Bread and Circuses: Ancient Rome and Bengal.
Bread and circuses were the raison d'etre of the Roman empire, particularly when it was in its long inexorable decline. The Roman citizens could be diverted from anything if they were fed and were provided the entertainment that wiled away the hours of leisure.
Bengal, particularly during the Vishwakarma Puja to Saraswati Puja season increasingly resembles the Roman polity. The industrial landscape remains desolate. This is not to say that other regions of India are flourishing notwithstanding the accha din rhetoric : a recent visit to Nagpur revealed long stretches of defunct “industrial” zones and empty real estate. However, the industrial scene seems especially desolate when viewed form a North Bengal prism: The tea industry seems to be in terminal decline, there is nothing to take its place.
I am not going into the statistics that were being bandied about in the newspaper advertisements and hoardings in late December and early January: the ones that showed Bengal’s growth rate to be much higher than that of India as a whole, some statistics were really remarkable. One respected banker told me that the statistics were cooked: they showed a growth from such a small base that the statistics were meaningless. Another friend who is the Financial Advisor for one of the most important government departments of West Bengal told me that they were sheer lies. Despite my earnest desire to believe that things were improving, it was difficult to accept the government bombast.
I am a firm believer in “things on the ground”. If it looks better, if the overall feeling is better, it is better. Which is why I do not believe the statistics which tell us how well Bangladesh is doing. If they were doing so well, Indians would be migrating there, not the other way around. Which is why I find it difficult to credit reports of a revival of education in Bengal: if that is true, why the flight to Bangalore and Tamil Nadu?
But what we do have in Bengal are circuses. They exist at every street corner they amuse us in and out of season. In Siliguri there is a mela every week: this is true of all mofussil towns and in Calcutta: there were, ( I counted) at least 5 mega melas going on in Calcutta in late December. And the entertainment never ends: Puja, followed by KaliPujo, ( Bakr Id and Mohurram thrown in for good measure in between) Bhai phota, Jagadhatri Pujo, and now a Christmas mela is being actively promoted, not that it really needed much promotion. There were Christmas lights in VIP road this year, perhaps elsewhere too in Calcutta.
And that is it. The city looks a little better no doubt, and, as I have written earlier, the all-pervading shabbiness of the Left Front days have gone, roads, particularly in North Bengal have spectacularly improved, but joblessness is still an issue. The attempt to pass off tiny self-employment schemes as industry is risible. I am told that the Chief Minister actually said that a telebhaja wala ( roadside fritter seller) had managed to build a three story house and pointed to this as a proof of industrialization . I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story, it could be a Hindutwit or commie social media myth, but if so, it is a myth that serves an important purpose: the humour reveals a sad truth: Bengal has no industry. Despite desperate measures to run heavily subsidized flights to various destinations in Bengal, the Kolkata airport is underutilized: if anything, the Bagdogra airport appears to be booming,
I had to visit a bank for some personal work, I realized what is sometimes said about Bengal is true: it is a gigantic retirement home: there are no young people. The only relatively young people in the bank were the bank personnel (some of them). The customers were all my age at least, and most much older. There appeared to be no young men indulging in commerce, at least not in Salt Lake or Parnasree.
Is it all bad news? No:
The good news is that the Ola app is excellent. Bengali movies are a cut above most; the theatre scene is very vibrant: as I was saying, the circuses are working fine. The Roman parallel is strong.