Kolkata’s march to the idea of globality

Hans Schenk

What does ‘globality’ mean for Kolkata, a city that strives to regain its past glory? What is the role of Indians residing abroad, coined by Bose as ‘Global Indians’, in this process? What do the resulting changes mean for Kolkata’s citizens? These questions structure this book on Kolkata’s urban development. 

There is, however, a certain ambivalence in it. Looking at most of its contents, the message – though implicit – is that Indians living abroad come home and remake Kolkata, into a global Kolkata perhaps. The author carefully presents the building blocks of this message, chapter by chapter. Indians residing abroad or of Indian origin; their links with India; the idea of a global city; then Kolkata, with its dramatic history; and now working towards globality with the help of all those ‘Global Indians’ who may come home, or at least invest in ‘their’ city, are subjects of a number of chapters. And each chapter ends with some sort of cliff hanger that invites the reader to continue and read finally how it all happens. However, Bose already writes on page 2 that these Indians have not come in great numbers, but that “it is the idea rather than the actual presence of Global Indians that is crucial to our understanding of what is taking place in Kolkata”.

He starts answering his questions in chapters 2 and 3, focusing on Indians by nationality or by descent, living abroad, but who keep a belief in an original homeland to which they may return. The category is broad and varies from descendants of indentured labourers in the Caribbean, to IT experts in Silicon Valley, and may involve 18 to 40 million people worldwide. What matters here is that although the Global Indians have traditionally been seen in India as ‘those who left’, a change has taken place: they are now “those whose return we desire” (21). At least some of them; the ‘mythology of the Global Indian’ is of an exclusionary nature, writes Bose, the labour migrants to the Gulf for instance being absent (19). Bose describes the discovered and henceforth desired Global Indians, or at least their money to develop the country, accompanied by remarks from political leaders in India that their wealth is attractive to the development of the country. This discovery started in the late 1970s, with an increasing need for diasporic capital, and was given dramatic urgency after 1992 when the World Bank demanded substantial neo-liberal reforms in the Indian economy. At this junction transnational practices are discussed: the intensified relations between the Indians living abroad and their former homes. Relations of a political nature show the considerable financial support for populist Hindu fundamentalist organisations. Foreign, diasporic investment in the Indian economy has, however, been limited and has mainly been concentrated on outsourcing operations (IT, financial services) in a few cities only. Bose concludes that the hesitancy among Global Indians to invest in the ‘home’ economy against probably meagre rates of return outweighs patriotic sentiments. Finally, there is the ‘remittance’ economy, notably from Keralese ‘guest workers’ in the Gulf, that forms a substantial part of the regional economy. In Chapter 4 the concept of a global city comes to the fore, including derivatives, such as global lifestyles. Apart from the notion that a global city has first class educational, cultural, infrastructural, and economic facilities, and spectacular structures (an Eiffel Tower will do), there is mainly a mythical idea, a label at least. Many authors, however, see the divide between world class and ‘other’ cities as unwieldy in order to understand the dynamics of urban places, and Bose briefly pays attention to ideas of geographers such as Robinson who coined the ‘ordinary city’, allowing for comparative urban analytical research instead of labelling. Yet he chooses to apply the world class city concept to Kolkata, or rather, its world class aspiration of urban developments, and hence he chooses to combine two contradictory approaches by using both a global city label, and the analytical elements of urban developments: a label in the making.


After having laid the foundation stones for his implicit message, Bose enters Kolkata. In Chapter 5 he introduces the city and its often turbulent history: from once the second city in the British Empire, to its dramatic decline due to a long list of causes. He focuses naturally on its recent past in which a block of left wing political parties (led by a Marxist-oriented party) tried to focus somewhat on slum improvement programmes in addition to the building of new townships, and on improving infrastructure. It was after India’s ‘economic liberalisation’ of 1991, when IMF and World Bank economic models replaced the bankrupt ‘Nehruvian’ planned economy, that the left wing block swiftly took over to the virtues of business-friendly private investments, and facilitating public-private partnership in the local society. A, by Global Indians supported, neo-liberal privatized global urban landscape in the making is the subsequent picture of Kolkata as drawn by Bose. He also rightfully asks, however, for whom this urban transformation is taking place. Especially the ‘middle classes’ (singular?, plural?) play a prominent role in the Kolkata-based chapters. What does the term stand for? Anyone living in a regular house or apartment instead of a slum dwelling? An income group? Some specifications would be useful.

Case studies of the transformation of Kolkata in the desire to catch up with globality in the making among policy makers and others are presented in the three final chapters. Two relatively elaborated cases deal with urban development in and around the marshy wetlands directly east of the city. Or, as Bose puts it: “...the ongoing struggle to alternatively protect and develop ....one of the few areas into which the city can expand if it must” (159). He gives a vivid description of the several options, pitfalls and conflicting interests with regard to these ecologically vulnerable areas, which had to be developed to bring together, among others, global environmentalism and middle class sensibilities. To some extent the green agenda of the rich (financed by a foreign loan) against the urban poor polluters has become at stake. The third chapter in this part is on three housing projects in the urban fringes among the many that have been implemented since the 1990s. Residences are almost all ‘international’ in design and target middle and higher income groups. Here the Global Indians come to the fore. Though some developmental activities can be traced to non-resident Indians, Bose concludes that “their actual participation as investors or project partners in Kolkata is limited” (133). Neither is it likely that these non-resident Indians have bought many apartments for actual occupation or for investment purposes. It seems that the ‘Global Indians coming home’ are mainly a marketing slogan in the glossies of real estate dealers, who use the non-resident Indians and their suggested world-class residential surroundings (“five star inside, five star outside”(136), and “live the way the world does”(147)) as honey to convince the local well-to-do to join the suggested world-class band wagon. Bose paints quite a humorous picture of the ways the up-market residential units are offered for sale, but it is a bit of a cold shower that the role of Global Indians to re-make Kolkata along world-class lines, as announced in the introduction of his book, turns out to be not much more than a marketing tool. Why devote at least half the book to the idea of their role in this process?

The book offers interesting reading though. Chapters on the non-resident Indians, their refreshed ties to the motherland, and the concept of the global city with some focus on Indian cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore) are welcomed contributions to their respective subjects. Moreover, the essays on aspects of Kolkata’s urbanisation – notably since the 1990s – are useful. However, the attempt to link these essays under the cover of the Global Indians who help build a Global Kolkata is somewhat artificial.