Chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy (second from right) and irrigation minister Ajay Mukherjee at the inauguration of the reclamation scheme in 1962
On April 16, 1962, Dr B.C. Roy, the then chief minister of West Bengal switched on the delivery pipeline, bringing forth a gushing flow of sandy slurry from the bed of the Hooghly into the Salt Lake.
The shallow lake had been emptied by pumping and the dry bed had been divided into smaller cells by creating earthen embankments. Each cell, when filled to the brim with slurry, allowed the suspended solids to settle down. The superincumbent liquid was then removed by pumping. In this way, the cells were filled up by stages. Once filled up, each sector presented a vast stretch of white sand which dazzled at mid-day.
Next came the installation of infrastructure like drainage, sewerage, water supply system, power supply and roads. Finally in the early 70s, the residents started trickling in. In 1971, during the liberation of Bangladesh, almost a lakh refugees were accommodated in relief camps in Sector II. Immediately afterwards, the Congress session was held in Salt Lake. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister was accommodated in the newly built guest house which was later named Indira Bhavan. Congress president Shankar Dayal Sharma stayed at BD 1, a residential building. The delegates were accommodated in the emerging Vidyasagar residential complex.
Meanwhile, adverse comments in the media regarding the safety of buildings on sandy soil created some confusion in the minds of prospective buyers of land. Suddenly, the demand for plots plummeted. In order to restore the buyer confidence, A.D. Khan, ICS, the then chairman of Salt Lake Reclamation Board, and D.P. Chatterjee, the then chief engineer, visited some European countries where such reclamation work had been successfully completed. On their return, they issued a statement, seeking to clarify the situation.
Technically, sand is a good foundation material unless of course it is washed away by flowing water. Problem lies with the original organic compressible clayey layer lying about seven ft. below the sand filling. This compressible layer settles under load rather slowly and if this settlement goes beyond four inches or is unequal, it may lead to cracks.
However, from settlement records taken during construction of buildings it was revealed that for ordinary residential buildings no precautions were needed. However higher buildings, including tall water towers, needed special precautions like raft foundation and pile foundations.
To attract more buyers, an important clause in the draft lease preventing lease-holders from transferring the leased land to outside buyers was waived temporarily. As a result, a spurt resulted in buying land in Salt Lake. This spurt continued for the next few decades although the preventive clause was later restored in the lease agreement.
Pages from the past
When Job Charnock landed from his ship on the Strand of Calcutta on a clouded October evening in 1619, the Sunderbans was close to Calcutta. The earliest known reference of Salt Lake in history is on June 17, 1756, when Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, camped at this place to chalk out strategy for attacking Lord Clive of the British East India Company at Fort William.
The English occupied an encampment north of Calcutta but Clive was not satisfied with its location. While he was in search of a better place, a wild buffalo suddenly rushed in from nowhere and charged at his bodyguard.
Although the guard shot at the buffalo from his musket, the creature pounced upon the hapless guard, mauled him to death and disappeared. The presence of a wild buffalo so near Calcutta clearly shows how close the Sunderban was to the infant city.
After the death of Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1757 in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey, the right and title of these swampy salt water lakes remained with Mir Jafar and his descendants who were supported by the Company. On December 20, 1757, a tract of country containing about 882 sq. miles, known as the “zamindari of Calcutta” or “the 24-Parganas zamindari” was ceded by Mir Jafar to the East India Company. The territory thus conferred lay chiefly to the south of Fort William, on the east bank of the Hooghly and most likely included the Salt Lakes.
Gradually the right of the land passed to the hands of the local landlords and there happened a spurt in pisciculture in the area. In 1865, the British officially started reclaiming these saltwater bodies by connecting them with the Mahratta (or Maratha) Ditch (a canal which was filled up to create Circular Road in 1799). In 1878, the government leased out the right of the place to Nandalal Das and Durgacharan Kundu till 1887.
On April 30, 1890, the government again advertised in the newspaper and gave the leasehold right to the highest bidder Bhabanath Sen against Rs 3,400. The right ended in 1899. In 1906, the government again leased out the lakes for 10 years to the highest bidder against Rs 9,750. Beyond 1916, records are not readily available.
In 1947, after the Partition of Bengal, there was an exodus of people from Bangladesh, the then East Pakistan, thereby increasing the population of Calcutta rapidly. Helmed in by the Hooghly on the west and the marshes and the brackish lakes in the east, the city could grow only in the north-south direction.
Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy founded the city of Kalyani, about 30 miles north of Calcutta, to accommodate these hapless people. But this did not succeed. So as an alternative solution, Salt Lake had to be developed.
There had been quite a number of proposals for the reclamation of the vast stretch of marshland for the reclamation of the city proper in the Raj era. But the early proposals were aimed at reclamation for agriculture and pisciculture.
On September 18, 1953, the Dutch engineering firm Nedeco started surveying the salt water lakes on the invitation of Dr Roy. On February 15, 1955, a government gazette notification was published regarding the acquisition of 173.7 acres for the reclamation of the north of the Salt Lake area.
In fact, the area was a conglomerate of several salt water lakes, a low-lying saucer-shaped area which was lower than the adjoining drainage channels. The only available method of development was to fill these lakes to a higher level which would permit gravity drainage through the nearby channels.
The Hooghly lying to the west of the city needed dredging to maintain the minimum drought for ships. So the demand for dredging of the river could be met simultaneously with the reclamation by filling. By May 1956, the government had taken over the land. Gradually Salt Lake started taking shape. The erstwhile Yugoslav firm Invest Import, selected by a global tender, was entrusted with the reclamation work of the swampy land area.
Salt Lake, which has since been named Bidhannagar in tribute to its founder, has grown into a city complete with infrastructure.
Excerpts from Fifty Years of Bidhannagar (Salt Lake City), published in the golden jubilee special souvenir of Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) Welfare Association.