Calcutta's Industrial Ambitions Clash with Tradition As the Ganges River's journey nears an end, it passes through Calcutta, one of India's great cities. Renowned for its slums, militancy and red tape, Calcutta is changing, as it remakes itself into an IT hub. But the change has met with resistance.
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Calcutta's Industrial Ambitions Clash with Tradition

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Calcutta's Industrial Ambitions Clash with Tradition

Calcutta's Industrial Ambitions Clash with Tradition

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This week we're following one of the world's great rivers: the Ganges.

NPR south Asia correspondent, Philip Reeves, has been traveling the length of the Ganges by car and train, all 1,555 miles of it. He's stopping at intervals to report on what he finds. We've heard much about India's economic boom. Philip's mission is to find out how that's impacting the country from the majority who live in rural India, to the growing class of business entrepreneurs. His latest report is from the city of Calcutta in west Bengal.

PHILIP REEVES: We arrive by early morning train in one of the great cities of India. As the Ganges nears her journey's end, she floats through a giant delta towards the Bay of Bengal. One of the biggest branches cuts a path through the heart of Calcutta. It's called the Hooghly River.

(Soundbite of cars passing by)

REEVES: The British sailed up the Hooghly and set up their empire. Hundreds of years later, so did the Bengali entrepreneur called Manab Pal.

Mr. MANAB PAL (Bengali Entrepreneur): Well, my friends tell me that the new way was kind of mad. I had lots of crazy ideas when I was in college. After I did it, they confronted me that I'm fully mad.

REEVES: One of Pal's crazy ideas was to design and build a floating hotel or floatel, and tow it to Calcutta from Singapore across the cyclone zone.

Mr. PAL: We had a bad storm, we went inside Bangladesh took refuge, hang around there for about, I think, 10 days. The towing tug broke its propeller, so we replaced it with another tug from Holland. And then we got it towed in here.

REEVES: We're sitting on the floatel's deck, watching river ferries and wooden black-hulled fishing boats glide across the grubby waters below. Pal always dreamed of this. But he says it took more than 15 years and 42 government permits to get his way.

Calcutta is changing. It's turning into an IT hub. Malls and five-star hotels are beginning to spring up. But its reputation for slums and Marxist militancy lingers on. So does the government's love of red tape. And so does the city's love of argument.

Mr. PAL: Oh, in this city, everybody is chief minister. Everybody has a view and everybody had to listen to. If you have one iota of injustice, this city is the one who first shouts, and lesser India shouts after that.

(Soundbite of Indian music)

REEVES: Today, as usual, Calcutta's shouting. Bengalis are notoriously fond of taking to the streets for massive demonstrations at the drop of a hat. But this protest is about an issue critical to all India. The government wants to create several hundred special economic zones. This involves acquiring large areas of land and offering generous tax breaks to encourage industry to move in. It's part of India's drive to get into the global marketplace and to create much needed jobs.

Calcutta's in West Bengal. The state is being governed by Marxists for the last three decades. The Marxists have seen the success of giant economic zones in China, but land in this part of India is in short supply. West Bengal's plans have already gone wrong.

We set off by car from Calcutta. We're going to a place close to another branch of the Ganges, a place called Nandigram. Gradually, the city suburbs give way to lush farmland with clusters of thatched huts and palm groves, with brown muddy ponds and bright green patty fields. The state planned to take 10,000 acres of this land to create an industrial zone for an Indonesian chemicals giant. The villagers found out, and the area became the frontline in a battle between the Marxist government and the people.

Mr. SURAJ KUMAGORI(ph) (Farmer): Bullet. Bullet.

REEVES: Suraj Kumagori is a farmer. He shows us around the scene of a recent blood bath.

Mr. KUMAGORI: Blood. All the blood. Blood. Blood.

REEVES: Last month, police opened fire here on a crowd of demonstrators, killing at least 14.

(Soundbite of crowd)

REEVES: There was uproar. West Bengal had to shelve the Nandigram plan, delivering a victory to the people. This has serious national implications. Setting up economic zones was never going to be easy for the Indian government, but now it will be more difficult. In Nandigram, it's game over. The villagers say they'll resist any attempt to revive the plan.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) Where will we go if we leave the land? So, we won't leave it.

REEVES: Does everybody here agree?

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language).

REEVES: The villagers remain upset and angry. Victims of the police shooting are still being treated here in hospital. Nurayan Bai(ph) has come to support them.

Mr. NURAYAN BAI (Gandhian): (Unintelligible)

REEVES: The display on Bai's mobile phone shows his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation. Bai is one of the group of white-clad Gandhians wandering the area on foot and by rickshaw, spreading the great man's message.

Mr. BAI: Last day, we walk about 10 kilometers. Ten kilometers also today, I have plan to go again in about 10 kilometers to go to village (unintelligible) and meet the peopleā€¦

REEVES: Bai preaches Gandhi's message of peace and non-violence, and he shares the Mahatma's disdain for big industry.

Mr. BAI: We are happy, you know. We don't want to more and more. But we are happy within our own capacity. We want to development of ours, but through the gesture and the work by the masses, not mass production.

(Soundbite of car horn)

REEVES: There's one more stop before we leave, and it's back on Calcutta, the city that loves to argue.

They say that if you shout out the word yes in Calcutta, you'll be drowned out by a chorus of no.

Mr. SUISHIS MUCAJI(ph): If you come here in the evening, you will see most of the rising intellectuals of Bengal right here, in these tables.

REEVES: Suishis Mucaji is sitting along in the Calcutta Coffee House. This is where the city's intelligentsia has for generations come to debate the issues of the day and sip coffee in a noisy gloom beneath flapping fans. Mucaji is an engineer with one of India's industrial giants, Tata. Our conversation turns to Nandigram.

Mr. MUCAJI: Most of the people, they have denounced the firing. They have denounced the killing. But in general, the cross section of Calcuttans feel that we need industrialization.

REEVES: Mucaji thinks that India's plan for special economic zones will now have to be slowed down. It's an example of how the new and growing India can sometimes collide with the old. India is not China. The police kill people from time to time, but it's not a totalitarian state. Problems like Nandigram, says Mucaji, are the price you pay for democracy.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, by the Ganges River.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: We arrive at the end of the Ganges tomorrow, where the river meets the sea and we're reminded that there are two Indias - one is thriving, the other is still gripped by poverty. Philip Reeves' latest reporter's notebook can be found at

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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