The idol at Tridhara Sammilani, one of the participants in CESC The Telegraph True Spirit Puja, near Triangular Park in Calcutta. The theme is world peace. (Anindya Shankar Ray)
Calcutta, Oct. 20: Like the evening primrose, Puja police also bloom post meridiem.
Forenoon pandal-hopping, at play for the past few years, appears to have gathered critical mass this Sashthi, choking many roads during the day.
But at 3.30pm, the famed police machine roared to life and the well-oiled wheels of crowd management started to roll.
The crowd swelled as dusk fell but the flow of traffic turned smoother. The Puja police — one of the few levers that work with admirable efficiency during the festive season — were at work. So was Metro Rail, which heaved under the weight but pulled it off.
What worked and what did not on Day I of the Calcutta carnival:
Metro Railway: Followed a workday schedule instead of a Saturday routine with 270 trains instead of 205. So trains were frequent.
Paper tickets replaced tokens. Metro staff punched tickets like they do on local trains. It ensured the turnstiles were not overworked and cut down on the possibility of glitches under pressure. Dedicated gates for smart-card users with signage meant regular passengers were not held up.
That does not mean there were no bottlenecks. (See counters in Bumpy Ride)
Evening traffic: People crawled but cars did not. The effect of an army of 26,000 police personnel and 6,000 volunteers was there to see.
From Rashbehari, bank officer Supratim Roy reached Gariahat in 15 minutes at 7.30pm. “Never before,” he said, asked if he had travelled this fast ever on a normal day. “A system seemed to be in place in the way the signals were operating.”
Sources said all signals were operated manually — they were changed depending on the volume of traffic. “The sort of automatic signals we have is not effective on rush-days like these,” said an officer.
Weather: Bright and blue but not hot. Could anything be more inviting?
At 33°C, the maximum day temperature was a degree above normal but cool compared to other years when the Pujas were held earlier.
The Met office ruled out rain and pandal-hoppers lashed the roads.
Day traffic: If 32,000 personnel were lined up for the evening, around 2,000, a majority of them civic volunteers, covered 187sqkm between 6am and 3.30pm. The police had to make a choice, keeping the high tide of evening rush in mind. “Given our lack of numbers, deploying more personnel during the day would have compromised the peak pandal-hopping traffic and crowd management,” said a senior officer.
Several celebrity teams hitting the puja-judging trail a day early and spending time at some of the big pandals added to the crowds and the chaos at many vital points, pointed out another officer.
At 10.30am, it took 60 minutes to reach Gariahat from Ruby, 4km away. At 2pm, 60 minutes were needed to cover the 3.5km from Shyambazar to Mohammad Ali Park. “My car stopped at every signal and for several minutes even after the timers flashed ‘00’,” said Mithi Chakraborty, stuck on Central Avenue around 2pm.
Cops were deployed near the big pandals and at the major crossings but there were few in between. Besides, some motorists and jaywalkers ignored the volunteers. On BT Road, trucks were zipping past the outstretched hands of a volunteer.
Trucks: Goods vehicles were blamed for the chaos in large parts of north Calcutta and along Vidyasagar Setu (the second Hooghly bridge). They were allowed to enter or leave the city by 3pm. (During the Pujas because of the heavy night traffic, goods vehicles are allowed to ply between 4am and 3pm instead of the regular 9pm to 8am). Senior officers conceded that the restriction should have been brought forward, given the chaos on the roads from the morning.
“There was a communication gap between the Calcutta police and their counterparts in Barrackpore. The trucks heading to the city from the north should have been stopped before they hit BT Road,” said an officer.
Metro counters: The paper tickets solved one problem but created another. They had to be punched at the counter depending on destination and that took time. The result: winding queues.
It took more than half an hour for a passenger to get a ticket. Four queues from the ticket counter to the exit greeted two Jadavpur University students at Kalighat Metro station at 2.40pm. They fled, “scared to even attempt to get into the Metro”.
Many commuters did not know the name of the station where they should get down to visit a pandal. At Rabindra Sarovar, a young woman asked for a ticket to Ahiritolla. She meant Sovabazar. The man at the counter had to figure out what could be the nearest station to Ahiritolla. It took time.
An easy way out could have been a map listing the big Pujas along the Metro route.
Morning blues: If travelling on Sashthi morning was stressful, what lies in store is anybody’s guess. Most offices and business institutions will be closed from Saptami but the rush of revellers is only expected to swell.
Metro will run only from 2pm, trucks will enter and leave the city between 4am and 3pm and the police will start their day half an hour later at 3.30pm — unless decisions are taken overnight to tweak the system that has seen the police shift their focus from late afternoon to early morning to manage Puja traffic for the past few years.
“This year, the footfall on Sashthi morning was unprecedented. Every year, there is a rush on Panchami night and people generally start queuing again from the evening on Sashthi. Today was different. From 10am, we had about 10,000 people every hour,” said Sumanta Roy of the Jodhpur Park puja committee. “We request the police to get us extra deployment from tomorrow morning.”
Weather forecast: The Met office has forecast “mainly clear sky”. Temperature is expected to swing between a high of 33°C and low of 22°C.
Whether day traffic improves or worsens, whether Metro continues its smooth ride or acts up and whether the Met office is proved right or wrong, The Telegraph will be unable to slip the news under your door till Friday morning.