Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter
Moving through the Burrabazar district along Kolkata’s Strand the immediate buzz of hustling and trade obscures the crumbling warehouses that line the thoroughfare. According to a popular saying, ‘Everything is available in Burrabazar’. This ethos of ready supply, at least for those who are prepared to haggle (and almost everyone is), comes with an infrastructural and informational layer. ‘Everyone wants to buy cheap and sell dear’, writes Clifford Geertz in a classic article on the bazaar economy from the 1970s. ‘In the bazaar information is poor, scarce, maldistributed, inefficiently communicated, and intensely valued’. What are the material conduits that support this game of information procurement and coveting and what are the historical and political conditions that have allowed it to flourish?
In the late nineteenth century no one would have guessed that the foothill hamlet of Saktigarh would become the bustling urban agglomerate of Siliguri. The introduction of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) in the 1880s increased the importance of this township where the Corleones of Calcutta Culture – the Dasses, the Boses, and the Tagores – would break their rail journeys on the way to the hills. The tea trade that the DHR helped to promote led to the expansion of the land and labour market as well as the establishment of Marwari kothis in an area that extended the informal capital and credit market. However, what transformed the scene radically was the partition of South Asia.
The formation of East Pakistan created a geographical barrier in the northeast of India. The narrow Chicken’s Neck – formally known as the Siliguri Corridor, which at one point is less than 23 km wide – remained the connecting bridge between the northeast and the rest of the country. Siliguri found itself elevated to a position of geostrategic importance. Wedged between Bangladesh to the south and west and China to the north, Siliguri has no access to the sea closer than Calcutta, which is on the other side of the corridor. Between Sikkim and Bhutan lies the Chumbi Valley, a dagger-like protrusion of Tibetan territory into India. A Chinese military advance of less than 130 km could in theory cut off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and all of North-East India, an area containing almost 50 million people, from the rest of India. Such a situation almost came to pass during the war between India and China in 1962. Consequently there is a massive military concentration in the area.
Shramik Bhavan, at Ranichak, Haldia, has been considered to be at the centre of all labour mobilization and unrest in the region for many years now. Until 2011, when the state government was formed by Trinamul Congress (TMC), for the first time after a 34 year rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] and its allies, Shramik Bhavan not only housed the local supremo and Member of Parliament, Lakshman Seth, it was also the headquarters for both the party and the labour union (Centre for Indian Trade Unions – CITU). There were rooms for meetings, spaces for visitors to stay, as well as an elaborate courtyard, murals on the wall and a photocopy shop. Across the road was a statue of Lenin – since 2015 it had started to crumble, and by early 2016, the metal had been removed and sold for scrap, the pedestal used to stack hay instead. After CPM’s loss at the general elections, however, the building was ransacked, window panes smashed, electricity and water cut off, making the building look far older that it actually is. A couple of red flags fluttering on the first floor balcony nevertheless attested to the CPM’s continuing association with the building, and I decided to start my research on Haldia port from this iconic, yet much abused, site.
‘Arriving in a port is always like coming home’. This was my thought upon seeing the cranes and containers as I arrived in Haldia Docks south of Kolkata. While I grew up in a German town that made a living from shipbuilding in the North Sea, I now reside near the port of Piraeus in Greece. The aesthetics of tankers, cranes and containers, or simply the sound of ships’ horns or the sea gulls that seem to exist in every harbour of the world, always invoke a comforting familiarity. On the other hand, all the harbour cities that I have called home share also the same disadvantage, a common precariousness in terms of the conditions of the working population. In Haldia it was not only the similarities but also the contrasts that struck me.