The Kolkata-Hugli is an old and important industrial region of the country. It is located along both the banks of the Hugli River: (a) along the left bank from Naihati to Budge Budge, and (b) along the right bank from Tribeni to Nalpur. Kolkata, the focal point of the region, was set up as a trading centre in 17th century (1662-1694) on three villages obtained from Sirajuddaula, the Nawab of Bengal.
About 97 km inland from the river mouth Kolkata not only acted as a hub of political activities of the British rule between 1773-1912 (as a capital), and a major trading centre of the country but a river port through which it was linked with Europe and other world countries as well as with all major cities and towns situated in the Ganga Plain.
The Ganga and its perennial tributaries could serve as the principal water highways for the haulage of cargo from the rich hinterland of the Ganga and Brahmaputra plains. Besides navigable rivers, roads and the railways provided subsequent links to the great benefit of Kolkata port. Being the capital of the British Government between 1773-1912 the city enjoyed better privileges and attracted foreign investment and capital to boost up industrialisation.
The coal and iron ore findings in the Chotanagpur plateau, the beginning of tea plantations in Assam and North Bengal, the processing of deltaic Bengal’s jute, the availability of cheap labour from Bihar and Orissa and the investment of capital accumulated through the trade of opium, indigo and cotton led to the establishment of a chain of jute mills on either side of the Hugli river.
Similarly engineering, leather goods and consumer goods industries were also set up in the region by drawing in the raw materials from the adjoining regions and distributing the finished goods to the consuming points. Hence, role of communication network has been as important as the favourable location factors in the growth of this region.
These monopolistic advantages started shrinking with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which gave boost up to the Mumbai port, the shifting of the capital to Delhi in 1912, the partition of the country in 1947 leading to the loss of jute growing area to Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the snapping of the cheap and direct inland water routes between Assam and Kolkata and the alarming rate of silting of the Hugli river. This led to the closure of many jute mills and between 1950-60 about 69,000 workers were retrenched.
The industrial belt has 8,746 registered large factories (1989) besides 33,749 registered small factories (1990). Of the total 20 lakh industrial workers 12.7 lakh are engaged in transport and tertiary services, 2.4 lakh in jute industry, and 2.2 lakh in engineering and cotton textile industries. On the basis of the value of industrial output, transport and tertiary industry comes on the top (Rs. 1,327 million), followed by jute manufacturing (Rs. 1,323 million), manufacturing (Rs. 950 million), chemicals (Rs. 542 millions), iron and steel (Rs. 444 million), non-jute textiles (Rs. 255 millions), and food products (Rs. 168 million) (Bose, 1965).
The city of Kolkata has the predominance of service industries employing more than one-third of the labour force. Trade and commerce and manufacturing contribute 24 and 25 per cent of the city’s labour force respectively.
Other centers have the predominance of labour force in manufacturing-Bhatpara and Titagarh more than 70 per cent. Transport and trade uniformly engage the work force of about 15 per cent. Only Kolkata and Haora enjoying rail and port facilities have slightly higher percentage of workers in this category.
The belt has a number of industries like jute, silk and cotton textiles, engineering, electrical, paper, match, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, transport equipment, petroleum refining, leather-footwear, iron and steel and food processing industries.
Jute industry is the most important industry of the region. Naihati, Jagatdal, Agarpara, Shamnagar, Barrackpore, Titagarh, Belgharia, Kidderpore, Batanagar, Budge Budge, Tribeni, Hugli, Serampore, Konnagar, Uttarpara, Belur, Liluah, Haora, Shivpur, Risra, Andul, Chandan Nagar are the important centers of the region. Similarly Asansol, Kulti, Burnpur, Raniganj and Durgapur are the important centers of iron and steel industry.
The Kolkata-Hugli industrial region is experiencing the stagnation and relative decline in industrial growth in recent years. The region is facing the problem of congestion, traffic jam, and paucity of space, insanitation, shortgage of drinking water and civic amenities and environmental pollution.
The diminishing flow of the Hugli River causing silting of the Kolkata port has rendered the shipping facilities somewhat difficult. The transport bottleneck in the south-eastern and eastern railways has adversely affected the movement of goods and material. The political turmoil in the form of strikes and lockouts in the 1970’s led to the closure of some mills and sense of insecurity amongst the businessmen and entrepreneurs.
The state communist government is less sympathetic to the industrialists. The shortage of power and the restriction imposed by the Salt water lake in the extension of the city are matters of concern. The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority is devising plans to provide solutions to these problems and bring back the old glory and importance to this region.
The construction of Farakka barrage to augment the flow of the Hugli, the laying down of underground railway to improve city transport and avoid traffic jam, the reclamation of salt lake area for city expansion, the building of new Haldia port and to increase the output of electricity in DVC are some of the positive steps in this direction.
The state government is pursuing the policy of liberalisation and is inviting domestic and foreign entrepreneurs to invest in this region.