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By Planning the Calcutta metropolitan region is important for future employment and services, writes K.C. Sivaramakrishnan The author is a former chief executive of the Durgapur and Calcutta Development Authorities
  • Published 12.07.11

Well before the flushing from Farakka to desilt the Calcutta Port, Bidhan Chandra Roy had thought of dredging the Hooghly and pumping the silt to fill up the marshes north of Calcutta. The Yugoslavs provided technical assistance and added a plan for Salt Lake, a rather bland copy of New Belgrade. The irrigation and waterways department of West Bengal was given the job of making a township out of the silt. Bidhannagar today stands out for a few things. One is the use of pairs of English letters to identify blocks of the township, such as AA, BD, or GD. The second feature is the repetition of four- and five-storey blocks of flats in street after street. The third is the ubiquitous tea stall on most footpaths, and fourth, the equitably distributed garbage. All of these have now become the brand equity of Bidhannagar.

Sector V of Bidhannagar is also unique in having been made into an industrial township. Wipro, Infosys and Webel are the three main entities in this sector, apart from the Border Security Force. The ostensible purpose was to make this particular sector of less than 100 hectares a privileged enclave beyond the municipal domain. This was possible by a loophole clause inserted as a proviso into Article 243Q when the 74th constitutional amendment was being enacted.

A few years ago, when the commerce ministry was promoting the special economic zones, it was suggested to state governments that in keeping with the exemptions from various laws of the land for an SEZ, freedom from municipal jurisdiction could also be one by making use of this loophole clause. This clause provides that if in any area an industry is prepared to provide all municipal services, it will not be necessary to set up a municipality there. The Left Front government seized the suggestion with alacrity. Sector V was taken out of Bidhannagar, made into an industrial township and christened Nabadiganta — new horizon. Today the new horizon is obscured by the uncertain clouds over Bidhannagar and Rajarhat. The recent decision to put Sector V back into the old horizon of Calcutta city is therefore welcome.

Adding some areas such as South Dum Dum, parts of Joka and even Bidhannagar to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation is reported to be the other decision in the offing. The Left Front government had added Jadavpur and Behala to Calcutta. A similar extension by the Trinamul Congress government need not be grudged. Every core city in a metropolitan area has to have some cogent boundaries. Such changes have taken place in Hyderabad and Bangalore too.

But local self-government by itself should not be regarded as an altar of worship. Given the precarious financial situation of the state, a collection of bankrupt municipalities is the last thing that West Bengal needs.

Many parts of Calcutta and its surrounding areas are occupied by reasonably well-to-do middle-class professional people. Most of them can afford to pay for the services they get, such as water. What they expect is a dependable service. Without tax money that kind of service simply will not happen. Abolition of municipal water rates or playing around with property taxes are pointless exercises in populism. The chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, knows that cities and towns of West Bengal are an economic reality and their effective upkeep is crucial for the state’s well-being. A determined effort is needed to help the city corporations and municipalities to perform better, which is possible only if they can mobilize resources. The citizens will not be totally averse to paying taxes. The 13th Finance Commission has given a clear set of prescriptions to help manage municipal finances. There are several other reports containing specific recommendations.

A critical issue facing urban West Bengal is the absence of a development perspective and planning for the Calcutta metropolitan region as well as for Haldia, Asansol, Durgapur and North Bengal. In its eagerness to promote decentralization, the government has encouraged many municipalities to become fiefdoms limited to their boundaries, unable to reach across for setting up and sharing common services.

Fortunately under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the Calcutta metropolitan area is covered, which enables funds to be given for work in the various constituent municipalities. Similarly in the Asansol metropolitan area, projects within Asansol, Durgapur and Raniganj are covered. Haldia and Siliguri are included in the small and medium towns component. The total cost of the projects sanctioned under the various components of the JNNURM for West Bengal is about Rs 8,000 crore. Half out of this is Central assistance. If the KMDA, which is the nodal agency for the JNNURM, the different implementing agencies and the municipalities choose to perform the provision of trans-municipal services, it can make some difference. However, this provision is only one part of the scenario.

Strategies for development, priorities for infrastructure investment and overall metropolitan-wide planning were the objectives with which the KMDA was set up. It was to mobilize and administer the metropolitan fund to be given to implementing agencies. Excepting basti improvement, for which a separate wing was set up, the KMDA itself was not expected to take on the implementation of works. However, during Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s regime, Bhola Sen, the public works department and urban development minister, went on a merger spree to bring within the KMDA fold the Calcutta Improvement Trust, the Calcutta Metropolitan Water and Sanitation Authority and various divisions of government departments. But Sen’s idea of one umbrella was very difficult to hold aloft. Meanwhile the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority changed from a planning organization into a public works empire. From less than a hundred employees in the beginning, the KMDA staff roll went up to a few thousand.

The Left Front reversed this through decentralization. The individual municipalities were given a free rein. Metropolitan-wide planning became diluted. The Marxists also set up the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Committee as required in the 74th amendment. But this committee has rarely met. At any rate, there was no planning set-up in the CMDA, now called the KMDA, to support the committee. The few planners who remained were scattered to the different sectors.

It is high time that the KMDA’s mandate is revisited. It should begin to shed responsibilities for direct execution of works. Placing CIT in the fold of the corporation is one possible alternative. The development planning function of the KMDA has to be revived. The economic profile of 2035 for the metropolitan area indicates that though the share of tertiary sector in metropolitan employment will rise from 60 per cent in 2001 to 65 per cent in 2020, unemployment will be close to 22 per cent. While the city itself has not grown, according to 2011 census, the growth rate between 2001 and 2011 in the adjoining districts of North and South 24 Parganas and Howrah ranges from 13 to 18 per cent.The corresponding increase in labour force will have to be provided for. The employment scenario therefore becomes critical. Infrastructure and other investments will have to be directed to maximize these employment options. That will be the central task of the KMDA.

The urban minister will do well to talk to his colleagues in the development and planning industry and other departments to see what needs to be done. Expertise to help them will not be difficult to find. It is available in West Bengal and elsewhere in the country, if only the government chooses to ask for it.