It is nobody’s case that, after coming to power, the Mamata Banerjee government has done nothing to improve infrastructure in West Bengal’s capital city, Kolkata. Even severe critics concede that the city looks better and far more ‘happening’; the hospital exteriors look rather swanky; that roads are better lit despite the strident criticism of the trident and the blue-and-white illumination that normally accompanies children’s tea parties.

The garbage most definitely gets cleaned faster than before and, believe it or not, Kolkata is amongst the ‘best Indian city to live’ in the Janaagraha Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS), essentially designed to help city leaders pinpoint issues in urban governance and help them chart out a reforms roadmap to make their city better. The improvements in Kolkata have thus not been purely cosmetic in nature.

This is not a Mamata Banerjee promoted survey but one published by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (Janaagraha), a Bengaluru- based non-profit organisation, that made public its findings in March 2018. (Kolkata evaluation report in http://www.janaagraha.org/asics/ ASICS2017.html) It ranked Kolkata 2nd, with a score of 4.6, showing a one-place improvement in rank and by 0.5 points in score courtesy certain key factors.

Improvement in the per capita capex of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in the past three years that, on an average, has been Rs 1,545.59 and it performs well on the AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) reforms such as credit rating, publishing e-newsletter and implementation of double entry accounting system. The corporation also introduced live e-procurement system, details on schemes and services, audited annual financial statements available in the Urban Local Bodies (ULB).

That Kolkata ~ of the Majerhat disaster and the Bagree Market fire notoriety ~ should so excel speaks volumes for abysmal urban management elsewhere. Janaagraha bemoans the fact that India’s cities continually score low over the last three editions of ASICS, the average score inching up from 3.4 to 3.9 in a tardy progress with fixing city systems; London and New York score 8.8. Mamata Banerjee’s choice of London as a city to emulate is thus excellent but her means of doing so are not as convincing. Even Johannesburg, a city from a developing country scores 7.6. This becomes a matter of grave concern given the pace at which India is urbanizing and the creaking state of public service delivery in the cities. Janaagraha makes out a telling case for institutional reforms to city governance in Indian cities.

In any democratic society reforms need to be rooted in democratic processes and that includes taking its citizens into confidence and indeed getting technical advice from professionals amongst its citizenry through public consultations, public hearings and often preceded by the circulation of regulatory or development proposals for public comment. Citizens of Kolkata thus have a major axe to grind with the authorities about the total lack of transparency around the 100 acre development plan for Alipore ~ including the heritage jail sites ~ which for want of any public consultation is being suspected of being all about real estate, real estate and more real estate.

The Kolkata citizenry has not yet accused the government of engaging in a conspiratorial development mission with a coterie of realtors, but it has asked for transparency around what is happening.

It may well turn out that the administration has engaged in a detailed environmental evaluation, brought in the best urban planners and will present a marvelous gift to the city keeping in mind the needs of the region’s well preserved bio-diversity, heritage sites, controlling emissions and making Kolkata climate change resilient. Indeed, in a welcome initiative the KMC is creating Carbon Neutral Parks by introducing solar powered LED lighting systems starting with Deshapriya Park in South Kolkata.

The adminstration’s ominous silence around ‘Operation Alipore’ gives rise to the fear that only the realtor’s craze for buildings and more buildings is driving the agenda. This is where greater danger lies; that and in all the infrastructural shortage, water, drainage, road and parking space problems that a massive building spree would present along with the vehicular pollution that will have to be addressed. Razing heritage buildings and destroying ecosensitive areas has been par for the course for city realtors, especially when a tidy Rs 9,000 crore are involved (100 acres @ Rs 90 crore per acre).

Unlike other cities, in Kolkata the building sector is the greatest contributor to GHG, totalling some 6.3 million tonnes of GHG or 42.8 per cent of total emissions. Comparatively, the transportation sector contributed considerably less with 1.97 million tonnes (13 per cent of Kolkata’s total); in other cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad the transportation sector’s figures were 12.4 (32 per cent), 8.6 (43 per cent) and 7.8 (56 per cent) million tonnes of GHG respectively, says the KMC’s own report, ‘Roadmap for low carbon and climate resilient Kolkata’, prepared in collaboration with the British Deputy High Commission and UK Aid and produced by PWC in 2017. KMC said that it aspired “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, respond to the impacts of a changing climate and generate new sustainable economic opportunities while contributing towards green growth of the city” and the UK Aid provided technical assistance of up to £1 million to implement this “unique initiative”.

Amongst the gravest concerns red-flagged by the report is the heat island effect that is evident in the city, especially in pockets where dense urbanization has taken place.

The report says that the city’s open space has declined from 25 per cent (1990) to 10 per cent (2012) and the heat island assessment by the project indicated a temperature difference of 20-60 between different areas within the city during peak summers and the implications are most worrisome. Marry these concerns with one major worry emanating from the Janaagraha report, that Kolkata ranks 10th on the transparency, accountability and participation score and one has a clear case for public consultation over a project as major as the proposed 100-acre offensive.

The citizenry does not know what is happening save for the Chief Minister’s statement that “A lot of things will happen here.” The worse fear is that not even those who are implementing it know where exactly they are headed on the ‘quality of life’ front that should be the fountainhead of all development initiatives. It goes without saying that not only should the masterplan be ready but it must be discussed before any action takes place.

Kolkata’s much-celebrated Alipore Bomb case was around waging a war against an alien government and involved its best loved heroes ~ Khudiram Bose, Prafulla Chaki, and, of course, the redoubtable Sri Aurobindo, the hearings for which were held at the Alipore Sessions Court that may well fall under the reported development initiative, apart from several other historic premises and invaluable public spaces; much of which will be freed with the shifting of prisoners in the many jails in the area to other facilities.

Without adequate homework and environmental commitment any initiative can become a ticking bomb with no means of stopping the detonation; certainly the Alipore initiative. The citizenry will feel reassured if the executors identify themselves; open a dialogue with the citizen; present their case and look hard before taking the leap.

The writer is a former Assistant Editor, The Statesman.