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They're painting Calcutta blue, really

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I am not making this up. They're going to paint Calcutta blue.

Some firm of public relations consultants has persuaded the West Bengal state government all official buildings and assets in Calcutta, right down to the lane dividers on highways, should be painted light blue. Taxis and other public services that require licences will also have to get out the blue paint, and owners of private property will be asked to do the same, with tax cuts for those who comply.

It's all about branding, really. West Bengal got a new government last year, after 34 years of Communist rule, and the state's new rulers decided the capital city, Calcutta, needs a new colour scheme.

As Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim told the Indian Express newspaper, "Our leader Mamata Banerjee has decided that the theme colour of the city will be sky blue because the motto of the new government is 'the sky is the limit.' "

Well, why not? If the state of Rajasthan can have both a "pink city" (Jaipur) and a "blue city" (Jodhpur), why shouldn't Calcutta brand itself as "the other blue city?" Jaipur, however, is naturally pink because of widespread use of terracotta, and in Jodhpur the residents got out their paintbrushes voluntarily, whereas the West Bengal state government is spending a reported 800 million rupees ($16 million) on the blueing of Calcutta.

Calcuta's leading newspaper, the Telegraph (in which this column has long had the honour of appearing), was so swept away by the wonderfulness of the concept that it wrote a fulsome editorial about it.

"Finding the right colour combination is undoubtedly the crucial first step in making a city safer, healthier, cleaner and generally more user-friendly for its inhabitants," the newspaper wrote, tongue firmly in cheek.

"(Painting Calcutta blue) could, with as little doubt, sort out its core problems -- chaotic health care, inability to implement pollution-control norms, arsenic in the water, archaic sewers and garbage disposal, bad roads, killer buses for public transport, an airport falling apart and beyond dismal, priceless paintings rotting away in public art galleries, to name a few." One wonders why more cities are not doing the same. Maybe they couldn't afford the right consultants.

I yield to practically everybody in my esteem for the overpaid consultants unimaginative governments employ to "improve their image." There is a better way for Calcutta to overcome its reputation for chaos and decay. By all means, spend most of the available money on sewers and garbage disposal, roads and buses, pollution control, art galleries and the airport -- but also restore the city centre.

Calcutta was the capital of British-ruled India for two centuries. For much of that time it was the second-largest city in the British Empire, only surpassed by London. So the centre of the city was full of Georgian and Regency buildings that reflected the city's power and wealth at that time.

Most of them are still there. Calcutta was poor for a long time, so it hasn't had the money to erase its past in the brutal way that is happening in most other Asian big cities. Almost all Chinese cities have already destroyed their architectural heritage, and beautiful cities like Hanoi are working at it full-time. But Calcutta's wonderful buildings are in dreadful shape, and soon it will find enough money to start destroying them wholesale.

It doesn't have to end like that. Fifteen years ago, I was walking up Bentinck Street, surrounded by the chaos of cars and trams and the crumbling buildings festooned with washing lines and movie posters. I came round a slight bend in the road -- and saw a miraculous sight.

It was a four-storey townhouse restored to all its former glory: the stucco replaced, the balconies repaired, the whole thing repainted in the mustard-yellow colour that was fashionable in the late 18th century. It was in a row of other 18th-century houses that were still rotting, and suddenly I realized what central Calcutta used to look like. It made the hair rise on the back of my neck.

The same evening I went to a dinner party in south Calcutta, and found myself sitting next to the architect who had done the restoration. (Small world.) She explained she had got municipal money to fix the house up, on condition that the existing residents (poor people, of course) would not be displaced by the high-rent crowd. The point, of course, was to inspire other property owners to do the same thing.

I don't know if that particular house has fallen into disrepair again (Google Streetview has its limitations), but I do know the example did not work. I also know it could work. It would cost more than a vat of blue paint, but labour isn't that expensive in the city, so it's cheaper to restore than to destroy and rebuild. If Calcutta started now, it could have a city centre that is the envy of Asia in 10 years.

Alternatively, the West Bengal government could push the blue business a bit further. After all, nothing exceeds like excess. Why not paint all 14 million of Calcutta's inhabitants blue and declare they are all avatars of Vishnu? That would get everybody's attention.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2012 A10

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