrives! But I would'nt lose hope. Do try to educate yourself.