How Howrah, once an industrial hub, is struggling to stand on its feet

The famous bridge of Howrah which is synonymous with West Bengal. Pixabay

Glossy malls, rising skyscrapers and the ever-bustling streets, Howrah— Bengal’s new saddle of power—has all the trappings of a thriving metropolis.

Behind the shiny façade, however, lies a darker world of rundown factory sheds, locked gates of closed mills, filthy labour lines and clusters of shanties. They are the tattered remains of a once-burgeoning industrial city called the Sheffield of the East for being a hub of engineering industries.

Sitting at a makeshift tea stall, erected over an open drain, Shiv Kumar Mahato, 68, rues that Howrah is now divided into two worlds. One is typified by its overflowing drains, narrow lanes, ramshackle houses and abject poverty as are witnessed in Fakir Bagan lane, Mahato’s address for the last 50 years. On the other side of the divide are manicured parks, high-rises, shopping malls, wide and well-lit roads and affluence.

When Mahato first crossed the iconic Howrah bridge across the Hooghly River five decades ago, the teenager from Palamu in undivided Bihar was amazed to see smoke wafting through countless towering chimneys of factories dotting the western skyline.

Those chimneys were the face as well as the heart of the city that drew millions of people like him from across the country here for employment, Mahato, a former employee of the now-defunct Bengal Jute, reminisces.

The face of the city has undergone a cosmetic makeover after the state secretariat was shifted from Writers’ Building in Kolkata to Nabanna in Howrah’s Shibpur in 2013. But people like Mahato are more concerned about the heart, which they say is dying. A few chimneys that peep from behind the skyscrapers have become still, they no longer breathe out smoke.

Politics over closed factories

Ironically, these lifeless factories and mills are the lifeline of Howrah’s politics. Old-timers recall how Congress stalwart Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi used to go around the city, which is part of the Howrah parliamentary constituency, with a large key in his hand in the 90s, telling voters he would open the locked-out mills once elected. Since then Burn Standard Company Limited (BSCL), Hooghly Dock & Port Engineers Limited, Shalimar Paints, Howrah Jute Mills, Wellington Jute Mill, Gloster Cables, National Jute, Delta Mills, Guest Keen Williams and numerous small- and medium-scale foundries have been added to the ever-expanding list of Howrah’s sick and closed industries.

As the constituency’s 1,505,099 electorate gear up to vote on May 6 in another election, the same old promise is once again doing the rounds with lockouts in the factories continuing to play havoc. In the 90s there were over 400 foundries in Howrah. Today the number has dwindled to around 70, said Satyajit Kundu, the secretary of the Howrah Foundry Association (HFA).

BJP candidate and journalist-turned-politician Rantideb Sengupta promises to develop Howrah into a small-scale and MSME hub, and accuses the ruling Trinamool Congress for the lack of industrialisation in the constituency. Former footballer and sitting Trinamool Congress MP Prasun Banerjee blames the Centre and the erstwhile CPI (M)-led Left Front government for the decline.

In this blame game, the real issue is lost

Many factors contributed to the decline of the industries of Howrah over the years, Kundu says. The recent demonetisation and the haphazard implementation of the Goods and Services Tax has had a severe impact on the small-scale industries here, points out Kundu.

The state government’s land policy is also putting a spanner in the revival of industries. The HFA proposed to set up a foundry park spread over 400 bighas (1 bigha= 14,400 square feet) of land at Amta Kurit to shift all the city’s existing units as they are finding it difficult to operate due to pollution, restriction on movement of heavy vehicles, traffic congestion and other issues from residential areas that came up over the years around the units.

As the TMC government, according to its land policy, refuses to acquire land for the park, the association has been compelled to downsize its project. “We are now planning to set up the park on 74 bighas of land. But without the government support, we are finding it difficult even to acquire that much of land. So the project is now hanging in balance, stalling the modernisation of the units,” Kundu says.

The constant tussle between managements and workers unions is another major factor that forced the factories to down their shutters or to shift out of Bengal. Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union and other Left-backed trade unions are planning to go on an indefinite strike in jute mills after the general elections to press for their demands, including wage revision and implementation of the Minimum Wages Act. The jute sector employs over two lakh workers in more than 60 mills, mostly located in Howrah parliamentary constituency.

What makes Howrah’s story more compelling is that it is representative of the industrial decay of Bengal.

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