The Telegraph
Sunday , September 7 , 2014

The riverside story

A tale of two cities

A Londoner takes a walk down Calcutta’s riverfront

Thames waterfront, London

It’s no secret that the Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has for long had her eyes set on London Eye and the Thames waterfront.

But beautification (read Londonisation) of the Hooghly riverfront has so far included little more than aesthetic intervention — trident lamp posts, blue-and-white colour scheme, some greenery and a few benches placed along a kilometre-long paved promenade.

If the Hooghly is to start resembling the Thames, then its citizens must treat it as such. Changes need to start occurring on a local scale, and be implemented by the people of Calcutta themselves.

Millennium Park, Calcutta

A visit to Millennium Park — the biggest attraction on the city’s waterfront — revealed that most of the garbage bins, placed by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), lie unused with litter strewn on the riverbank.

The historical links between the two cities run deep, but one look at the streets of Calcutta reveals a city whose colonial past is crumbling away with its facades. It certainly begs the question why the authorities are not doing enough to preserve heritage sites along the river.

A continuous public promenade, on the lines of The Queen’s Walk in London, would help connect all landmarks between Howrah station and Vidyasagar Setu and make the riverside easier to access. While Millennium Park comes close to resembling such a feature, it’s gated boundaries and high walls cut it off from the street. As a result, the park feels more like a standalone attraction than a public green space built to serve as a transition between the river and the city.

Increasing access may bring with it a host of problems surrounding sanitation and overcrowding. Such issues must be addressed if the Hooghly riverside is to become an important part of the city’s public life.

Teaching people the importance of proper waste disposal, as well as introducing and enforcing penalties for littering is of utmost importance. Like London, Calcutta could also introduce measures to hire private waste disposal companies that are not paid if collections are not made.

As one of the most polluted cities in the country, a pressing issue in Calcutta is road congestion. The sheer number of cars in the city and the bad management of roads have led to an environment in which a journey to the riverside is time-consuming and difficult. With at least 10 times more vehicles to contend with, London tackled this problem in 2003 by introducing a daily congestion charge in the city centre. A scheme to encourage more people to cycle within the city, as well as a bicycle rental programme introduced by London mayor Boris Johnson have helped alleviate urban traffic. And then of course there’s the Underground!

To be implemented effectively, these measures would require Calcutta to further develop its public transport system and improve the infrastructure of Strand Road along the riverside.

Doing so could only serve to make the riverfront an effective public space, taking it a step closer to the London dream.

The riverfront beautification plans are now being extended across 10km of land on the Calcutta side and 16km across the river in Howrah. The focus will be on building roads and planting trees. The project goals become grander over the next few years, including construction of a riverside township, a mall and an IT park.

In its bid to race London, the government risks a scheme that might fail to integrate successfully into the city. The growing pressures of modern development should first necessitate the implementation of better infrastructure, traffic control and sanitation around the riverside.

An existing master plan details the process of building sewage and water treatment plants among other basic facilities. While this is a step in the right direction, such measures alone cannot bring Calcutta closer to London.