|The HRBC building.
Pictures by Anup Bhattacharya
Gangar paschim kul
(The western bank of Ganga is as holy as Varanasi)
Howrah the west bank is Mamata Banerjee’s lucky charm, having given her party both its parliamentary seats, 15 of the 16 Assembly seats, 34 of the 40 zilla parishads, all the 14 panchayat samitis and 130 of the 157 gram panchayats.
“Howrah has never let her down and the chief minister wants to pay her back,” said Arun Ghosh of Bali.
The payback, according to Ghosh and many west-bankers like him, is Mamata’s decision to shift the seat of power to the 14-storey Howrah River Bridge Commissioners (HRBC) building on Kshetra Banerjee Lane until the renovation of Writers’ Buildings is complete.
Short step, long step
First, the long road. Those travelling from Calcutta by public transport should cross Vidyasagar Setu and alight at the first bus stop in Mandirtala. From there, a walk along Kazipara Lane on the left or Sheikhpara Lane on the right will take them to Kshetra Banerjee Lane under the flyover. Kshetra Banerjee Lane, one of the two approach roads to Vidyasagar Setu, brings commuters right in front of the building’s entrance.
Now, cut to the short cut — the incorrigible reality of a jaywalker’s capital. People get off buses when they slow down near the toll plaza off Vidyasagar Setu, take a two-minute walk along the flyover and climb down brick stairs that have sprung illegally for local convenience.
Other short options are breaches in the barbed wire fence — erected to prevent people from climbing down the flyover to access Kazipara Lane or Sheikhpara Lane.
The alternative route is not a novelty but a time-saver for thousands of commuters. Ashish Das, a chemistry teacher at Dinabandhu College on GT Road, is among them. He travels from Santoshpur to Rabindra Sadan, takes a bus to the toll plaza, climbs over the bridge and walks along Kazipara Lane to reach his college.
“Or else I have to take a long ride till Mandirtala and walk back about 3km to reach my college on GT Road. Buses to Mandirtala from Rabindra Sadan are few and far between,” he said.
Tanusree Das, a first-year student of Bijoy Krishna Girls’ College, Kuntal Chatterjee, a teacher at a primary school in Domjur, and Biman Ganguly, an employee at the Howrah Treasury, have exactly the same grouse: not enough buses from Calcutta to Mandirtala, which is the nearest bus stop to the new seat of governance.
The government had announced more buses on this route since deciding to shift to HRBC building, but they are yet to be introduced.
The options are a T2 that travels from BBD Bag to Mandirtala, a K6 from Tikiapara via Rabindra Sadan or a K7 from Andul Road to Ruby Hospital via Mandirtala. “It’s impossible to board them. They are packed like the bus in the Fevicol ad!” Ashish Das grumbled. “After a sweaty bus journey, the long detour on foot from the bus stop is killing,” he added.
The breaches and the illegal staircase have appeared after a broad stairwell from the bridge was blocked permanently since 9/11 for security reasons. In fact, the HRBC building stands perilously close to the two flanks of Vidyasagar Setu.
Perilous because “anyone can strike the building from the two approach roads of the bridge,” said a senior officer of Howrah police.
Mandirtala in Shibpur on the southern tip of Howrah gets its name from the nearly dozen temples, mostly Shiva shrines, sprinkled in the area. It is a congested residential hubbub where maze-like alleys jostle for space with houses built so close that lorries often scrape boundary walls.
Multiple speedbreakers at the end of the approach road have cut down the truck-wall collisions, a constable said.
On the right is a large bus stand with rickshaws and taxis parked haphazardly.
The Shiva temple on Shibpur Road comes alive around 7pm as devotees settle down for a chat after the sandhya arati. “There is hardly any open space here. We come to the temple for a breath of fresh air,” said Banibrata Haldar, a retired private sector employee who lives in Kshetra Banerjee Lane.
Shibpur Road veers off from Mandirtala and meanders into labyrinthine lanes and alleys, typical of the Howrah townscape.
A string of eateries — Bridge View Hotel, Roll and Tandoor, Appayan Hotel — stand cheek by jowl on the right. To the left are some gumtis (shacks) that sell just about anything from Chingles to Bauli croissants to dhoka and chops.
“This is the most happening place in south Howrah. In the evenings, it is packed with people of all ages. Youths on bikes queue up in front of Roll and Tandoor. Bridge View has a hangout pad on the terrace for the young,” said Mira Ghosh, a Shibpur old-timer.
The older and retired citizens while away time on the divider of the approach road, enjoying the cool river breeze in the evening. “It’s an after-office social networking site for us,” said Ghosh.
Shibpur is the “poshest” of south Howrah neighbourhoods and its cultural capital is a lane called Bajiye Shibpur or what is now known as Baje Shibpur. This is home to authors Sankar and Shankarlal Bhattacharya, Rabindrasangeet artiste Swapna Ghoshal, theatre personality Arun Mukhopadhyay and cartoonist Narayan Debnath.
Pride and prejudice
The prospect of having the chief minister as a neighbour draws out a smile on Banibrata Haldar’s face and then a shrug. “Hopefully, the roads will be widened, there will be better transport and more job opportunities,” he said.
Calcutta’s poor cousin would now have a “social standing”, the residents said. “Our relatives in Calcutta often taunt us… that will change,” said Tulsiranjan Ghosh, a retired government employee. Like everyone else, he predicted a spike in property prices. “Land prices have gone up already. I own a vacant plot and relatives are telling me to hold on to it because its value will hop, skip and jump!” he said.
Shankar Das, a former resident of Mandirtala who often comes to his old para to catch up with friends, said: “Writers’ shifting here will be good for the place. Security will improve. Chain snatchings and burglary are common here. It’s not safe to be out after 10 at night.”
Das now lives at Ichhapur Quarters, where he has been given accommodation after the government took over his property during construction of the Vidyasagar Setu.
The area had been “safe” until the second Hooghly bridge was built. “After houses were taken over and people relocated, this congested area became a dumpyard for construction material. The dark and lonely stretches under the bridge have turned into hooch and drug dens. In fact, the biggest drug den in Malibagan is barely half a kilometre from the HRBC building,” Ghosh said.
A small statue of Vidyasagar in a barren park named after him outside the main gate of the HRBC building stands covered in dust amid frenetic activities to prepare the place for the government to sit. A shout away, local strongman Alok Gupta runs his business from his house on Kshetra Banerjee Lane.
“Howrah is 500 years old, yet neglected. The place used to be infested with criminals… drugs, hooch, snatchings and extortions. We local residents drove these criminals away to Malibagan,” he said.
“The decision to shift the headquarters here will be good for the area.” The one thing that he doesn’t want shifted is a half-finished Kali temple inside the park and barely 100m from the building.
A similar anxiety is bothering Bhagabati Dutta, who lives in one of the houses that face the approach road to Mandirtala. Her son runs a gumti to supplement the family income — his late father’s pension. “There is a buzz that all gumtis will be demolished to scale up security in the area. If our shop is razed, how will we survive with a meagre pension?” the septuagenarian wondered.
Bhagabati survived the eviction drive during the construction of Vidyasagar Setu. She hopes to be lucky a second time.
all eyes on the address
Hopefully, the roads will be widened, there will be better transport and more job opportunities.
Writers’ shifting here will be good for the place. Security will improve. Chain snatchings and burglary are common here. It’s not safe to be out after 10 at night.
... and the frown
There is a buzz that all gumtis will be demolished to scale up security in the area. If our shop is razed, how will we survive with a meagre pension?
As a resident of Howrah, what do you feel about Writers’ shifting across the river? Tell email@example.com