Ignored by politicians, except during the election season, Kolkata's disgruntled Chinese-Indian community - the largest in India - sounds cynical about the upcoming general election. The culture of unkept promises has made most members of the fiercely independent community "indifferent" to the elections. Proud to be Indian citizens, despite having umbilical ties with China, the majority of Kolkata's Chinese Indians "unfailingly" exercise their franchise in the world's largest democratic exercise. But despite this, the failure of the administration to provide improved infrastructure has resulted in growing resentment over the last 30 to 40 years.
"We are not looked after. We pay taxes, we have all the identification cards that Indians hold and we vote. They (politicians) don't come to us to see what needs to be done," Margaret Li, a restaurateur in one of the alleys in Chinatown - the hub of the Chinese in the eastern part of the city - told IANS. "Seven or eight years ago Mamata Banerjee (the Trinamool Congress chief and the present West Bengal Chief Minister) came to Chinatown with her party workers...that was all. No one bothered after that," she added. Li, a fourth-generation Chinese Indian, said the elders form the pillars in the joint-family system of the Chinese. They get together once a month to discuss various issues. Drainage, water supply, road repairs and lack of adequate street-lamps are at the crux of the deliberations.
"We don't get help from the government and it has been like this for many decades despite the change in government. We sponsor the repair and maintenance," Li said, adding the seniors are more inclined towards BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. The city, a melting pot of cultures, is home to over 2,000 Chinese, a close-knit community that has painstakingly preserved its heritage through generations while amalgamating with the locals and contributing in dentistry, tannery, salon and restaurant businesses. Telltale signs of this blending can be seen in the Chinese Kalibari, with statues of Indian gods and goddesses.
However, a walk through the nondescript area reveals roads crying out for repairs and large areas with no street-lighting and the foul smell emanating from sewers reeks of administrative apathy. In contrast, splashed across the walls are bright, and rather recent graffiti of party symbols and candidate names. Curiously enough, a string of street lamps have also come up in the run-up to the elections. "We have a councillor, but the truth is that we have to pay money to get the work done. It has been going on like this for more than 30 years and now, after so many decades, they put up 30 to 40 street lights to get votes. If you go into the interiors there are no lamps. It is just a show. "We don't care any more. It doesn't make a difference whether we vote or not," a 35-year-old irate restaurateur told IANS on condition of anonymity.
Indian Chinese Association president Paul Chung said the Chinese don't usually approach the government for support as the community is "very independent", but the "majority" votes with the youngsters, as they are "more aware" about the political situation.
James Yeh runs a popular Chinese eating joint in the satellite township of Salt Lake in the city's eastern fringes. The posh locality also houses other Chinese family-run restaurants and beauty parlours. The third-generation Chinese Indian says the numbers have "dwindled rapidly" in the last three decades, with youngsters going abroad for "better prospects", disillusioned by the situation in India. "Like any other community in India we want a stable government. Like any other citizen we are affected by the problems of inflation and corruption nowadays and we keenly follow what is happening in politics. When my ancestors came here, they were impressed by the relatively peaceful situation in India compared to China where Communism was rising. Now, our children see countries abroad have better opportunities in terms of employment," Yeh told IANS in fluent English, punctuated with a smattering of Hindi.
Thirty-six-year-old Simon Liu, owner of a prominent restaurant, is a third-generation Chinese Indian who lives abroad for most part of the year. He points out that around 95 percent of the youngsters will go abroad for a living in varied sectors, including information technology. "They are aware but not much bothered about it as the struggle for daily existence takes precedence," he said.
Yeh, who favours Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, revealed how many youngsters had decided to join the Youth Congress inspired by him when he had started his political journey. "But I don't know what happened now. They don't care now. However we have seen a few developmental initiatives in other parts of the city during the Trinamool's rule for the last three years and we hope the Chinese community will also get the benefits," he said, while prophesying a "more open" and "cleaner" government after the April-May polls.