Why Kolkata still matters – grave implications of its mode of urbanization on Southern Bengal

[ New Age ( Dhaka) – Feb 2010  &  Weekly Blitz ( Dhaka) – Feb 2010 ]

For the longest time, Kolkata was the nerve centre of Bengal and this was especially true of the Khulna and Jessore of united Bengal erstwhile which looked westwards to Kolkata as its major center for trade, education and other pursuits. After the partition in 1947, arguably the largest man-made environmental impact due to Kolkata on the landscape of both Bengals was the construction of the Farakka barrage. One of the main reasons of having the barrage in the first place was to minimize and rather grandiosely, reverse the heavy silting of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river which was serious threatening the eminence and even existence of Kolkata as a major port. Hence the planners of Kolkata’s future pushed for the barrage – over much opposition from environmentalists from both Bengals.No real study was done in the planning stages of the possible adverse environmental impact of the construction of the barrage and also on the life and livelihood of the people living downstream in both Bengals.The effects of that misjudgement is well-known and well-felt in Bangladesh and India.Now it stands as a gigantic tombstone to a dead dream of a certain post-colonial era, when technology and emancipation became synonymous. The mistrust that this brewed between Bangladesh and India is the only lingering heritage – for all the planning that it entailed, downward spiral of the navigability of the port at Kolkata could not be effectively checked.Once deemed a “traitor” to India, Kapil Bhattacharyya, who had the pre-eminent vision of questioning the notion of progress and the ecological cost of India’ development track, has been proved right , time after time.

But the notion of “progress” has not changed and if anything, the “development” beast is only more emphatically self-righteous about its methods.In recent years, under the current Left Front regime , there has been a conscious public relations effort to portray agriculture as an out-dated occupation which is to be phased out progressively and if need be, forcefully,  to make way for industry, which ostensibly will solve the unemployment problems of West Bengal. An urban-industrial vision of the world where there would be mega-urban centers, satellite townships,large patches of special economic zones and industrial areas and , as sort of an after thought, the agricultural hinterland of stupendous productivity that “science” would apparently usher in, to offset the loss of agricultural land now dominates the psyche of the leaders and opinion-makers of most of the erst-while colonies of the West. However, as recent events in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal have shown, that there are other visions of the future too.

This brings us to the issue of the present tendency or urbanization of Kolkata. When Bengali refugees arrived in the vicinity of Kolkata after partition, the “colonies” that were set up around the city were largely unplanned and unchecked.It was an imperative of insane times and the balanced growth of Kolkata, if it had to happen, should have happen northwards but instead happened eastwards.Huge wetlands and salty-marshes were filled – giving Kolkata a new face. But at present there is a more sinister drive towards urbanization , which is not due to any impulse generated by the humanitarian catastrophe of the partition, but due to the interest of the richer sections of society to have urban and industrial bases in the immediate vicinity of present Kolkata. The idea is, these would be posh, well connected, modern centres which eventually would become part of a Kolkata mega-city.The displaced peasants and their families from these newly acquired areas would be employed as cheap labour – mainly in non-skilled roles and domestic homes.This is what has pushed the extension of Kolkata into Rajarhat-Bishnupur-Lauhati area and the recent scandal of violence around Vedic Village amply shows what such land acquisitions necessarily entail.

But there is a greater threat and that it is of immense importance to the whole of Southern Bengal.Subrata Sinha , the former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India, possibly the best expert on the effects of Kolkata’s urbanization trend on the lower Gangetic deltaic region, has opined the following “The Calcutta wetlands form part of the deltaic region of the geo-hydrologically connected Ganga-Hugli-Meghna-Brahamputra river systems and part of the trans-national watershed comprising the Himalayan mountains. The shareholders mainly include India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Unfortunately, the wetlands have been severely affected by urban encroachment; largely crippling their functions.” He continues “The terrain analysis (including the study of aerial photo and satellite imagery mosaics) reveals that numerous rivulets of the shared Indo-Bangladesh deltaic drainage system originate in this zone. Major impediments (roads, buildings and other infrastructure), which are inevitable adjuncts of intensive
urbanization , shall act as a wall across the route of overland flow. Allowing the Singur- Rajarhat belt to develop into a major urban-industrialisation agglomeration will only strengthen the wall. The excessive run-off during the monsoon shall be diverted downslope towards Bangladesh and metropolitan Kolkata. This will aggravate water-logging and floods. “

The potential implications of this is understandable and cannot be under-stated.The land which constitutes Bengal is older than Bakhtiar Khilji’s invasion of Bengal or Aryan expansion into primarily Austric Bengal.The rivers, the aquifers, the mangroves – tie the Bengals together – and their destruction – will bring them down together like inseparable twins.Hence there is an urgent need of the environmental groups and activists to come together without the prejudices that their respective nation-state affiliations bring.Environmentalists from Kolkata, Dhaka, Nadia and Chattagram should be able to talk about the devastation that Farakka and Kaptai have brought to Bengal.Given our
shared past, only an engaging present, can lead to, in all pragmatism, a shared future – for neither flash floods nor salinization respect nation state boundaries.

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Filed under Bengal, Environment, Kolkata

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