Sanjeev Sanyal is an Indian economist and author. Currently, he is the Principal Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India. A Rhodes Scholar and Eisenhower Fellow He was Deutsche Bank’s Global Strategist and a Managing Director till 2015.
The relative economic decline of West Bengal over the last fifty years has been attributed to the confluence of socio-political factors that led to the sustained flight of business capital as well as human capital. Many policies and suggestions have been put forward in recent years to reverse the trend. However, a central focus of these efforts must be to revive the city of Kolkata. Unless this city revives, all the efforts will become diffuse, and the cluster of human and business capital will never be reignited.
It may be recalled that till the 1950s, Kolkata was the largest industrial hub east of the Suez, barring Japan. Given that Japan had been devastated by the Second World War, Kolkata had the best concentration of skills, industrial capacity, and financial muscle. Even the disruptions caused by Partition had not undone Kolkata’s advantages. Sadly, instead of leveraging these strengths, subsequent decades would see the negative effects of ultra-Left violence ( by the so-called Naxalites), militant trade unionism, and politicization of academia. Not surprisingly, businesses left for Mumbai, Delhi, and other parts of India. Young talent soon followed. Thus, there was a sudden declustering that impacted not merely the local economy but all spheres of human activity. In the last half-century, Kolkata has not produced anyone of the calibre of Swami Vivekananda, Netaji Subhash Bose, Satyajit Ray, Rabindranath Tagore, or AJC Bose.
The central pillar of any strategy to revive West Bengal, therefore, must be to rebuild Kolkata as an engine of growth. This would then feed all other areas by generating jobs and financial resources, reversing talent flight, and rekindling the spirit of innovation in various fields. So, what should be done?
The first step would be to throw open Kolkata as a place where entrepreneurs from across India and the world can do business. This needs some basic infrastructure – a world class airport, a stock of modern office space, and affordable but high quality residential space. This would require the state government to think seriously about redeploying the large swathes of derelict industrial land in and around the city. Next, the city needs to be re-imagined as a “cool” place to live, study and work. This is important in order to make it attractive for cutting edge start-ups and next generation industries that will emerge in the post-Covid world. Kolkata and its hinterland are still home to well known academic institutions like IIT Kharagpur and IIM Kolkata. However, these are currently thought of as merely teaching institutions where students arrive and then depart. They need to be rethought as magnets for human talent that should then be encouraged to settle in the Kolkata metropolitan region.
As one can see, Kolkata needs to position itself as an open and welcoming place for human and business clustering. This is a well-trodden strategy used by other successful cities like Singapore in recent decades. This is not about promoting some specific project but building a vibrant ecosystem that builds on itself. Interestingly, it is an approach that is part of Bengal’s ancient DNA. For thousands of years, Bengal was home to India’s largest ports – Tamralipti, Chandraketugarh, Hugli and colonial Calcutta. Reviving 21st century Kolkata as a place to do business would be in the same spirit. Revival of other spheres of human activity – from sports to the arts – depends on getting this right.