Calcutta and some of its people will have to steel themselves for another bout of paternal care. The chief minister and his new mayor, while hoisting the tricolour on Independence Day, managed to rouse themselves to some passionate declarations about the 'image' of the city. Hand-pulled rickshaws, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has 'decided', 'does nothing to Calcutta's image'. 'Certain people in the West' associate this 'barbaric' means of transport with 'beggars and lepers'. In order to rectify this, the government has come up with a bit of 'urban development', which plans to ban hand-pulled rickshaws and convert their pullers ' around 24,000 in number ' into auto-rickshaw drivers, killing several birds with one stone. And in this, Mr Bhattacharjee's visionary bent and Mr Subhas Chakraborty's mass-mobilization skills are expected to work together to produce a uniquely effective brand of urban modernity.
Nobody would deny the profoundly undignified nature of the rickshaw-puller's work. Homeless, virtually unorganized, separated from their families and community, mostly illiterate, unskilled and often elderly, rickshaw-pullers embody a kind of disempowerment that is easy to overlook because of the old and seemingly robust sub-culture which they have been living out on the city's streets. Yet, to invoke the 'barbarism' of this practice in the context of a thorough urban image-makeover is to identify the humanity of such an impulse with an astonishingly shallow view of what makes a city acceptably modern. To talk of Calcutta's 'image' also avoids confronting the human cost of such a move as, in any significant way, implicating the government in issues of rehabilitation and compensation. It is like banning children from working in homes in the name of 'child labour' without thinking through the complexities of context, cause and effect. The politics of the Left Front and its opposition party in West Bengal is now, quite hopelessly, part of every civic crisis in Calcutta ' the eviction of hawkers and illegal settlers, savagely driven public buses, fatal pollution levels, the closing of water bodies and indiscriminate construction. The image of the city is being altered by a combination of corruption, politicking, ignorance and callousness (regarding environmental and aesthetic principles) that thrives because of the average Calcuttan's civic apathy and pathological tolerance-level.
Mayors, ministers, architects, town-planners, realtors, police officers and other custodians of urban development in Calcutta bring to their work a lack of basic knowledge and long-term vision that is rapidly plunging the city into the blunders that Western cities made in the Sixties and Seventies. Unthinking adherence to the 'flyovers and shopping malls' approach to 'modernization' is largely responsible for this. Making the plight of the rickshaw-pullers part of this kind of cosmetic thinking is yet another example of the Left Front's cluelessness about what modernization really means.