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Banking on the Hooghly
Walking down the southern end of Strand Road, Soumitra Das wonders how the riverfront should be reclaimed

What the entrance to Aparna Business Centre lacks in size it more than makes up for with its plastic-Easter-egg décor. A multi-tiered, multi-flame-flickering electric diya stands near the door inviting everyone passing by Clive warehouse on Strand Road to stop and stare.

A signboard announces the availability of halls for weddings, receptions and conferences, along with photocopying and faxing facilities. Where' Inside' Inside is the reception area, with the dimensions of a shoebox and the colour of syrups poured on shaved ice, that urchins love to lick on a hot summer day. The receptionist asks a man to show me in.

Inside is plush, Seventies’ Bollywood style — coir red carpet and plywood in jellybean tones. A short flight of stairs leads to a corridor on the mezzanine floor and the sanctum sanctorum of D.D. Paul, who owns the “centre”. Oh yes, halls of various sizes are available, right inside the warehouse, on the floor beneath. The 30-seater comes with a long conference table, Last Supper style. The 60-seater is even longer, and for more space a partition has to removed. No windows' Don’t worry. You can hold forth or dine in air-conditioned comfort.

Clive warehouse, to whichever murky use it is being put, is far better maintained than Strand warehouse, which, along with the disused Fairlie have suddenly become the talk of the town. A photograph taken in 1971 of the battered stretch of the road in front of these warehouses, shows the tram tracks with a tonga rattling down them. Abbas Bhai, 70, a Bohra Muslim who owns a hardware and hand pump shop, one of the numerous located on that stretch, says he has been visiting this neighbourhood for 60 years, since when his father ran the show. “Ships and steamers would sail in from Japan and Bombay, and after school I would hang around till six, listening to the stories of the men who unloaded them with cranes. Then a fire broke out in Strand warehouse and it was gutted.”

Strand is the most ornamental of them all. With its abundance of mouldings and the profusion of wrought iron, it is like a huge box of Swiss chocolates. But post-fire the top floor has become bare. From Mutty Lal Seal ghat, across Strand Bank Road, down which the Circular Rail rushes past, it looks like a viaduct against the blue sky. But after dark, it looks menacing in the night. At least Strand can boast a single lamp post. The area behind Canning (the ground floor is a Ganesh mustard oil godown), next to Strand, is plunged in Stygian gloom. Of evenings, the dirt road in between turns into a market where women sell catfish in the barely discernible light of tiny home-made kerosene lamps. The same light source etches out the rib cages of the carcasses of goats on sale. In spite of the sooty darkness it is possible to make out the hovels with polythene roofs and the movement of human figures.

Strand is brilliantly lit behind. Huge packages are stacked under the tin sheds and in the cavernous godowns. A couple of paunchy guards carrying firearms are slumped on red plastic chairs.

In a large bare room with the ceiling sky-high, even more guards are washing up after dinner. Their beds are planks covered with a thin sheet. A large floral motif is carved on the huge doors. It is a leitmotif here. All ex-soldiers, the guards belong to a security agency and have been hired by the Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) to make sure that peace prevails. But the oldest of them, a toothless man wearing a youthful black hair dye, admits it is nothing like the Kidderpore area where nobody dares intervene while the pilferage is on.

A cellphone-toting man beckons. He introduces himself as Bihari/Mukteswar Mishra who supervises the operations of one of the two transport agencies that works out of Strand. A minimum of 1,000 and a maximum of 5,000 packages are delivered daily. Ten godowns are in use but the top floor is condemned. Isn’t it terribly risky working here' “Yes,” he admits, “But we don’t have a choice.”

The next day, Mukteswar takes me inside the godowns with wooden ceilings supported by iron pillars wide as tree trunks. The staircase that leads to the empty first floor is caked with bird droppings. Only one side is piled ceiling-high with parcels. He shows me a large box-like chamber that used to be one of the 20 hydraulic lifts.

Mukteswar leads me to the makeshift gangway to take a closer look at the gigantic compressor inside the lofty tower of Canning warehouse that used to operate the lifts.

As Calcutta port began to play an increasingly important role in British maritime business, the first tea warehouse was available for traffic from August 1887 at Armenian Ghat. Now the Brits are back in the fray to claim as large a piece of the Calcutta rivefront cake as they possibly can.

Earlier, Charles Correa had cried himself hoarse urging reclamation and regeneration of the Hooghly and the riverfront. The late Animesh Ray, former chairman of the CPT, that owns the entire stretch and the warehouses as well, had drawn up plans for a commercial complex. But the state government has suddenly woken up to the urgent need for restoring Strand and Fairlie warehouses so that people can have a good time there, now that the recommendation has come from a British team that has been responsible for beautifying and cashing in on the Thames riverfront.

But instead of piecemeal development, a glaring example of that being the Millennium Park, should not the entire riverbank be taken into account' If cities like London can earn a fortune by estate management alone why cannot Calcutta do the same' The governments, both state and Central, still own invaluable property, on Strand Road itself, that is barely in use today. The Jessop’s shed lies empty. The sprawling compound of the Government of India Stationery Office at 3 Church Lane employs only about 650 people. Ever since it was gutted, the stately Mckenzie building has been involved in a legal tangle worthy of a Kafka novel.

A photograph taken in the late 50s shows the New Secretariat building in mint condition forming a brilliant backdrop to the majestic State Bank of India building of 1879 vintage. The State Bank building was pulled down about a century later. A hideous heap came up in its place. Of course, Metcalfe Hall has been restored to its former glory. But one cannot help feeling wary about what the future holds. At the recent Kolkata Riverfront workshop organised for the benefit of the British team, a Calcutta industrialist had made the amazing declaration that he felt deeply involved with the idea of rejuvenating the Hooghly bank because his wife was involved in the genesis of the Millennium Park. We hope the riverfront does not become the testing ground for the latent talents of rich men’s wives.

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