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Uprooted to build anew

Sumanta Banerjee, journalist, activist and commentator, although not necessarily in that order, delivered the Sakharam Deuskar Lecture on Indian History and Culture recently at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences.

He traced the history of roads and neighbourhoods in Calcutta from the early days of its establishment to recent times as it turns into a megalopolis with townships on its northern and eastern peripheries. The lecture was in two parts on two successive days: Political economy of road construction in colonial Calcutta and A tale of four towns through roads — Black, White, South and New.

The lecture threw up two vital questions, among others. Will the underclass find a place in the burgeoning New Town coming up on the northern peripheries of the old city of Calcutta? Will the roads lose their traditional role of accommodating people from all classes, or will flyovers not meant for mass movement but for the exclusive use of the denizens (electronically-based communities) of these new exurbs take their place?

By tracing the history of the city Banerjee showed how from the very beginning when the first White town came up in Bagbazar (Perin’s Garden) up to the establishment of New Town in Rajarhat, history repeated itself as original settlers were displaced to make way for urbanisation. This happened when those who lived in Gobindapur were forced to move northwards to the Sovabazar area as Fort William and the new white settlement came up in the village which was part of the triumvirate that included Sutanuti and Kolikata.

But before touching down on Calcutta, Banerjee related the history of roads and means of communication, investment by industrial capitalism to build infrastructure, and Baron Haussman and the sweeping changes he made in Paris. Haussman, as Banerjee pointed out, quoting Walter Benjamin, had built the boulevards sweeping aside the medieval city with narrow roads to suppress popular uprisings for they increased the mobility of the army. But one can never destroy the underbelly of a city. The same workers who had been banished returned and recaptured Paris.

As affirmed by contemporary woodcuts of the area, the poor thrown out of Gobindapur took refuge in the Chowringhee area and slums named after British worthies like Colvin and Camac coexisted with white villas. They served as domestics and artisans and were a necessary evil. Banerjee explored the question of segregation. Although officially there was no apartheid, space was redistributed along racial lines and even persons like Hindu Stuart and William Jones, known for their love of local culture, did not settle in the Black town. However, roads occasionally served as social barriers and natives were debarred from Respondentia Walk at certain hours of the day. So it was different from America. Natives owned a good deal of property in the White town.

The three arterial roads were Chitpur Road or pilgrims’ road, Circular Road in the east running parallel to it, and the third was Bagbazar Road. The number of roads began to grow along with lanes and rural acreage shrank in half. The first pavements were built in Chowringhee at Theatre Road and Chowringhee crossing. Socio-cultural groups huddled together and even in Calcutta, the patterns of old rural settlements were replicated. Bowbazar was the outer limit of the White town.

In early 20th century, the White town became more cosmopolitan as the Indian feudal gentry moved to Theatre Road and Park Street, and so did Indian civil servants. North Indian Muslim families too settled down here. Bhadraloks of north Calcutta moved south, and Store Road became Satyendranath Tagore’s home. It originally belonged to a Muslim family. Later the Birlas acquired this property.

As Calcutta expands horizontally, apparently no force is applied to acquire land as the nexus of corporate houses, builders and politicians is entrenched. Farmland and wetlands have been appropriated to build these “consumerist cities.” These are meant to attract investment and the labouring classes have no place here. But “roads have an autonomy of their own” which defeats the “intentions of the planning authority.” Anybody who has visited Sector V should know this.