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Farewell to Calcutta has a lesson from Curitiba

The report that pharmaceutical giant Organon has decided to close down its city office failed to create much of a ripple. There was no reaction from the government, presumably because the firm employed fewer than a hundred people in its city office here.

But it was a strange decision, because all pharmaceutical firms are said to do roaring business in the eastern part of the country, dumping all kinds of drugs for all kinds of diseases prevalent here. So, why would Organon suddenly close shop in the gateway to the east'

There could be reasons that are not apparent, but one of the official reasons cited by the firm is interesting, to say the least. The firm, a spokesman was quoted as saying, was finding it difficult to persuade its executives to shift to Calcutta.

Organon cannot be the only firm facing this particular dilemma; it is just that it happens to be among the very few which are willing to talk openly about it. Indignant residents might point out the improvements visible in the city and the growing number of hotels, hospitals and housing complexes that have come up in recent years.

But clearly, the city is not yet an attractive enough place to live and work to persuade clever and smart people to move in. That’s why the move by Organon provides food for thought.

Calcutta can actually draw some inspiration from a much smaller city in Brazil, Curitiba. In just about four decades, Curitiba appears to have become a kind of a model city, which has not only drawn people as diverse as the Japanese and the Germans to live and work there, but also city planners from all over the world, to study its many innovative schemes.

Our own globetrotting mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, could take a leaf out of his Brazilian counterpart’s book on city management.

The mayor of Curitiba organised a contest to draw up a master plan for the town; he circulated the best entries, debated them with citizens before finalising the schemes. In sharp contrast, in Calcutta the people have little or no say in urban or municipal planning, with all the decisions taken for them by the wise mayor and his men.

In the Brazilian town, former warehouses have been turned into theatres; abandoned factories have metamorphosed into community centres; old buses have been refurbished as classrooms, day-care centres or clinics, and public transport is so good that most people do not feel the need for private vehicles.

As many as 1,100 buses, some of them three-in-one carrying 270 passengers, make more than 12,000 trips every day. What is the comparable figure for Calcutta, which has roughly 10 times the population of Curitiba'

Even more remarkably, the town is said to boast of a 90-mile-long stretch earmarked for bicycles and pedestrian zones. It has a hotline for people to report on pollution. One of the many innovative steps was to induce poor families to collect garbage and exchange them for bus-tickets, eggs, milk, oranges and potatoes. The city ended up buying the stuff from the farmers on the outskirts, providing them with a viable and sustained market, while the city-dweller paid for garbage disposal.

Each industry, shop and institution was persuaded by the mayor to adopt a few streetchildren, take care of their needs and train them to do useful work. This also helped reduce crime on the streets and made the city more hospitable.

Remarkably, Curitiba is said to have attracted more than 300 major industries, including such industrial giants as Fiat, Pepsi and Volvo.

“Our city is not a paradise; it has most of the problems that others have,” the mayor is quoted as saying. “But when we provide good buses, schools and health clinics, everybody feels vindicated… The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents.”

Calcutta has massive problems that it needs to address urgently. To give just one example, if just a thousand executives were to shift to the city during the next one year, the city will have to be ready with around 2,000 extra seats in reasonably good schools for their children. Their spouses would probably look for gainful employment and the executives themselves would look forward to a smooth ride to the office and back.

Good and affordable housing, good educational institutions, an efficient transport system, good healthcare and places to unwind must be available in every part of the city.

Calcutta, therefore, must re-invent itself and decide if it wants to be known as a good city for business and for pleasure, a good city to spend your youth and study in or a good city to just retire.

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