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East-West Metro via Piccadilly

Judge takes Central line

PICCADILLY CENTRAL
'The chief minister wants to turn Calcutta into London. Then what is the problem if Central station is made Piccadilly?'
Justice Nadira Patherya, responding to the East-West Metro logjam over Central station

Metro gives you a graphically modified glimpse of what Piccadilly Circus + Central Metro would look like!

An advocate trying to explain to the high court on Thursday why the government was opposed to having Central station on the East-West Metro route was stumped when Justice Nadira Patherya asked: “Your chief minister wants to turn Calcutta into London. Then what is the problem if Central station is made Piccadilly?”

Additional advocate-general Ashok Banerjee fell silent for a moment before responding: “Our government wants Esplanade to be the junction….”

“Have you ever been to Piccadilly?” the judge questioned.

Banerjee didn’t reply.

The East-West Metro project, meant to connect Salt Lake in the east with Howrah Maidan in the west, is stuck at several points but Central has emerged as the biggest hurdle.

The state government aims to realign the route, part of which will be under the Hooghly, through Esplanade. “From Sealdah, the tracks will come straight to Esplanade and from there to Howrah station via BBD Bag,” Banerjee told the court.

The original plan was to have the existing north-south Metro and the proposed east-west link intersect at the Central Avenue-Bowbazar Street crossing, gateway to the business district.

But the Mamata Banerjee government has been trying to skirt Central to avoid acquiring two acres and relocating 90-odd establishments. The high court has allowed the government to go ahead with it, but the ruling Trinamul Congress’s policy of not evicting people has prevented it from taking the step.

On Thursday, the court was hearing a petition by Transtonnelstroy Afcons, which is laying the East-West Metro tracks between Sealdah and Howrah Maidan. The company told the court that it had been set a deadline to start work on a stretch that lacked the most basic requirement: land.

Piccadilly, which Justice Patherya referred to, has two lines of the iconic London Underground passing through it. The Tube station at Piccadilly Circus was built in 1906.

With its cinemas, restaurants and theatres, Piccadilly is a must-visit on any tourist’s itinerary. For the smartphone-savvy, it is fashionable to click and tweet or post a selfie against the backdrop of the statue of Eros if they are visiting London. Soho, the entertainment district that was once the stuff of whispers among Indians who had soaked in the sights, is nearby.

The Piccadilly-Central connection drawn by Justice Patherya on Thursday came from chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s professed ambition to turn Calcutta into London. Days after storming to power in 2011, she had announced a “Kolkata Eye” project with a famous statement of intent: “Why can’t Calcutta become London?”

Several state-run agencies have since been trying hard to “beautify” the city, including painting buildings and bridge railings in the chief minister’s favourite colour combination of white-and-blue. To those who haven’t been impressed, Mamata has had this to say: “When I say Calcutta will be like London, I am expressing an idea. Calcutta can even become better than London. But we don’t have encumbrance-free land or money as they have in London.”

Justice Patherya said Calcutta could still be like London. “In the city, blue and white buildings will come up. The fencings and light posts have already turned blue and white. It is indeed good. I like it. So, what is the difficulty in turning Central station of Metro into Piccadilly?”

As things stand, unavailability of “encumbrance-free land” is the one big gap between Central and Piccadilly. “Many problems will be solved if Esplanade is made the junction,” the additional advocate-general pleaded.

The judge wanted to know how much it would cost to realign the East-West route through Esplanade. “Rs 1,200 crore,” Banerjee said.

Justice Patherya turned to the Union urban development ministry’s lawyer, Kaushik Chanda, to ask whether the central government would bear the cost. Chanda is required to inform the court in two weeks if Delhi is ready to pick up the tab.

The state’s 50 per cent stake in East-West Metro was transferred to the railways when Trinamul held the rail ministry in 2012. Now the railways holds a 74 per cent stake and the urban development ministry 26 per cent.

Officials of the railway ministry said it was unlikely that Delhi would bear the additional cost of a route change being pushed by the Bengal government.