Arrival in Calcutta: a rant

Our taxi driver getting frustrated by Calcutta's gridlock.It took us longer to get out of Calcutta Airport than it did to fly there from Assam.

Our flight arrived on time, we waited 10 minutes to collect our bags from the carousel, spent 15 minutes buying train tickets to Goa, and then an hour and a half waiting to get a pre-paid taxi.

An orderly queue of about 100 middle-class Indians snaked around the domestic terminal – at its head was a small taxi counter with three men behind it. Only one of these men was actually serving people. We (understandably) assumed that all these well-off, well-educated, patiently waiting people knew something we didn’t so we joined the back of the queue and waited. And waited. And waited. When we finally got to the very front an hour later, we were told they had run out of taxis. Run out of taxis!

We waited for another 15 minutes as the men behind the counter yawned and scratched themselves. Eventually someone showed up with a scrap of paper scrawled with about 15 taxi numbers and signatures. One man behind the counter wearily lowered himself into the computer seat and slowly tapped all the paper’s information into the keyboard. The other two watched, bored. Those of us on the other side of the counter did our best to keep our cool and soothe our aching knees.

We were finally allocated a taxi (number 9388) and went outside the terminal to find a long line of yellow Ambassador taxis winding around the corner. There must have been about 50 of them and, of course, taxi 9388 was at the back. Inefficiency at its finest!

To add sham to farce, as we tried to drive away we got stuck between a badly parked taxi and a foot-high barrier and had to wait for a bad-tempered taxi driver to shamble back to his vehicle and slowly move it. Getting a pre-paid taxi and leaving the airport really shouldn’t be this difficult. Simply tell the taxi counter where you’re going, pay for journey, get receipt, hand receipt to taxi driver at front of taxi queue, get driven to destination.

Once on our way, we had the Calcutta roads to contend with. If I thought Delhi was bad, to my already impatient mind, Calcutta was absolutely criminal. The pollution, the beeping, an incomprehensible one-way system, the every-driver-for-himself attitude – it was almost unbearable.

The drive from the airport took us past pavement slums and makeshift houses constructed from plastic and cardboard along the narrow concrete causeway in the middle of the dual carriageway. Calcutta is hugely overpopulated, which explains but fails to excuse (on behalf of the government) the vast piles of litter found everywhere in the city – a pet hate of mine and something I’ve personally found very difficult to deal with across India. Most other countries in the world manage to get an effective rubbish collection going – why not India? More specifically, how does Calcutta’s council spend its funding? It doesn’t seem to go on rubbish disposal, traffic management, restoring and maintaining the unique architecture or building more housing for the city’s homeless population.

It’s a terrible shame because Calcutta has the potential to be world-class urban eye candy. Its wide avenues are lined with trees and splendid colonial buildings. The sad truth is that these structures are crumbling before Calcutta’s eyes; balconies are tumbling down, brick work is exposed to the monsoon rains and trees are growing from the walls and gutters. With a bit of TLC and a lot more cash investement, Calcutta could become a divine metropolitan mix of Europe and Asia – chai served from cute street stalls in the shade of a grand old building, colourful markets on clean pavements, monsoon downpours that drain efficiently.

As it was, all I felt was frustration – at an ineffective, overly bureaucratic introduction to the city – and sadness at the evident abandonment the city is barely tolerating. I got the first train out of there.

I think every traveller, and likely every Indian, goes through a phase of dissatisfaction with and disappointment in the apparently institutionalised corruption and inadequacy of India’s governing classes and systems. Mine just happened to coincide with my arrival in Calcutta and on any other day I’d probably have liked the place. The litter issue, though, is something that has perplexed me throughout my time here and I’d be grateful to anyone who can offer me an explanation and let me know if there are any plans to improve the situation.

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