The sweat of Kolkata: Paying homage to its people and their “labour-power”

Texts and images by Giorgio Grappi.

(Dr. Grappi works on the transformation of the State form and logistical corridors. He explored India several times. The pictures attached to this text were shot in 2011. He can be reached at giorgio.grappi@unibo.it)

Kolkata_037Kolkata is many things. Kolkata constantly changes. Kolkata reshapes itself. Calcutta lasts. Under the scratches of its many developments, the people of Kolkata ignite the city with their labour power. At the outskirts of the city, moving from Howrah towards the ancient French colony of Chandannagar, the blackened bricks of the old mills dot the green fields of Bengal.

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Once, this land was the promise of colonial development. Then it became the dream of an independent India, fluctuating between the words of the poet, the guns and the bombs, and the workers’ sweat. On the opposite side, Rajarhat is now becoming the Pandora’s box of the dreams of the uninhibited middle class. Rajarhat wants to forget Calcutta, yet Rajarhat is Kolkata.

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Far from the unruly dust of the inner city, Rajarhat can’t forget the damp buildings of B.B.D. Bagh, where, behind colonial walls, government officials meet with corporate investors to celebrate the new era of postcolonial logistical development. Rajarhat wants to forget the time as it grows, and our trip is already old as we write. Piled tubes are now pipes. Stacked gravel is now tarmac. Ghostly skeletons are now glittering buildings. Yet a sense of incompleteness remains in the air. And we know more work will be requested, more dispossessions will be generated, more exploitation will be needed. These are the splintered spaces of global growth.

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Once it was Hoogly, the local disguise of mother Ganga, that separated Kolkata from Howrah. Then Kolkata had one busy metro line cutting the city down the middle, while connecting Dakshineswar, home to the majestic Kali temple, to Kavi Subhash, beyond the EM Bypass. Now, the students keep flooding the colleges and the universities on College Street. The coffee is hot, and the fans run slowly at the Coffee House. The moon struggles with the mist to see the repairmen in Chandi Chawk. Shahid Minar competes with the Eden Gardens. The yellow cabs pack Jawaharlal Nehru road, and the US Consulate still remembers ‘69. Maybe these names will change again. Further south are other students and colleges, other memories and flagships of the present. South Kolkata neighbourhoods bear the footprints of 1947.A mosque remembers Tipu Sultan, the disputed tiger of Mysore whose wooden mechanical toy still surprises the visitors of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Kali’s gaze stretches along the line, and animals are still sacrificed in the temple.

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Then the line turns right, and Jadavpur, where students shudder appears. Nearby buses trundling down the roads in South City still bring the destination Usha gate, remembering an industrial past, closed in 2003 and since demolished. And how about Kolkata’s Chinatown, a hub of tanneries now converted to eating houses and shopping malls replacing factories to conform with pollution control laws?

Jadavpur is home to the architectural team called to test the Writers Building. Restoration needed. After a change in government in 2011, says Mamata Banerjee, a change in building is needed. The dankness of B.B.D Bagh affects the red colonial bricks of Writers’ Buildings. The old (post)colonial city confuses the image of a new era in governance. The government offices were temporarily located faraway, on the other side of Hoogly, in the industrial township of Howrah. Nabanna is the name of the building in white and light blue, the colors this government chose to replace the reds. There is a neoliberal taste in the repainting of the city: whoever paints their houses in blue receives a property tax exemption. Is that a new blue economic zone? The left has called this apartheid, but it was the left that introduced SEZs in West Bengal and planned Rajarhat. And it was the left who changed Calcutta into Kolkata. In the midst of change, there are continuities, and resistance takes new shape. Yes, red tape resists and the renovation work at Writers’ Buildings stagnated due to a lack of detail in the proposed renovation project. And the government remained in Howrah. It will take a long time to renovate Writers’ Buildings, perhaps ten years: after Rajarhat, does the government itself want to forget Calcutta? It’s a work in progress.

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Kolkata_030The Kolkata metro is also a work in progress: construction began in 1972,and work continues. The world of globalization and neoliberal politics we live in today also began to affirm itself in the early ‘70s.  The history of the metro tells us a story, which is relevant to understanding this city and how it connects with global flows. A new line is now on the horizon. It starts in Howrah, goes east towards Sector V in Salt Lake, touches the new town of Rajarhat, it connects all with the busy station and crosses Chandi Chowk. Perhaps, one day, more will follow.”A technological marvel Kolkatans should be proud of”, say the ads. It goes on: “any large infrastructure project is expected to displace or affect in other ways people within its alignment”. They know this. And they solve this: the KMRCL (Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation Ltd.) “has not only provided resettlement for people affected by the project, but has also aimed to improve their condition”. At least, so they say.

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There is a sense of nostalgia in the complaints about rehabilitation. This is primitive accumulation at its best. Development means finally being«free». Free from the land, free from the village, free from the family. Maybe.Free to work for the new social fabric, free to be unemployed, free to find a place among the city dwellers of the inner city. That’s more likely.Free to die or free to fight. It’s not entirely clear what is new in this “freedom”. It somehow echoes the older freedom, which once announced itself through the smoke of the disused chimney stack. But it is different.

 

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“Project affected persons” is one of the many names of the new proletariat. Over the years, Kolkata has changed as the world has changed. Looms have been replaced by investment funds. Real estate is the business card for the new factory. The tall buildings are the new mills, moving across borders and continents, rooting around to extract value from everything. Calcutta changes. Kolkata is an extraction site. Industrial factories moved somewhere else, in the SEZs and along the corridors that are reshaping the nation, but Calcutta remains a place of work. Once the black hole of the Empire, it now reverberates the ghostly presence of finance, the power of logistics. It is a tale of labour, command, and resistance. These snapshots are a rough homage to its people and their “labour-power”[1].

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[1] «By labour-power or capacity for labour is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description» (K. Marx).

 

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