A footpath on the Ruby hospital-Rashbehari connector where hawker stalls have been confined to the concrete cover over the drain. Picture by Amit Datta
A pavement has been restored to pedestrians in a little pocket of Calcutta, however unreal that might sound.
Along the Ruby hospital-Rashbehari connector, hawkers have been pushed back to a demarcated portion leaving two-thirds of the footpath for pedestrians.
Chowmein kiosks, barbershops, tea stalls and paan counters had ruled this stretch like elsewhere, but a little initiative from the local Trinamul councillor has ushered in a big change.
The shops were told to confine themselves to the concrete cover on the drain lining the road. And they agreed. Their only other option was to face eviction.
The entire coup was staged quietly and executed without a show of protest in a city where pavements are for traders and roads for pedestrians.
Several plans to clear pavements have been aborted in the past because of lack of political will but Sushanta Ghosh, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s mayor-in-council in charge of roads, has possibly shown there’s hope yet.
“They had shops blocking the entire width of the pavement. We didn’t evict them but asked them to sit in a way that pedestrians can use the pavement,” Ghosh, the councillor of Ward No. 107, told Metro.
In the new arrangement, the shops occupy 3ft of the pavement, leaving 6ft for pedestrians.
When the CMC started laying new tiles on the pavements along the connector, Ghosh and his aides spoke to the hawkers. “We were told that the shop cannot exceed 3ft from the wall. We can only sit on these concrete slabs that cover the drains, but beyond that the pavement has to be kept free,” said Sital Shaw, who sells paan opposite the Siemens office.
The Ruby connector has emerged as one of the busiest corridors of the city with two schools — Garden High and DPS Ruby Park — and several offices and food stops. “It is busy through the day. If pedestrians have to walk on the road, it can lead to an accident. There is no point laying tiles on a pavement if pedestrians can’t walk on it,” said Ghosh.
After every few shops, a space has been kept vacant. No shop can be built there. They are to enable CMC men to clean the drain. The same pattern has been followed on the 3km stretch between the Neelachal housing complex and Ruby.
The first effort to clear Calcutta’s pavements was taken in the mid-1990s. The decision to evict hawkers from 16 thoroughfares — termed Operation Sunshine — was passed by Jyoti Basu’s cabinet. But the decision could not be implemented because even a section of the CPM opposed the move.
After Subrata Mukherjee became the mayor in 2000, he thought of freeing the stretch of Chowringhee Road between Esplanade and Theatre Road. Mamata Banerjee allegedly held him back.
Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, who succeeded Mukherjee, had also tried to bring some discipline to the pavements. He formulated a plan that would allow hawkers to sit on a third of the walkway and bar all encroachments within 100 metres of key intersections. The hawkers had to sit under umbrellas and take all their wares along with them while leaving at night. All very good but on paper.
Hawkers appeared along Calcutta’s roads during the British era when a law that said pavements were the corporation’s property got scrapped.
The change on the Rashbehari connector is a baby step, though in the right direction.
Only one of the pavements — along the Gariahat-bound flank — has been cleared. The other side of the road — towards Ruby — still has many shops blocking the pavement. Electricity boxes, eateries and what not. Ghosh promised that the hawkers on the other side too will be pushed back.