Dr. Gautam Sen

Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy to graduate students for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science. A prolific writer, he’s the co-author of ‘Analyzing the Global Political Economy, Princeton, 2009 and is currently writing a book for publisher, Simon Schuster, on the evolution of India’s market economy.

It is easy to take for granted the natural beauty of Bengal’s countryside celebrated in the divine verse of the greatest poet of Bharatiya history, Rabindranath Tagore. A great portion of that Bengal is now across the border and its beauty was also celebrated after the 1940s by its evocative poet of rural splendour, Jasimuddin, once mentored by his teacher the great litterateur of Bengal, Dinesh Chandra Sen. As Bengalis have struggled with the vexatious demands of daily life, its grind and disappointments, they may be forgiven their forgetfulness of this heritage, celebrated in film and verse, though middle-class Bengalis often fled to rural areas.

Today, as Bengal is on the cusp of the greatest changes since the early twentieth century, one might wish to remind oneself of the many facets of the region that might be replenished under any new political dispensation. The new politics of Bengal must embark on the future with imagination and the patience to change itself gradually, in a process of rediscovery and renewal. Even during the onset of Bengal’s period of ennui in the 1960s the less densely populated state managed to encompass much beauty just beyond the city’s precincts. One recalls the journey from Tollygunge towards the still rural areas beyond Basdroni, with sleepy houses decked with vines full of pink bougainvillea flowers, luxuriant in the warm afternoon. All that has now largely disappeared with relentless urbanisation.

No physical environment that lacks beauty can be truly treasured by its people. But an environment characterised by physical beauty will attract admiration and a desire to protect it. How easy it is to forget the intimate connection between beauty and pride that is an essential component of patriotism. Alas, much of Bengal today, especially urban locations, are shockingly ugly, victims of neglect, indifference and callousness. Some of this is easy to fix, as Indore in Madhya Pradesh has demonstrated. Cleanliness of public spaces is an achievable task and funding it is entirely feasible, with honest municipal tax collection and the end of its massive egregious leakage into corrupt private hands. The city also needs to begin the complex task of enlarging its sewerage system, sector by sector, to accommodate the vast population for which its existing, now dated provision was never designed. The management of waste, both human and garbage are the first two tasks to be attempted and numerous examples exist that won’t require re-inventing the proverbial wheel to address them.

Another issue requiring urgent attention is vehicular and other types of pollution that causes so much ill health and premature morbidity. A change in this area can be achieved within a decade by putting an end to the plying of cars using the combustion engine. Bengal must not, once again, fall behind the rest of India already initiating change by promoting electric cars. A more difficult but extremely important goal would be to free pavements from illegal occupation by hawkers and restore to the city the pleasures of walking that every city of any significance, across the world, takes for granted. The issue of hawkers needs careful thought and sensitive handling because livelihoods depend on it though there is a suspicion that many of the illegal occupiers are in fact the retail outlets adjacent to hawker stalls. One solution might be for short sections of roads like Gariahat and Chowringhree to go underground or turned into enclosed, traffic-light operated single lanes. Traffic would flow alternatively and pedestrians would be barred by railings and cross over walkways, allowing freer movement of vehicles. Trees might also be planted along streets in large numbers as in Delhi thoroughfares and the local climate would allow flowering species to flourish, a notable feature of the great city of Strasbourg.

What else is unique about Bengal that is obvious but not easily recognised? One can say with some confidence that Bengal truly produces the finest vegetarian cuisine in the world and it is reported that the well-to-do Bengali often kept a cook able to prepare the unique fare of widows; anyone whose grandmother was an adept cook will know what it is that was so delicious. Not much need be done to promote this wonderful treasury though there is a danger fast food delivery might threaten what is in fact an art form. Bengal always produced great poetry in prodigious quantity though ideological obsessions took a toll on the art and, over time, confined it to narrower ideological concerns. The transient anguish of supposed class conflict must be overlaid by the universalist themes that inform timeless great poetry. One outstanding pioneer modernist poet, Samar Sen, in fact gave up writing poetry on grounds that it is bourgeois while he was still in his twenties, though two notebooks of tantalising verse surfaced in the 1980s but have since gone missing. A beautiful and clean Kolkata and other Bengal cities as well can have one or two minor additional innovations to enhance their attractiveness and historic identity. The grand old colonial buildings, mainly in Kolkata, have mostly been torn down, but the few that remain ought to be subject to strict preservation orders. It would also be a most welcome departure to have name plates on buildings where the renowned and accomplished once lived. Such name plates add such an aura of interest when one walks around London, where the practice is standard. One can also foresee local artists painting walls in public spaces with an infinite variety of depictions celebrating the ancient and modern, a phenomenon that already adorns the walls of one of Kolkata’s most fetching restaurants.

Beautiful cities will attract the talent that will be a central dimension of the state’s endeavour to renew itself. The nurturing of the talent embodied in human capital, by creating an inviting city to live in, will be the agent for Bengal’s economic reprise and encourage creative endeavour that will leave it a happier place to live in, transforming its future. This is a promise that has been made in the past but never kept.
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