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Tale of One City

Santosh Ghosh |

In 1961, Dr BC Roy, then the Chief Minister of West Bengal, met President Kennedy at the White House and requested him to help in the planning of Calcutta as the city was facing various disasters.

The US President immediately asked Ford Foundation to assist as they were preparing a master plan for Delhi. On his return to Calcutta, Dr Roy established the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organisation (CMPO) and the Ford Foundation consultants came over.

In December 1966 was published the Basic Development Plan for the Calcutta Metropolitan District (1966-86). The plan was a departure from the land-use and zoning-based praxis of development. It was a programmed plan with three objectives ~ (i) to arrest the deterioration of civic infrastructure; (ii) better use of existing capacity; and (iii) provision for massive growth .

Simultaneously, the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the support of UNDP and some international consultancy firms prepared the Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage plan.

The CMPO plan envisaged two growth-centres ~ one at Kalyani Bansberia and another at the Howrah metro centre. It proposed a number of projects in transport, water supply, sewerage and drainage and slum improvement. The development of Kalyani had started earlier.

Dredging of the river Hooghly and filling a marshy land on the eastern side was also in progress. Eventually it developed as the Salt Lake township. A little later, work began on the Metro and a second bridge across the Hooghly. Both were conceived outside the plan. CMPO also prepared a traffic and transportation plan, and another for the development of Howrah.

The Ford Foundation had earlier invited Gordon Cullen, the British civic designer who in 1962 prepared a number of reports suggesting restructuring of the space and a revamp of Burrabazar, Dalhousie Square, New Market etc. and a new centre of growth at Shalimar ~ at the other end of the new bridge in Howrah. This was not the first time that a plan was proposed for Calcutta.

Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) was established in 1911, as a compensation of sorts for shifting the capital of India to New Delhi. EP Richards, Chief Engineer, had prepared a report on the improvement of the city. Patrick Geddes, the noted Scottish planner, prepared a plan for the CIT’s scheme of Burrabazar (1919). CIT carried out urban development for half a century before the CMPO was established.

Township development was carried out in Lake Town, Lake Gardens, and New Alipore. Nothing happened for a few years and there was political unrest. Geoffrey Moorhouse in his book Calcutta observed the mood of the time and concluded that Calcutta was both a monstrous and marvellous city.

In 1971, Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (now KMDA) was set up to implement the projects with financial assistance of the World Bank, the Government of India and later with market borrowing. Various organisations were assigned projects but coordination was always difficult as at one time about 22 organisations were working on the streets of the city.

With money power, CMDA became the guardian for the development and all organisations were brought under its umbrella. CMPO was abolished as was CMWSA (Calcutta Metropolitan Water Supply and Sanitation Authority). CMDA could function as the task of municipal administration was taken over by the government.

Calcutta Municipal Corporation was superseded for 13 years. However, a new Municipal Act 1980 proposed a Mayor in Council. Later with the amendment of the Constitution, local governments were given power to plan and develop. In 1986, the Mayor of Kolkata submitted a plan to the Prime Minister, but there was no response.

The Centre was reluctant to provide money for the city’s development and one of the sufferers was the Metro Railway. Elevated railway lines have now been proposed, but these remain largely incomplete. CMDA prepared several development plans. The State Planning Board crafted a perspective plan for 2011 and much later CMDA prepared a vision plan for 2025.

CMDA was successful in terms of the bustee improvement programme, but did not care about its maintenance, It widened the roads. Trees were hacked, Pedestrians started using the thoroughfares. WHO divided the Calcutta metropolitan area into a number of drainage basins and suggested no development in some, but this was not taken into consideration. As a result more and more areas get waterlogged and the underground water level has declined.

The WHO plan improved water supply and sanitation and with a better road link, the land value increased. Real estate promoters emerged and they gradually took control of urban development.

With the decline of manufacturing industries, large sites became useless and these were sold to private developers to construct shopping malls and housing complexes. Such industrial sites in many European cities are being utilised for theatres, museums, parks and other facilities.

Historical buildings were destroyed in the centre of the city, water bodies were filled up, and the greenery was lost in the periphery. Except Millennium Park on the river front, and recently the shrubs on the median strips of roads, no big parks have been planned. The multiplier effect of big investments on the Howrah side of the Second River crossing or near certain Metro stations was not assessed and planned.

Kolkata megacity with 1980 sq. km and a population of 15 million has suffered on account of slow growth and migration from the rural areas. Per capita availability of water is the highest among metro cities.

Calcutta’s bustee improvement programme has become a model for other cities. An amendment to the Constitution in 1994 empowered the municipalities. Kolkata Municipal Corporation prepared plans without depending on the KMDA.

The British Government had provided money and a large number of consultants for the environmental plan in 1990. The Calcutta Environment Metropolitan Strategy and Action Plan remains only on paper. Later the British helped the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to prepare a plan.

The Japanese government provided assistance in the designing of the flyover system. Some have been constructed, while others were poorly planned and not taken up. The efforts to check pollution are yet to be implemented.

CMPO introduced the regional planning concept, claiming that Calcutta was a catalyst of development in the hinterland, while two planning organisations, one at Siliguri and another at Asansol, were established and subsequently abolished. The planning for Haldia gradually lost the momentum.

Successful development in the suburban areas through panchayats curbed migration to the city. The Government of India has now launched a smart city programme, covering Rajarhat and New Town. But there are no guidelines for the growth of the cities in West Bengal.

Many projects remain incomplete for a variety of reasons. New York had once faced a similar situation. The American writer, O Henry, when asked to comment had said, “It will be a good place to live in, if they ever complete these”.