Work in progress to repair the British-built brick sewer that caved in at Government Place West in Dalhousie, forcing police to cordon off almost half the road in the middle and turn it into a one-way thoroughfare.
Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
A portion of an underground brick sewer built 136 years ago caved in around 10 days ago close to Job Charnock’s tomb in Dalhousie, sending civic officials scurrying to one of the few masons in Calcutta with the expertise to fix it.
Hasibul Rehman, who learnt his trade by seeing his father at work for 40 years, has been given around a fortnight to repair the brick sewer that had been commissioned the year a 17-year-old Rabindranath Tagore left for England to attend public school.
The urgency is as much for the traffic chaos triggered by the cave-in as for the need to get the British-built sewer back in business.
Half the width of Government Place West along the stretch flanked by Raj Bhavan and the accountant-general’s office has been cordoned off, causing daily snarls that experts say is a small price to pay for the service of a sewer that has efficiently served the city for over a century.
“The British had built the brick sewer network for a population that was a fraction of the city’s current headcount in excess of 4.5 million. Yet, so many years later, these sewers are still going strong,” an engineer of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation said.
The cave-in was noticed on April 26, when a small portion of the road subsided. The civic body was immediately informed about it and workers started digging the stretch to reach the sewer line, which lies 15ft below the road surface, on April 26.
Government Place West has since been converted into a one-way road, allowing only north-bound vehicles (towards Writers’ Buildings) to use it. South-bound traffic is being diverted through BBD Bag South, BBD Bag East and Old Court House Street. Rush-hour snarls often stretch till Akashvani Bhavan, about 400 metres from the point where the road has been cordoned off.
St John’s Church, which houses Charnock’s tomb, is less than 20 metres from the cordoned-off construction site where Hasibul and his workers are racing against the clock to complete the repairs. Charnock, an administrator of the British East India Company, is acknowledged by some historians as the “founder” of Calcutta.
The brick sewer line running under Government Place West is 3ft and 6inches high and 2ft and 8 inches wide. It carries waste from Dalhousie and merges with a larger sewer — 8ft in diameter — that runs under Lenin Sarani. The sewer under Lenin Sarani carries waste to a pumping station in Palmer Bazar, from where it is drained out to a canal.
The British started building the city’s 179km sewer network in 1855, wrapping up the first phase of construction by 1878. The rest of the city was included in the network in another decade,
The sewers under Lenin Sarani and its adjoining areas, including the one at Government Place West, were among the first to be commissioned.
The brick sewers are divided into two categories, depending on their size. The larger structures, like the one under Lenin Sarani, are called “man-entry sewers” because they have enough space for an adult worker to stand inside. The smaller sewers, such the one under Government Place West, don’t allow entry.
Brick sewers are not built any longer because there are easier alternatives. The mortar used by the British to strengthen these sewers isn’t available either. Since Independence, concrete pipes have been used for sewers.
The British-built sewers, although more than a century and three decades old, remain low-maintenance assets for the civic body. When a problem does occur, special hands are required to fix it.
Mason Hasibul had started off as an apprentice to his father, an expert in sewers on whom the civic body would rely for repairs whenever there was a leak or a cave-in. “My father did this work for 40 years and I worked with him on several occasions. Not all masons can do this job,” he said.
But even Hasibul’s expert masonry cannot restore the original shape of the collapsed portion. “A box-shaped cast of bricks and cement will be made to fill the gap, replacing the circular or oval shape of the structure designed by British engineers,” a CMC official said.
Last monsoon, several Calcutta neighbourhoods notorious for waterlogging after the briefest of showers had their heads above water through a 48-hour spell of rain, thanks to one civic investment that didn’t go down the drain.
Civic engineers said removing silt from the choked British-era sewers and creating a network of covered drains in areas that had open drainage had made the difference.
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