Is Calcutta losing its pulling power' Single men looking for work seem to be coming to the city in fewer numbers. The provisional population totals for 2001 have been released by the Census of India. In this, the analysis of certain demographic trends in the city and its environs, made by the state census directorate, could be read as somewhat double-edged. The 1951 district census handbook had put “excessive predominance of male elements” as one of the abiding features of the city. From the turn of the last century, large numbers of men would flock to the city looking for work, from both the rural and surrounding urban areas, leaving their womenfolk and families behind. The 1951 handbook sounds vaguely disapproving of this phenomenon, linking the disparity between the sexes to “the notorious instability of the city’s civic peace”. But the sex ratio has increased steadily since the Fifties, with the highest increase in the Eighties. Positive as this may look, these figures also mean that from the Fifties to the Nineties there has been a decline in “male work participation” in the city. This trend has, however, been arrested to some extent only in 2001. Moreover, the census has established that the growth of the city’s population is more the result of natural birth than immigration.
The city is getting crowded, but not because it is drawing more people to it from elsewhere. And the number of people coming in is being evened out by the number leaving the city. Quite obviously, Calcutta’s economic attractiveness is on the wane. Working men are beginning not to regard the city as one of opportunities. Increasingly crowded, but offering no promise, is not a very happy profile for a metropolis. And the census figures confirm a hunch that most Calcuttans have been harbouring with respect to the economic, cultural and civic decline of their city. It might be the case that because of improved transport systems, less people feel the need to actually live in the city, choosing to commute instead. But the directorate is still awaiting data on this.
The thinning out of single men is the result of both what the city has actually become and how it is perceived in the rest of the country. In the sphere of higher education, for instance, the patterns of migration show that it is only students from the politically unstable Northeast and the topsy-turvydom of Bihar who come in significant numbers to the city’s educational institutions. The traffic in the opposite direction is on the increase. Even lower down the rung of migrant labour, it is doubtful whether the influx from Bihar could make up for the people leaving the city to look for work, and a life, in other cities. Across the social spectrum, then, the image of Calcutta as a clean, comfortable, and safe city where it is worth venturing into the risky business of making a life seems to be losing its hold. Education, healthcare, entrepreneurship, housing, civic amenities and political culture are all implicated in this change of perception. The prognosis is bound to be bleak. But the best thing about figures is that one can play around with them to prove what one wants to believe.