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By Before beautifying the riverside, Mamata Banerjee could try to find homes for Calcutta's homeless. Chandreyee Ghose, Poulomi Banerjee and Deepankar Ganguly report
  • Published 19.06.11

Mamata Banerjee would not mind spending Rs 100 crore on a giant Ferris wheel somewhere between Kashi Mitra Ghat and Doi Ghat as part of the riverside beautification project. But the view from the “Calcutta Eye”, modelled on the 135-metre tall London Eye, will be different from the one offered by the London wheel, which stands on the beautiful Queen’s Walk or Thames path.

Imagine sitting in the Ferris wheel capsule that will be installed perhaps near the remains of Calcutta port leaving Vidyasagar Setu behind. Close to the ground, you are hemmed in by the cranes, towers and a bridge of the derelict port. Ups-a-daisy…gradually the sluggish Hooghly comes into view with masses of grey all around. Rows of abandoned mills occupy a good part of the space on the Howrah side. During the day, you can spot the Calcutta landmarks, old and new: South City to Eden Gardens. On a clear day one can see the clock tower of New Market and the top of Sealdah station. The Calcutta skyline turns into endless rows of concrete boxes and crumbling, ancient structures on both sides of the river. At night, the only lights that glimmer are on Vidyasagar Setu, Howrah Bridge and Howrah station.

Mamata Banerjee needs to repair the Calcutta skyline before installing the Calcutta Eye. Before that, Calcutta’s ground realities. Metro looks at three areas of Calcutta life that require immediate attention, not to mention the Rs 100 crore, from the administration.

City’s homeless

On the Canal Road stretch, off Rajabazar, the lucky ones live in the “permanent” shanties. The rest live in make-shift shelters, or in the open or under plastic covers. The garbage heaps are indistinguishable from the living spaces.

The streets may look free, but they are not. Those who could not find space to build their own shanty had to pay Rs 500-600 to those who first exercised right over the pavement. The women cook in the open on little mud ovens, lighting fires with the vegetable stems half-chewed by the goats brought in for sale in Rajabazar. The men are mostly van-pullers or labourers, the women domestic workers, the children ragpickers. Many have migrated from the districts and other states. The income of the family is between Rs 2500 and Rs 3000.

According to a survey conducted in February this year by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) and the NGO The Calcutta Samaritans for the 2011 census, the city has around 37,500 homeless people. Among them 16,303 lived “in open air” and 20,166 lived under plastic covers, though the total number of the homeless later submitted to the census was around 57,500 from the CMC’s 141 wards. The survey describes as “homeless” “people whose primary night-time dwelling is a make-shift shelter, or any open space with no covering, or with just temporary plastic covers; hume pipes, bus sheds, railway platforms or other ad hoc shelters which are public or private places...”. The population of the CMC area now is 4.8 million and of the greater city 13 million.

An activist in Delhi called the census figures a “mockery”, claiming the actual number to be much higher.

Some of the greatest concentrations of the homeless population, in the CMC survey, are in wards 36 (Narkeldanga police station), 59 (Beniapukur and Topsia police stations), 22 (Posta police station), 45 (Hare Street police station) and 6 (Cossipore and Chitpur police stations).

“The bridge connecting the two sides of the canal has no street lights. At night it is unsafe for women,” says Md Noor Navi Mir, who lives in Canal Street.

Rehabilitation is a solution, but not an easy one. As the experiment in other cities such as Mumbai has shown, just offering new houses to slum-residents or street-dwellers can tempt them into selling their new tenements for profit.

“Our only condition is that we shouldn’t be rehabilitated so far away from the city that we have no source of employment,” says a woman who works as a domestic help. “We don’t want to be victims of our greed,” says another.

How can the Rs 100 crore meant for the Calcutta Eye help in this area?

“In most slums many fathers either abandon their families or are abusive. We can help build training centres for children,” says Arjun Dutta, president, Calcutta Social Project, an NGO that works with slum and street children. “There is immense scope in housekeeping and security sectors. Some children drop out and go back to the squalor, but that percentage is decreasing,” he adds.

Spreading suburbs

City Centre II in Chinar Park, Rajarhat, was started in 2009 to attract residents of the swanky New Town who didn’t want to travel to the congested main city. But reaching the mall is not easy.

The road in front of the mall is always clogged with cars, autorickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and buses, leaving little room for vehicles from the other direction to take the U-turn. There are no signals and often no traffic police.

Similar traffic snarls are witnessed in most stretches across Kestopur, Teghoria and Baguiati, the suburbs in the north to which Calcutta is spreading unchecked. The entire VIP Road is at times a series of traffic snarls.

The additional director general of police (traffic), Arun Gupta, says Calcutta police have 3,000 traffic constables as against 1,600 of West Bengal police managing traffic in the entire state. “We have around 750 vacancies for constables and 200 for sub-inspectors,” adds Gupta.

