| A visiting group of tram-lovers from abroad takes a heritage tour on a Calcutta Tramways car
Calcutta’s oldest public transport system should not only be allowed to stay on track, but, with some political will and administrative efficiency, could recapture its past glory. And this time around, the ‘tram bachao’ cry is not rising from some visiting Australians, but a local citizens’ group.
Tram workers’ unions have also revved up to transport minister Subhas Chakraborty’s recent remark about the possibility of trams being removed from certain areas. “We will fight to the end. We will even request our new chairman Rajdeo Goala to restart the system from Gariahat to Ballygunge, which will boost the confidence of the workers,” said Paltu Dasgupta of the Aituc.
“The government’s tram policy is, at best, ambiguous, with the transport minister keen to scrap services along Chitpur Road, while according to the tramways’ own estimates, this is one of the busiest routes. Actually, the government is facilitating the death of a system that is being revived all over the world,” observed tram crusader Debasish Bhattacharya.
That these views are shared by many, including a number of tram workers, became clear at a recent stakeholder convention on the “present and future” of Calcutta Tramways. ‘Tramer janya eksange’ (united for the tram), organised by the Environment Governed Integrated Organisation, was attended by tram-lovers from all sections of society, including environmental activists, NGO representatives, tram commuters and a large number of tram employees. “The removal or further constriction of tram services will be a big blunder,” warned most.
Justice Bhagabati Prasad Banerjee stressed “the role of the tramways as an eco-friendly mode of transport in a city where 50 per cent of the pollution comes from petrol and diesel-driven vehicles”. He hinted at “a promoter lobby behind all this ‘tram bhagao’ uproar, for utilisation of huge amounts of prime real estate presently serving as tram depots”.
According to Lt-Col (retd) Sakti Ranjan Banerjee of the World Wildlife Fund, NGOs can play a crucial role as awareness-creating pressure lobbies. Public finance expert Prof Dilip Haldar brushed aside the no-need-to-subsidise-trams argument: “There is nothing wrong in giving subsidies to social sectors like public transport, but one has to keep a check on how this subsidy is used.”
Some tramway union representatives and retired employees emphasised the “no-development fund” issue and insisted that there has been a “calculated effort” to force the ‘natural’ death of trams since the early 1990s. “In the 1980s, we used to have Rs 12 crore for development and maintenance of the system. In the last financial year, the government promised us Rs 5 crore, but delivered only Rs 2 crore,” pointed out an employee.
Added another tram activist: “The secret of survival lies in increasing the number of commuters, which only comes with regular and reliable services.”
A stakeholder nodal committee has been formed under the chairmanship of Justice Banerjee to evolve survival alternatives for the flagging tramways system. A regular newsletter is also in the pipeline.