Every morning, when the first rays of the sun try to cut through layers of smog above the monolithic chimneys around Asansol, Samir Mitra flips through newspapers. The 50-year-old theatre and television actor rarely looks for news. His attention is always fixed on property advertisements.
Mitra is looking for a home in Kolkata or its suburbs. After spending half his life in an industrial and business hub that is only second to Kolkata in terms of size, and probably development as well, the man wants to shift base.
“I want to escape from Asansol,” says Mitra, determination written all over his face. The most flourishing city in Bengal’s coal and steel belt, which incidentally was once compared to the Ruhr industrial belt in Germany, has almost everything the average citizen can ask for. But Mitra, like several other people, feels that four-lane roads, highrises, multiplexes, shopping malls and plush brands stores have taken the soul out of the city.
“We have everything. The city has grown over three decades. Businesses have flourished. People have money now. But art and culture have taken the hit. As part of the Theatre for Education project launched by a prominent NGO, I held workshops and acting classes at Lachipur brothel, one of the eight in Asansol. The sex workers and their children toiled hard for years. But people of Asansol were not interested. There was no audience.”
“Finally, I started working on a research project for Sangeet Natak Akademi. The job stated taking me away from this city for a few days every month. I started acting in theatre and television serials. Now, I want to settle in Kolkata,” said Mitra before he got down from the auto-rickshaw.
Sheikh Ismail, the driver, was raring to cut into the conversation all this while. He took off by narrating how he loves to drive the ramshackle three-wheeler to Chelidanga Chowk, along the new four-lane road, in the middle of the night. “This is the time I make some quick bucks because the giant Volvo buses arrive from Kolkata till midnight. The Volvo service was launched a year ago to augment the hourly service of government buses.”
National Highway 2 was widened as part of the Golden Quadrilateral project launched by the BJP government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee. A bypass enables highway traffic to avoid congested areas of Asansol, Neamatpur, Kulti and Barakar. The air-conditioned Volvos and ordinary state government buses connect Asansol to Kolkata. The buses leave every 30 minutes and take around four hours to cover 224 km.
“But prosperity also brings along ill effects. Now, we have to pay more protection money to local hoodlums and the police. My family came from Bihar 42 years ago. My father was a wage labourer. But I started driving auto-rickshaws. My financial condition has improved over the years,” said Ismail, who lives with his wife and two children.
Though most residents are Bengalis, a large number of Hindi and Urdu-speaking people have also made Asansol their home. “We were among those who came here because of the industrial boom. But many became jobless when the Pilkington glass factory and Raleigh cycle factory closed down,” said Ismail.
Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (CLW) was the first locomotive factory in India, named after freedom fighter and lawyer Chittaranjan Das. CLW started operations on January 26, 1950, the day India became a republic. The first steam locomotive, Deshbandhu, the name by which Das was lovingly called by his countrymen was presented to the nation by the first President Rajendra Prasad.
Raleigh Industries started production of bicycles at Kanyapur near Asansol in 1949. Pilkington set up a glass factory in Asansol. Both downed shutters years ago. “Asansol is still growing,” said hotel owner Subrata Dutta, 49, “but in an unplanned manner.”
Dutta also volunteered to narrate the story of Asansol’s growth. And he started with his biggest grievance against the administration. “Durgapur, located just 45 km away, is such a planned city. All we have here is madness. We need some planning,” said Dutta. “Civic amenities are also lacking. There is shortage of drinking water. The drainage system is also not inadequate. The hotel industry is not doing well since people who come here prefer to stay in rented apartments.”
Day 2. The HT team hit the streets of Asansol, only to be astounded by the extravagant use of steel and concrete and the co-existence of highrises and shopping malls with shanties.
Srijan Developers and Avani Group, both Kolkata-based real estate companies, have built a shopping mall in the heart of the city. Big Bazaar, Eylex Multiplex with three screens of 750 seats each, have opened shop alongside giant showrooms of Reebok, Turtle and Himalaya Opticals.
Housing projects are a big hit in Asansol, a clear pointer to the growing economic solvency in the coal and steel belt. Sugam Park is one of the biggest housing projects, spread over 30 acres, with more than 1,100 flats in 27 eight-storeyed towers with modern facilities. Plots inside the complex will also be available for bungalows for those looking for exclusivity. The project site is at Kalyanpur Satellite Township Project (KSTP), the planned zone if Asansol, which is supposed to be a self-sufficient urban hub with all civic amenities.
Shristinagar, better known as New Asansol, is a green township spread over 100 acres with around 6,000,000 sqft developed for 5,000 families. It comprises premium residential apartments, group housing structures, plotted housing units, bungalows, row houses and commercial and retail area.
All this, however, has not changed anything for Amod Mondal who runs a tea stall near the Police Lines. The HT team was thirsty and Mondal appeared to be equally efficient in making tea and telling stories.
“My daughter is a Class 10 student. But I am planning to get her married. I cannot afford her books and school fees anymore,” said Mondal, who, quite ironically, lives with his wife and two daughters near the sprawling Big Bazar. The man somehow managed to get his three other daughters married. “I have to pay protection money to goons. And I have to pay the police who also ask for at least 150 cups of tea every day. Needless to say, they do not pay. I have to feed my family, pay extortion money and do business here. How is that possible? The city has changed over the years. But my life has not. I wish I had a proper job.”
Writer and playwright Shantimoy Bandopadhyay, 70, has seen it all happen before his eyes. “Asansol has become concrete jungle where real estate promoters and businessmen determine the course of development,” said Bandopadhyay.
Regretting the death of the Asansol’s culture. he said: “Nobody cares for art and culture. There are no book fairs of literature workshops. Once in a blue moon poets and writers get together on their own.” Bandopadhyay also rued that compared Durgapur or Kolkata, Asansol has less avenues for students going for higher studies.