CALCUTTA, INDIA — Juggling two telephones and sipping sweet milk tea in a downtown trading office, Calcutta businessman Vijay Chowdhury is upbeat about his home town. "Things are definitely getting better," he says. "We have fewer power cuts, and the roads are much less pitted."
Surrounded by some of the planet's most abject poverty and swathed in a permanent cloud of smog, many in this Indian city are determined to put a positive spin on an urban story that has long been synonymous with disaster.
"The World's Worst City has Cleaned Up Its Act," trumpeted a recent cover of Newsweek, crowning a public relations drive by Calcutta's Marxist government, which is determined to give this city of 12 million an image boost.
The optimism doesn't just stem from good copy, though. Embarrassed by Calcutta's enduring poverty, the West Bengal state government has been busy smoothing out Calcutta's bone-rattling roads, improving the electricity supply, and sweeping up the sidewalks.
A year ago, the municipal authorities decided to get serious. Bulldozers were sent to clear away some of Calcutta's squalid shanties and, in the words of Newsweek, "make the streets safe for capitalism." It was a dramatic, if only superficially effective, way of dealing with the problem.
"It's a great improvement to have the pavements cleared," notes Calcutta resident Mary-Anne Das Gupta.
The government may have won new support among Calcutta's middle class, but it has shown little sympathy for the poor. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu doesn't put too fine a point on it: "It is ridiculous that somebody should be allowed to encroach on the pavement because he is poor.... The society can't survive without discipline," grumbles the minister, who has championed communism in India since before independence in 1947. Despite the government's bulldozers, Calcutta's streets remain a home to more than half a million people. Dressed in rags, swarms of beggars still pick through garbage heaps in the hope of finding scraps of food or resalable items.
The poorest of the poor find themselves harnessed like human horses, with bells on their fingers, dragging their wealthier compatriots through the city on hand-pulled carts.
A "city of dreadful nights," is how one Bengali poet described life here.
It wasn't always this way. Once the hub of Britain's empire in India, Calcutta has known fabulous wealth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the city became a cradle for Bengal's rich artistic tradition and a powerhouse of industry. Its artistic heritage produced such greats as poet Rabindranath Tagore, sitar player Ravi Shankar, and filmmaker Satavit Ray.
Today, however, crumbling neoclassical columns and the remains of intricate stucco faades are the only enduring clues to Calcutta's past glory.
Local urban development consultant Kalayan Biswas isn't impressed by Calcutta's new image. He blames the government for missing out on opportunities for reform. "Solutions to many of the problems that could have been resolved more cheaply and easily earlier on will now be much more expensive," he complains.
Mr. Kalayan says the government's emphasis on improving Calcutta's public face will do little to eradicate the roots of the city's problems. "To my mind, it is not so much the visual degradation of services that is important.... The government should devise an economic policy to stimulate growth in the city. State policy has left industry with its hands tied," he explains.
The realists know that things change slowly in India. "Actually, most people who are well established here are now looking to get out. The stock exchange has declined considerably," admits Mr. Chowdhury, who wants to see tighter control on West Bengal's powerful communist-inspired labor unions and more foreign investment.
By launching an aggressive public relations campaign and abandoning its Marxist dogmatism, the government has at least gone some way to attracting overseas cash. "The Japanese are starting to invest here, and West Bengal is among the top five states for attracting International Economic Memorandums," Kalayan says.
Even so, West Bengal's leaders are likely to find their reforms will have to go further than bulldozing slums and handing out 60 cent fines for litterbugs if they are really to revive this city's sagging fortunes.