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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 23:58 GMT
Calcutta's digital vision
Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Bike propped against the wall outside a new IT building
Calcutta wants to be the IT hub of Eastern India
Beneath a billboard that reads "propel your dream for high profile success" a young boy is sat selling a handful of cauliflowers off a rickety cart.

On the dual carriageway in front of him, rickshaws and taxis held together with rust compete for space with gleaming saloons.

The area is known as Salt Lake City, a drained area of marshland squeezed between the crumbling Victorian edifices of Calcutta and the teeming Netaji Subhash International airport.

The satellite town, conceived in 1962, was designed to take the pressure off a heaving and decaying Calcutta.

But it is more than just overspill. Salt Lake City now represents West Bengal's ambition to grab a slice of India's pullulating computer industry and play catch up with boomtown cities like Bangalore.

"We are looking at Calcutta to be the IT hub for eastern India," said Swarup Roy, from the department of information technology at the Government of West Bengal.

"We aim to be number three in India by 2010."

Disruptive baggage

Although the IT industry only gained a foothold in Calcutta in the early 1990s it has developed at a phenomenal rate.

"Every year the export growth is between 70 and 100%," said Mr Roy.

The national average is 38%.

But West Bengal's economic bloom is at odds with the state's political history.

For more than three decades the area has been ruled by a communist-led coalition.

We cannot ignore knowledge-based industries like IT
Shri Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
Chief Minister, West Bengal

The Communist Party India (Marxist) Left Front is the longest running democratically elected communist government.

It was this and other related factors that kept companies away in the early days of the IT boom

"Calcutta has a great deal of historical baggage," said Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association of Software and Service companies (Nasscom).

"For a long time it was seen as a centre of disruptive unions and disruptive strikes."

But the state and government has now changed its outlook and, for IT at least, abandoned its Marxist principles.

"We cannot ignore knowledge-based industries like IT," said Shri Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister of the district at a recent conference.

"I have to admit that West Bengal was a late starter but now our position is improving, our growth rate is improving and I and my colleagues are trying to attract more IT companies."

Huge development

One reason for this advance is the status IT now enjoys in the state.

The industry is now classed as a "public utility service" alongside other essentials like the police and hospitals.

Buildings in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is a former area of marshland

This means that the government has a legal framework with which it can reassure business that there will always be continuity of service, even if a general strike is called.

"IT is immune," said Mr Roy.

Alongside financial incentives, it has encouraged a huge growth in areas of Salt Lake which has attracted international businesses.

"We got a lot of support from the state," said Satadru Sinha, assistant manager of infrastructure at software firm Cognizant, the first major company to set up in Salt Lake.

The company now occupies a gleaming building that borders what remains of the marshes.

It has been joined by strips of gleaming buildings for the IT industry with futuristic names like Technopolis.

And these emblems of growth are just the start.

Three new satellite townships are planned around Calcutta at Howrah, Dankuni and Baruipur.

Work on the 390-acre (1.5 square kilometres) township in Howrah has already begun while nearly 4,000 acres of land have been earmarked for Dankuni, while the Baruipur township will cover more than 2,000 acres (8 square kilometres).

In addition there is a huge amount of infrastructure being put in place, such as a new 72 km (45 mile) ring road that will run around Calcutta.

Digital disparity

Acquiring the land for this kind of development has become a bone of contention in West Bengal. A recent land-grab of 1,000 acres for a car factory sparked fierce protests.

Other problems exist.

Buildings in Salt Lake
The IT industry has the same status as the police and hospitals

Visitors can be whisked straight from the airport into an air-conditioned office, without having set foot in the former British capital of India.

Critics argue that because of this, the development is not benefiting the old town where desperate poverty is still a fact of life.

But the government denies this is the case.

"With economic growth you eliminate poverty," said Mr Roy.

This maxim, at odds with the government's Marxist past, shows the shift in thinking the IT boom has brought about in Calcutta and the hopes for the future it can bring.

But for now, the aspirational promises on the billboards and hoardings lining the roads of Salt Lake still sit incongruously with the poverty beneath.

It will take time for the benefits of IT to touch everyone but the government is optimistic that it will become a force for change.

"Given the pace of development over the last five years we think it will not take too long," said Mr Roy.


A week of special programming about India can be heard on the BBC World Service from 3 to 11 February



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