Log on to www.calcuttatramways.com and watch the blue screen change colour. The company logo appears, in a teasing dance, and the lower half fills up with a pretty sketch of the city and its landmarks: the Shahid Minar, Howrah Bridge, a stretch of the Maidan, with tram-tracks snaking past them. It is as if Calcutta is wrapped in the loving, arc-like embrace of its street cars. Now click to enter. The image disappears, much like Calcutta’s trams and their routes have over the years. A message blips onscreen, saying that the requested file cannot be found. But the secret behind the waning trams is harsher.
First, there is the government’s criminal unconcern towards urban pollution. A BBC report in 2007, quoting the findings of a study by the Chittaranjan Cancer Institute, stated that the ideal count of Suspended Particulate Matter and Respiratory Particulate Matter were below 140 and 60 respectively. In Calcutta, the SPM and RPM counts were 211 and 105 then. Undoubtedly, the figures have kept pace with the rising number of polluting autos. Trams pollute the air much less than other modes of public transport. Yet, according to some reports, of the 260 trams at the Calcutta Tramways Company’s disposal, only 130 ply the city, and 16 routes are operational of a total of 29. Trams continue to roll in Melbourne, Berlin, Manchester or Hiroshima. But in Calcutta, they are being elbowed out by faster, expensive cars and flyovers built to ease congestion.
There are explanations for, and an uncritical acceptance of, this unfolding tragedy. Trams, we are told, are woefully slow, take up space on the narrow roads and are unviable economically. Each argument is dangerously flawed. The affluent and the burgeoning middle classes have their speeding vehicles and flyovers. The poor too have a right to be included in the civic transport map. Trams, that cover great distances at affordable rates, are their ideal choice. As for the space crunch, the fault lies with poor urban planning — encroachment and an unchecked rise in the number of cars — rather than with trams. One of the government’s most prized possessions, the Metro Railways, makes losses. The Metro should then be removed as well, along with trams.
Second, Calcutta does not desire its street-cars any more because its spirit of accommodation is shrinking, and its attitude to time is undergoing a change. Like any other metropolis, Calcutta too is now unwilling to accord space to those who cannot keep pace or do not have the means to do so. Thus, citizens’ parks charge a hefty fee, communities are displaced from the centre, even as the city rumbles and grows. We have been witness to cosmetic efforts in the name of preserving rich legacies. The initiative to introduce new trams with an “international look” is one such. The government considers trams to be relics that need to be preserved rather than used. The truth, as always, is different. With a little more government support, better management and planning, the clanging wheels and the tinkling bell can continue to be heard in this uncaring city.