The Grand Old Lady


1947: India gains independence. Missionaries of Charity founded.

1948: First wave of refugees arrive from East Pakistan.

1965: Second wave of refugees arrive from East Pakistan.

1967: Fall of the Congress government and advent of communism.

1971: Third wave of refugees arrive from East Pakistan.

1972: Construction of the Second Hooghly Bridge commences.

1975: Construction of the underground railway begins.

1977: A communist coalition swept into power in the elections.

1979: Mother Teresa awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1985: First stretch of the underground railway begins operation.

1992: Second Hooghly Bridge opened to public.

1995: Construction of the underground railway completed.

1998: Town Hall restored. Amartya Sen awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.

The emblem of the Republic of India that replaced the crown on most of Calcutta's public buildings after the British left.

The British departed Calcutta on August 15, 1947. Calcutta became the capital of the state of West Bengal in the Republic of India. Independence brought about unprecedented changes to Calcutta's fortunes. For one its rich hinterland in eastern Bengal was suddenly separated and made into another nation. Railways to Assam and northern Bengal were consequently cut off. Calcutta's jute mills lost their raw material supply and Calcutta's main export, tea suffered due to lack of communications. As if all this was not enough, refugees from East Pakistan, formerly the eastern part of Bengal, poured into Calcutta by the million. The city of plenty, which had never turned away a persecuted soul, could not do it again. Calcutta's sidewalks accommodated the millions of political refugees pouring in from Pakistan, at the cost of its well being. Plenty was replaced by shortages everywhere. The city's infrastructure, designed for a tenth of its population groaned under its weight. The new government of the Republic of India provided the last straw. The government's doctrine of socialism took a heavy toll. Government owned businesses came up in the less industrialized areas and monopolized the markets. Calcutta's businesses, starved out of government contracts began their journey towards insolvency. The government also introduced equalized freight rates that eliminated Calcutta's advantage of being nearer to India's coal and oil reserves. Economic stagnation set in almost immediately.

Esplanade: What used to be the most fashionable district of Calcutta, fell into total chaos until the 1990s. The widening of the roads and removal of encroachments is slowly bringing back the charm of the Chowringhee.

Towards the beginning of this period, Calcutta was governed by a benevolent and visionary Chief Minister, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. Dr. Roy did much to alleviate the tremendous pressure on Calcutta's infrastructure. He planned for the building of three townships, namely Salt Lake, Kalyani and Durgapur to take away the some of the focus from Calcutta. The Ganges was also dredged during his time, to enable larger ships to call on Calcutta. Calcutta was at this time raged by severe law and order problems. The wars with Pakistan brought floods of refugees in 1948, 1965 and 1971. The West Pakistani oppression of East Pakistan, a traditionally secular Bengali area led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1972. However, the refugees from East Pakistan had no home to go back to and stayed on in Calcutta. The shortages bred Communism much in the same way as it did in other parts of Southeast Asia. In 1967, Dr. Roy successor was ousted in the elections by a coalition government that had Communists as a major constituent. At about this time, an ultra-communist movement called the Naxalite movement that believed in anarchy and complete allegiance to Chairman Mao of China ravaged Calcutta. Matters came to a head when the Government of India imposed President's rule in West Bengal, and began systematically wiping out the movement. In the general elections of 1977, a Communist government came to power under Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. This same government has since been reelected every time and the octogenarian Mr. Basu continues to rule. During this period of lawlessness and turmoil, Calcutta's economy and infrastructure took a bad beating. Entrepreneurs, too afraid to face the communists moved out of Calcutta seeking greener pastures. Work on the construction of the subway system, begun with much fanfare in 1975 ran at a snail's pace and virtually grounded the city's road network. Strikes and negligence wrecked Calcutta's power, water supply and sewage system. "The most wicked place in the universe" was how Calcutta came to be referred.

Mother Teresa: Arguably the most famous citizen of Calcutta

Enter now, a young girl from Yugoslavia, by the name of Agnes Gonzha Bojaxhin, who joined the missionary sisters of Loreto in 1928. In 1947, she, now Mother Teresa, founded the Missionaries of Charity, with the Pope's blessings. Mother Teresa's order's contribution is legendary. The city of Calcutta readily acclaimed her contribution towards the city's poor, dying and destitute, whereas other cities in the region simply denied the existence of such people. While Mother Teresa's work showed Calcutta in a very negative manner, it helped Calcutta take much better care of its people than other cities. Mother Teresa became the fourth Nobel Laureate of Calcutta in 1979 when she won the Peace Prize.

The Metro Railway is the pride of Calcutta. Once the symbol of despair in this city when its construction dragged over decades leaving a deep gash through the heart of the city, is today a state-of-the-art mass transit system, a symbol of resurgent Calcutta.

The 1990s saw a resurgence in Calcutta's fortunes. The much awaited Metro, Calcutta's subway system is finally in place and Calcutta's power network once notorious for its service is now the finest in the region. Foreign airlines that had once abandoned the city are returning to the most modern airport terminal in India. While manufacturing industries continue to shun the city, the service sector has made a beeline for the city. Software professionals now turn out computer software for the world over at the numerous facilities in Salt Lake. The city's roads are being cleaned and widened and the traffic is being disciplined. The Town Hall, that had once been used to felicitate Calcutta's second Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and which had fallen into disuse has recently been restored by public subscription and is ready to welcome the fifth and latest Nobel prize winner, Dr. Amartya Sen. As the grime and grease of five decades of abuse are scrubbed away, the shine of Calcutta's glorious past is coming back. The city is returning to its former days of plenty. Vive Calcutta!

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