Among the many new schemes for West Bengal's development, one is to construct a highway from Barasat, headquarters of North 24-Parganas, to Raichak in South 24-Parganas, located on the Hooghly river and the gateway to Haldia on the opposite bank. The road will link up with a bridge to Haldia across the Hooghly. Ten satellite towns are proposed along the route.
At a recent meeting, the chief minister promised that the road would be ready in two years' time. Very likely, plans are under way: official announcements might be made only when commitments have reached the point of no return. It is all the more imperative that the public should be told immediately of the proposed alignment of the road, and the location of the satellite townships.
The reason for this urgency becomes clear if one looks at a map of the 24-Parganas. There is no way a road can be laid from Barasat to Raichak without dismembering the East Calcutta wetlands. It should be unnecessary at this date to plead the crucial role of the wetlands in the physical survival of Calcutta city and, hence, its unique socio-economic importance for the state. Unfortunately, it seems we still need to be told, over and over again.
The wetlands ' a Ramsar site supposedly inviolate under international agreement ' have fought off many threats to their survival: most recently, a piece of threatened legislation that could have altered land-use patterns. This latest threat, however, is different from the others. The earlier proposals (like the actual encroachment taking place insidiously) had attacked the wetlands from the fringes, leaving the core area intact though depleted and vulnerable. The Barasat-Raichak highway will cut across the heart of the area, splintering its eco-system. It will then be a matter of time before the unviable fragments disappear, no doubt aided by further assaults from promoters and small-time encroachers.
Do we need this road' From the viewpoint of transport and logistics, it is a very good idea. Barasat is growing in importance as a hub for light and medium industry, especially agro-industry. It is on the chief trade route to Bangladesh across the Petrapole-Benapole border. When the Belghoria Expressway is complete, Barasat will be directly linked across the river with the Delhi and Bombay highways. In its general hinterland are Rajarhat and Salt Lake, and of course Dum Dum Airport.
At the other end of the route, the part of South 24-Parganas leading to Raichak has become a similar hub for industrial growth, including the Falta Export Processing Zone. Across the river lies the great port and industrial area of Haldia, besides other projected areas of growth in the two Midnapores and Bankura. It makes every sense to link these two areas by a route bypassing Calcutta city.
To oppose the construction of the highway is thus to incur the charge of opposing the economic development of West Bengal. This can be no-one's intention. But we can certainly explore alternative means. The most conservative solution would be to build an elevated road, at least on the stretch across the wetlands. But even this poses serious risks. The construction work would affect the fragile eco-system of the region (hence its economic system, based on vegetable and fish farms); so would the air pollution once traffic began to flow. Even an elevated road would impede the outflow channels to some extent. The Eastern Bypass, built in our days of ecological innocence, acts as a barrier to the city's eastward outflow. Let us not repeat the folly in these environmentally conscious times.
The opportunities for livelihood along the highway would attract the shelterless poor who encroach for sheer survival. Much more seriously, the presence of the road would send out wrong signals to the land vultures. It would be utopian to think we could effectively prevent invasion of the entire corridor. We have only to see the fate of VIP Road (the pathetic counter-moves now being made are decades too late), and the impending fate of the Eastern Bypass south of Science City.
What, then, is the alternative' Let us remind ourselves that Haldia lies across the river. Barasat is currently being linked to the Howrah bank by the Belghoria Expressway and a second bridge at Bally. It is eminently possible to work out a corridor to Haldia through Howrah District ' in fact, it virtually exists, and can be integrated with the newly-upgraded Delhi and Bombay highways. At the same time, south and west of the wetlands, a highway could be constructed from, say, the Sonarpur-Baruipur region to Raichak and on to Haldia.
The Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization's historic Basic Development Plan of 1966, which no-one looks at nowadays, proposed three major arterial roads. Only one, the Eastern Bypass, was constructed. The function of the second, the so-called Circular Expressway, is now largely served by the Park Circus-Bypass connector in conjunction with the Rabindra Sadan flyover. The third, the Southern Expressway, running roughly from Sonarpur to Budge Budge, was never built. It is high time to revive the idea. It might cover part of the alignment of the new road to Raichak.
Thus in piecemeal fashion, most of the transport needs of the Barasat-Raichak highway can be met by other means. What will not be met are certain other demands. One of these is our growing urge for speed corridors. We seem to have despaired of improving ' or, more cynically, to have reserved for political exploitation ' the appalling state of inner-city traffic and public transport. Instead, literally and metaphorically, we are relying on bypasses and flyovers, not only for the necessary increase in goods traffic but also the largely dispensable load of individual and corporate car-owners.
Our road-building seems totally divorced from the closer, messier demands of public transport and traffic management, especially multiple integration with mass transit systems. A road-starved city like Calcutta, with its densely populated surroundings, cannot survive by these means. Second, a road across the wetlands offers a soft option for land acquisition. Though the wetlands have a flourishing economy supporting thousands of families, they are conceived as waste land ' dhapar math to our uniquely enlightened, uniquely ignorant intelligentsia and bureaucracy. Land acquisition for any alternative route through Howrah or South 24-Parganas seems a much more daunting task. The authorities will undoubtedly wish to avoid it.
Finally, and linked to the above, a highway through the wetlands offers the enticing prospect of a virgin hinterland awaiting development: townships, factories, 'cities' of all kinds for service industries. Very likely, the first big players would plan their projects in technical conformity with the law; they would still reap ample reward. What others might do thereafter is anybody's guess ' a very easy guess. The greatest ' indeed, the only fundamental ' physical threats to the city's survival are its inadequate drainage and its polluted environment. We refuse to grant the crucial role of the wetlands in keeping these threats within manageable limits. Perhaps we need a disaster movie to drive the point home. Reason and informed civic awareness seem unable to serve.