Being underground is nothing new for someone living in Calcutta, the city with the country’s oldest underground Metro railway network, but walking through a sewer line built 125 years ago is something very few Calcuttans can claim to have done.
So, when I was offered a chance to walk through a tunnel 20ft under Hazra Road, I knew it would be an experience worth remembering.
As I went down a trench near the Calcutta University Law College on Hazra Road last Friday, more than one last-minute apprehension cropped up: would it stink, would it be too dark, would the small torches fitted on our heads — the only means of light — be enough? Are oxygen masks a necessity? In short, there was the fear of the unknown.
Civic engineers, my companions in the journey to the underworld, assured me that the pair of rubber boots was enough, but I, unsure of what lay ahead, wanted a helmet and a pair of gloves.
I was surprised when I reached the floor of the tunnel. Contrary to what I had expected, it was not dark at all. In fact, even the bends of the tunnel were clearly visible from a distance. And the city’s underground looked a lot cleaner than the road above, at least now that it had been recently cleaned.
Lights fitted for the work — cleaning years of accumulated waste that had turned hard as steel, repairing the old dilapidated brick sewers and inserting new pipes in the sewer lines — made everything clearly visible.
The crumbling brick sewers that had broken at several places have been completely replaced by new polymer pipes with a cream-coloured surface, the large pipes that you often see stacked by the side of city roads. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation had taken up the project in 2006.
These pipes, two to four metres long, have a slippery surface that will not allow solid waste to stick easily.
As I carefully placed my steps on the floor of the tunnel, the noise faded away to a near-total silence. I could have said it was complete silence, had it not been for the gurgling of the ankle-deep water or the speech of the civic engineers that reverberated on the sewer walls. Curiously, these noises made the stillness seem all the more profound.
The peculiar acoustics of the underground meant we had to shout and enunciate properly for the other person to understand what we were saying.
There were small holes cut through the pipes, through which water was flowing into the main sewer line. The engineers said the holes were connections from individual houses lined along the road, whose water was flowing into the main sewer line.
Halfway through the walk, there was a large hole, through which all the water from Ballygunge Circular Road was flowing into the main sewer.
The sewer line under Hazra Road has a diameter of 10ft, making it one of the largest in the city. The 179km-long sewer network of Calcutta, built by the British over a decade, has a few large sewers like the one under Hazra Road, and several smaller sewer lines merge into the large ones.
The city’s first underground sewer line was commissioned in 1878 along Lenin Sarani. It started from near the banks of the Hooghly and ran under the governor’s house, the then viceroy’s residence. The full sewer network was completed by 1888.
Walking upstream after the cut through which water from Ballygunge Circular Road homes rushed in was becoming difficult, both for the increased water level and the current. The water had now reached knee level.
It reminded me of a film scene etched in memory: The Big B, avenging his wife’s rape and his false imprisonment on that charge, walking through a dark tunnel in Aakhree Raasta.
The increased current prompted engineers to alert me about walking carefully. They advised me to adopt a different posture — with legs wide apart — to ensure a better grip on the slippery surface.
A little ahead, a wall signalled the end of my 480m expedition. Once all work is complete, engineers told me, the wall would be brought down to connect the adjacent tunnels, where similar work is underway. Once all such small portions would be connected, the long sewer line will become operative.
I learnt soon that we were standing under the Ballygunge Phari crossing. My underground walk was actually better than a similar walk over the ground. The same length of pavement along the pavement of Hazra Road would surely have offered several hindrances — hawkers, littered stretches, but here there was no obstruction.
It was time for the walk back to the world overhead.
The nearly one-kilometre walk (up and down) did not for once give a feeling of suffocation. In the early days of the cleaning work, however, the situation had been vastly different, said the engineers.
The deposited silt had covered three-fourths of the sewer lines’ diameter and poisonous gas had built up inside the tunnel. Blowers were used to suck out any gas before anyone entered the sewer line. Gas detectors were lowered into the tunnel from the road above before people were allowed to enter.
I emerged above with the hope that Calcutta would not be inundated after every short spell of monsoon shower. The clear sewer lines evoke a confidence in the claims of civic officials — that water will rush through these lines rather than slosh the streets.
If seeing is believing, the clean sewer lines kindle the hope of a city free of waterlogging.