Eyeing an overhaul
Anthony Khatchaturian discusses how the transport system of Kolkata is failing the city, lying in wait for a much-needed revival
In the early days, Calcutta was at the forefront of public transport in India. Not just the first (and now only) tram network in India, but the very first Metro. As decades have passed, Kolkata fell behind due to a series of political missteps, leaving the other major cities to race ahead with public transport projects and leaving this rapidly expanding city well behind.
Calcutta would have got it's first Metro as far back as 1921, had the recommendation of Sir Harley Dalrymple-Hay been acted upon but due to a paucity of funds, his ambitious plans were ditched. The city finally saw a Metro network materialise in 1984, racing passengers deep in the bowels of the city on a North-South shuttle run.
Since 1984, Kolkata has grown. Not as quickly as Delhi or Mumbai, but towns which were once distant weekend-breaks are now encroaching on the city's borders–Kalyani (where the Bengal AIIMS is being constructed and proposed site for the new Kolkata Airport), Barasat, Barrackpore, Salt Lake, New Town and Garia. This is in addition to the
booming industrial area in Howrah, forwarding successfully thanks to its proximity to the station and the northbound GT Road and Westbound Mumbai Road.
How has the city kept pace with adequate public transport? Not very well. Except for a few patchy extensions, other lines remain in the snail's pace construction phase or dormant on paper. In comparison, Delhi now has eight Metro lines, alongside eight other major cities. In fact, the Kolkata Metro remains entirely under the Indian Railways, juxtaposed with the Gurugram Metro which is entirely privately funded.
In terms of road transport, the city has just one 'Bus Rapid Transport System' (BRTS) route planned, and it is not likely to go beyond the planning phase as the East-West Metro route has concrete pillars erected along the proposed route. The private buses remain the same, most over two-decade-old racing death traps which kill at least one person a day. A brand new long-distance bus terminus at Santragachi on the Kona Expressway remains mothballed due to the existing one at Babu Ghat still being used, in spite of court orders and an environmental threat to both the Maidan and Victoria Memorial.
Whatever little Metro work has taken place has come at an environmental cost. The first line cut a strip off the eastern edge off the Maidan, while the line currently under construction will have ventilation shafts dotted across it. The damage has continued with the growth of the city, broadening of the EM Bypass to accommodate additional vehicular traffic, the overhead Metro line and the BRTS line attracting development on the eastern flank which is the famous ecological wonder and the East Kolkata Wetlands which treats the city's sewage organically without any need for a Sewage Treatment Plant. This expansion into the wetlands has attracted commercial offices such as an embassy and a premium apartment complex with the latter taking up a 65-acre plot on its own.
India's solution for the ever-increasing vehicular traffic has been the hideous and dangerous flyover network, Delhi alone has almost 100. The past few decades have seen numerous concrete monstrosities worming their way through the Kolkata's skyline with branches coming off them in the planning phases alongside a new proposed flyover to cut across wetlands, connecting the city to the airport directly. With traffic increasing at a general rate of 10 per cent per year, basic maths tells us that even flyovers would be beyond capacity in a decade. To add to their woefulness, two have collapsed–one of which has developed a new crack–and all are being closely inspected; this does not include the Majerhat Bridge collapse.
The solution to this abysmal situation is heavy investment in public transport, with bi-partisan political support and reform of our transport unions. The status quo, especially considering India's booming population, is not sustainable and we are a generation away from total chaos on our streets. The renowned economist Paul Krugman pointed out that weak urban transport systems constrain economic growth as they limit urban agglomeration and reduce labour and economies of scale. The coming decade will add AIIMS and a new airport, on par with the existing Dum Dum Airport, within the greater Kolkata area, besides the previously mentioned townships which are also growing. This needs radical, brave and visionary leadership.
The 'Three E's' of infrastructure rule, if followed, will relieve the pressure. To begin with, 'Engineering' is required; multiple Metro lines, whether under Indian Railways, PPP, state or wholly private. Old buses need to be removed and replaced with electric AC buses on BRTS routes with dedicated lanes, and we need thousands of these, not a token few. School 'pool cars' ought to be thought about too, they are unregulated, dangerous and uncomfortable. Once again, private sector options are available, with at least one major corporate rumoured to have offered to take over the entire bus network in the city, but unions strongly opposed them.
The second phase is 'Education', the public need to be made aware of adequate, comfortable, fast and cheap public transport now available and to use it. Awareness about the environment, city congestion, pollution and traffic jams should be raised, people must be charmed. The final step is 'Enforcement'–London style 'Congestion Charging', where vehicles are fined for coming into the heart of the city, steep parking fines and steep road toll charges.
If such valiant leadership can be displayed, triggering dramatic reform, our city will be on par with any in the west and our magical, and award-winning, ecology will be protected. Allowing the stagnancy to continue will result in ever-increasing traffic jams, unions holding the public hostage fare increases, profiteering from app cabs and, in the long run, a breakdown in public order in the form of riots. Krugman's economic model can swing both ways, which direction it does will be dictated by our Vidhan Sabha.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)