By Sapan Parekh:
Next time you want to visit London, there is no need to catch an international flight. Just hop on a train to the “City of Joy”, Kolkata.
If Mamata Banerjee has her way, Kolkata will be soon be transformed into London with an integrated system involving road, rail and river transport facilities, cultural centers, an open air theatre, a giant Kolkata-eye (yes, it’s a London Eye-like structure) and even a ropewayÂ (surpassing London in this case). Also, it is not only the city which would be given a face lift but even the Hooghly River,which has turned into an eyesore, will be re-developed to create a spectacle similar to the Thames.
A pilot project has already been launched involving one-kilometre-stretch of the Hooghly’s banks. Cleaning the area up, paving pathways, planting trees and building cultural and sports activity centers around it will beautify this. Probably realising that such a herculean task was beyond the technical expertise of Kolkata administration, Mamata Banerjee has even sought the cooperation of the British High Commission for the project.
But this remodeling of the city on the lines of London would be with a significant difference. Unlike London, Kolkata would have a uniform colour code of blue-and-white; with the parks, road railings, flyovers, taxis and even tree trunks being repainted in the new colour combination.Â The government has also decided to re-paint all state-owned buildings in blue-white. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation also has considered giving property tax rebate to the citizens if they follow the colour blend while redoing the exteriors of their homes.
All these initiatives are being coordinated together by the Public Works Development, the Urban Development ministry, Indian Railways, RITES, Â Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC).
But all his hoopla has set tongues wagging. People have accused Mamata Banerjee of squandering public funds on beautification projects while sweeping the issue of the ballooning deficit under the carpet. Many have compared her to Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, the sultan of Delhi, who was known for his eccentric ideas, which failed more often than they succeeded. They have also accused the government of misplaced priorities; given Kolkata’s dilapidated infrastructure, the ever-growing slums, the noxious pollution and the crippling public transport system. Some are also miffed at the uniform colour code being forced upon the city, which is well known for its cultural heritage and rich diversity.
But let us stop and think for a second. Is all this criticism justified? YES to an extent and NO if we look at the broader picture.
First, what is the need to spend 500 crores on a beautification project rather than on poverty eradication, education and healthcare, or not spending at all to reduce the deficit?
Such an argument is very superficial and misleading. The amount being spent on beautification is just 2% of the state budget for 2011-12. What deficit could be reduced with 2% cut in spending! Further, admittedly the money being spent is not miniscule and the problems of poverty and education are not secondary. But have we not been spending money on eradication of poverty and on education for the past 65 years. Poverty eradication measures in reality, howsoever much human right advocates would like to disagree, is like an endless pit. Even if you pour all the budget money into these measures it just wouldn’t solve this problem overnight. They are long-term problems, which require long-term solutions involving spending money in appropriate amounts every year.
So after all these years can we not spare some money on beautification of the city just to make it generally “livable” and beautiful? And above all, the money on this beautification is not being diverted from the necessary social sector spending, but has been made available due to increment in the budget.
Why is this important? Important! I say it is Necessary. Back in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi called Kolkata (Calcutta then) a dying city (some people find it truer today). Add to that 32 years of inept and unimaginative CPI rule, and this facelift becomes more than just important; it becomes necessary.
Also we should appreciate the choice of development works. Though some of the choices are debatable, (like the Kolkata-eye) but overall, the re-development would involve enhancing the transportation facilities, cleanliness and the city’s value as a tourist attraction. Compare this to what Mayawati did with public money (too infamous to be mentioned) and I am sure we would thank our stars for what Mamata Banerjee is doing (or not doing for that matter).
The decision to paint the city in a colour combination is controversial, to say the least, and everyone can have an opinion about its value-addition to the city’s image (or the lack thereof). But what is commendable is the reason behind the choice of the colour. Blue has not been chosen so as to publicise the party, but has been chosen because the colour is soothing and that it is identifiable with the motto of the government- “sky is the limit”.Â
Thus, all in all, we should welcome the announcements made by Mamata Banerjee, if not for her grand plans then for her good intentions, given that it is likely that all her plans could go the Indian Railways way.