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The new Bhadralok: Bytes of change in Kolkata

The bandhs continue. The CPM is still in power. But the corporate culture of big-ticket IT has enthralled a corner of Salt Late City. And the youth can’t wait to get on board. Soumya Bhattacharya reports.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2009 23:57 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times

Ten kilometres from the Kolkata airport, on the eastern fringe of a city trying to rid itself of the image of genteel idleness and intellectual posturing, a revolution is underway.

It is brewing to the soundtrack of tapping keyboards.

At its forefront is the CPM-led Left Front government that is desperate to present Bengal as a key destination for industry, urbanisation and IT (Information Technology) and ITES (IT-Enabled Services).

And its biggest beneficiaries are educated young men and women from across the state: General-stream graduates who, even five years ago, would have either remained unemployed, moved out of the state or turned to politics as a means of livelihood. Sector V of Salt Lake City is where it is all happening.

In less than five years, 60,000 IT, IT-ES and BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) jobs have been created here. And the 432 acres that comprise what its workforce and the government call Bengal’s ‘IT hub’ has transformed rapidly and dramatically, into an area that is not merely unrecognisable from what it once was; it is unrecognisable from the rest of Kolkata.

“When we started here in 2002, there was hardly anything,” says Kalyan Kar (42), the managing director of Acclaris, a firm that adjudicates health claims for US companies.

“And look at it now,” he says, pointing to the sanitised, chrome-glass-steel landscape shimmering outside his office window in the afternoon heat.

In the last five years, the rent for commercial space has doubled. It is now Rs 60 per square foot and, despite the downturn, going further up.

Listening to Sandip Banerjee (47), general manager of Axsys Technologies — a firm that specialises in offshore design and development of ships — you can see how rapidly and how much the story of hope and change has progressed.

“The size of our office in 2002 was 3,500 square feet,” he says. “Today, it is 20,000 square feet and spread over three locations in Sector V.”

The most visible exemplar of the change was the arrival in 2004 of Wipro, which now has at least 5,000 employees here. IBM moved in soon after, as did TCS and Cognizant Technology Solutions.

These, and the other companies that have set up here, have offered employment to a vast army of educated people — like Surbeshwar Mondol (26), who did a postgraduate degree in economics from Burdwan University.

“I had no idea of what to do next,” he says, sitting in the office of Acclaris, for which he was hired a year ago. “I’d have tried finding a job as a school teacher.”

But Acclaris — keen to find employees not merely from the city but from the small towns and rural hinterland of Bengal — turned up on campus.

“Everything changed. I am thrilled now. I really wouldn’t have thought I could have made a living like this,” Mondol says.
Elections are not uppermost on the minds of the denizens of Sector V, but chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is rather a favourite. “Even when there are bandhs,” says Kar, “Sector V goes on as usual.”

Irrespective of who calls the bandh, the police, he says, monitor vehicles ferrying employees of these companies. “If you want a police patrol, it will immediately be sent to you,” he says.

The government has been alert to the potential of the place and what it represents. In 2006, the government hived off this
area into a self-contained municipality, Naba Diganta Industrial Township Authority.

“The idea behind it,” says S.A. Ahmed (62), head of the authority and former special secretary to the chief minister, “was to deliver on the government’s promise to showcase Bengal as an IT and ITES destination. We want to make this place world class.”

That may be some way off. But the effort is noticeable.

Things are not perfect, though. Sector V’s glowing confidence has somewhat dulled after the departure of the Tatas from Singur and the violence over land acquisition in Nandigram.

But it is, as Kar says, only a matter of time before the lustre returns.

“Compared to some other big cities, it’s still cheaper by at least 20 per cent to do business here. And who, in the time of an economic slowdown, doesn’t want to cut costs?”

First Published: Mar 31, 2009 23:54 IST