The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The floatel’s fate would indicate whether Calcutta is changing or not

The promise of this new year allows me to atone in sackcloth and ashes for an injustice perpetrated in these columns in July 2000. I mistook “a decrepit tub strewn with rubbish beyond an ancient jetty” for “India’s first floating hotel” or floatel which a Dutch ship had towed 1,800 miles from Singapore. The genuine article was then — and still is — awaiting authority’s pleasure in the necropolis of Kidderpore docks.

But does a long overdue apology to Manab Pal, Manor Floatel Limited’s director, also imply an affirmation of faith in civic rebirth in 2004' We live in hope. The massive four-storey flat-bottomed barge representing a new technology that is also used elsewhere for hospital, prison and school is said to be the harbinger of a new Calcutta rising out of the ashes of the old. Amitava Lala’s order on rallies may exorcise the ghost of Jawaharlal Nehru’s city of processions and restore the Maidan to green tranquillity. Judicial insistence on the Bharat II emission norm might yet save our lungs from rotting. The appearance or reappearance of KLM, Alitalia and Gulf Air could mean brisk movement for a moribund airport. The British wax lyrical about a cultural mingling of the Thames and Hooghly.

We have been promised an information technology hub at Sunrise City, a special economic zone at Mani Kanchan, more flyovers to ease traffic and more investment to generate jobs. New shopping malls and restaurants suggest spending power. Two more five star hotels speak of a spurt in tourism and conferences like next week’s UK-India Round Table.

Louis Phillipe and Pierre Cardin signboards indicate the cosmopolitanism of money. Australian Billabong wine on sale not in Chowringhee or Park Street (which would have been amazing enough) but Rash Behari Avenue recalls Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarking on the latest issue of Vogue magazine as well as abalone and other delicacies in the shopping areas of those towering blocks of government-built flats where 80 per cent of Singaporeans live. He rightly saw booming consumerism as an index of prosperity.

But these are trimmings that Singapore or San Francisco can afford after meeting basic urban demands. Soumitra Das put it politely in an article on Thursday when he said that even the Millennium Park has “at best attracted limited participation”. Fusion food, synthetic snow and boutique hotels are even more remote. A city demands proper housing, potable water, guaranteed power, walkable pavements, conservancy service, and easy communication. A ramshackle Metro with an abandoned air conditioning system satisfies only Calcutta’s deprived hoi polloi.

Three years ago, I wrote of the “desolation and decay” that met me on my return. “To kill a dream,” I said, “send it to Calcutta.” True, that gloom was inspired by the wrong vessel. The ruined hulk near Chandpal Ghat was not Pal’s floatel, whose exciting launch I witnessed in Singapore’s Jurong shipyard. The Indian high commissioner commented at the ceremony that optimism had to be stirring in Calcutta for a private entrepreneur to risk such an ambitious project and for the West Bengal government to bless it.

It evoked a surge of childhood memories of being taken to tea by my grandmother in the circular restaurant moored opposite the Eden Gardens. The military band played there on Sundays and khansamas in white gloves served tea and pastries. There were no pretentiously sharp young catering executives in those days, but khansamas, bawarchis and masalchis knew much more about the European table. Survivors of the tribe in Dacca serve delicious smoked hilsa and talk knowledgeably of Firpo’s, Pelettis and Wallace’s Tea Room. One aged servitor warned me not to be misled by the Maharajadhiraja of Burdwan’s grander title into addressing him as “Your Highness” which was reserved only for the Maharajah of Cooch Behar.

My dirge about the wrong boat was really a dirge on Calcutta. “Filthy shreds of carpet speak of forgotten splendour, and Singapore lingers in the Sinic art of the marine mural and a couple of battered wooden statues.” Has that wreck ceased to be the portent of the future'

The answer depends on how thick prosperity is spread here. Also, on who comprises the prosperous class. Grand shops are fine but remembering Hall and Anderson, and Whiteaway Laidlaw, I would reserve judgment on Calcutta’s revival. Even the recent past is not encouraging. Haringhata dairy is virtually extinct and the reek of neglect pervades Samavayika where bacon and sausages were once sold with efficient courtesy. Bidhan Chandra Roy tried to cultivate artichoke and avocado in the Himalayas. Siddhartha Shankar Ray planned a network of growth centres to bring industry to West Bengal without compounding Calcutta’s congestion.

In a Midnapore forest bungalow we came upon a pile of broken glass tubes and shades, sad residue of a scheme to light all the rooms with gobar gas. The chowkidar showed us the rubbish-choked generating pit outside. Massive inertia, the most powerful of local impulses, had killed that too. Some initiatives are bound to falter everywhere, but this is a graveyard of ideas. There are far too many people. Thieving is rampant. Money is siphoned off everything, from car parking tickets to dredging the Hooghly. Venal politicians dole out land and contracts to businessmen who keep them in funds. The bureaucracy is as “self-satisfied and self-sufficient, narrow, with fixed minds, static in a changing world” as Nehru found it.

Why, then, choose Calcutta, city of dreadful night, for a pioneering Rs 31-crore venture' Pal’s reasons are technical. Mumbai with its proven money power suffers from fluctuating water levels, salinity, corrosion, natural turbulence and barnacles. Anchorage in the Hooghly, 140 miles inland, will be environmentally and ecologically safe. It is difficult to believe that no more profound sentiment induced a Bengali to choose Calcutta to bring a dream to life.

His first choice of location was near the Gwalior Monument but the army objected in spite of 42 clearances and an agreement signed in court with every conceivable authority. Unless bureaucracy changes its mind yet again, the ultimate resting place will be opposite the State Bank of India’s imposing offices on the Strand where Manor Floatel has built an onshore restaurant complex.

Yves St Laurent supplied the floatel’s bar and other fixtures. The central authorities have bestowed four star status on its 69 bedrooms and four suites. Facilities will include a 24-hour coffee shop, barbecue room and seafood restaurant, all with nautical names like The Bridge, Compass Room and Captain’s Table.

It is uplifting to think of our sluggish river sharing a novel feature with mighty waterways like the Danube, Weser, Neva and Irrawaddy. But while these rivers support bustling ports, the brown wilderness of Kidderpore docks with its putrefying rubbish, shantytowns and crumbling buildings, perhaps 200 square miles of squalor, scream of lost purpose and a dead spirit. Reduced draught need not have been fatal if technological improvements and disciplined labour had allowed magnetic loading and unloading of shuttle carriers while the mother ship waited out at sea. Some of the world’s busiest ports are riverine. If seaborne trade really has gone, London’s rejuvenated Dockland or Singapore’s sparkling Boat and Clarke Quays show how old facilities serve new purposes. Warehouses, silos and jetties have been brilliantly transformed.

Of course, our canny administrators will want to see everything for themselves, many times over. They will fly to St Petersburg via Singapore, and stop in London en route to Rangoon. But the extravagance may not be entirely wasted if the Port Commission does finally exploit the gold mine on which it now slumbers in wasteful indifference. Quality housing within a stone’s throw of Alipore is an obvious option. There is land enough for a whole new township. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and see how long it takes authority to allow the floatel to open by the Strand. Expedition would say something about the city’s future.

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