The fringes of Calcutta have never been planned, says Dipankar Sinha, chief town planner, CMC. With property cheaper here than in the main city, people bought plots and flats in a rush, not bothering to find out if the areas were liveable.

“When a city grows, its suburbs have to be planned properly. That’s what is done in the West. Planning does not mean just building roads or beautification. It has to be a holistic infrastructure development. That never took place here,” he adds.

According to him the planned areas in the city are the result of a renewal plan of 1915 by the Calcutta Improvement Trust. After independence, the trust has not come up with any second large-scale growth plan. Only pockets of the city, such as Salt Lake, Patuli and Rajarhat, have been developed.

Yet property prices in greater Calcutta are soaring like never before and new constructions, both legal and illegal, are filling up every vacant plot. According to builders while an average flat may cost one anything between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 per square feet in Teghoria, Kestopur or Baguiati, one may have to dish out around Rs 2,500 if he wants to live near Diamond Harbour Road in Behala, the southern suburb.

They are a far cry from, if we must return to the place, the clean and beautiful suburbs of London, so immaculately planned that even the colours of the outer walls of houses are synchronised.

Lack of plan in sprawl & snarl

“Around 20,000 people are settling here every year. If Calcutta sees a population growth rate of 3-4 per cent per annum, our areas see a growth of 9.7 per cent per annum,” claims Monodip Mukhopadhyay, an assistant engineer with the Rajarhat-Gopalpur Municipality.

The resources are not enough. “It’s only problems for us here,” claims a resident of Nazrul Park in Kestopur. That includes irregular waste disposal, no drinking water supply in some parts, water bodies turned into open drains and acute power cuts. “Waste piles up and is often thrown into the khaal (canal). Previously there was water in the khaal, now it’s just a dump. We buy large water containers from Kinley for drinking water,” he adds.

A flagrant violation of the Town and Country Planning Act is seen in the suburbs. The roads here are usually narrow, their width further reduced by encroaching shops and shacks. For a four-storey (G+3) building to come up in Rajarhat-Gopalpur municipality the road must be at least 12 feet wide and the distance between two buildings must be at least 8 feet. In Behala the width should to be around 16.5 feet. Few promoters follow these rules.

Mukhopadhyay says the Rajarhat municipality has received about 1,100 complaints of illegal construction in 2010 and was already flooded with 170 of them by April this year.

Since there is hardly a petrol pump between Ultadanga and the airport, illegal shacks act as mobile petrol bunks selling adulterated petrol to vehicles.

“Diamond Harbour Road is one of the widest in Calcutta. Bus from 54 routes ply on it. The stretch from Behala police station to Manton Supermarket is utterly congested and mismanaged. What the area needs is a flyover before Metro connectivity,” claims a local resident Subhabrata Nandi. The residents are waiting to see how well the waterlogging will be controlled this monsoon.

Traffic trouble

Calcutta is not London, and when the new Park Street “auto” traffic lights, installed with cameras to monitor the red and green signals according to traffic pressure on different lanes, broke down recently, they remained out of order for eight days with the police having to resort to manual control.

That is a smaller problem. The erratic traffic signals often serve to throw light on the massive monster below: an unmanageable flow of vehicles.

“We have 50 per cent less than the required stretch of roads compared to the number of vehicles,” says a traffic policeman. In Calcutta the road space is six per cent of the area of the city. Other Indian cities fare far better: In Delhi it is 24 per cent, in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore it is 20 per cent.

Flyovers are an answer, but they have to be positioned intelligently, unlike the miniature Park Street flyover on JL Nehru Road that serves no purpose.

The rise in the number of private vehicles has been sharp. The total number of registered vehicles in Calcutta and its suburbs is about 9 lakh. The Metro Railway expansion will help in taking the load off the streets.

The Bypass is being widened, in painful stages, but the other streets can’t be extended.

The absence of planning is the problem with traffic as well, says Sinha. “Calcutta never had a traffic plan. Throughout the city the peripheral roads come and meet the main thoroughfare. Where there is a pressure, we install a traffic signal, holding up the flow further,” he says. “There should be exclusive motorways for private cars, where buses and trucks are not allowed. And reduce the load of old cars,” adds Sinha.

Vehicles are also the biggest source of pollution in the city.

For a better life, Calcutta needs fewer vehicles — and a long-term plan on the part of the administration to discourage use of private transport and move to mass rapid transport, with the ultimate aim of abolishing autorickshaws and all other relatively small vehicles, such as minibuses, and their lawlessness.

Since all this is unlikely to happen soon, the administration may try the following:

4Set up bus bays.

4Increase taxi stands and address the menace of taxi refusals.

4Suspend and revoke driving licences of habitual offenders.

4Co-ordinate traffic signals and set up green corridors.

4Free pedestrian crossovers of encroachments.

4Evaluate and implement different types of road parking.

And distil some discipline into autorickshaws.