Anindita Mazumder
2023-03-13 08:44:43

Genesis Of A Metropolis Called Calcutta

Genesis Of A Metropolis Called Calcutta

Only a few years back there was a raging debate on the actual birthday of Calcutta as a city but historians in general, accepted the fact that the city once limited to only three dihis -Govindapore, Sutanuti and Kalikata grew in leaps and bounds in every decade and century that followed since Job Charnock chose it for setting up a trading post for East India Company. In this respect Calcutta has a number of fathers from Charnock to Lord Wellesley and from the Lottery Committee to Calcutta Improvement Trust who all contributed in making the city what it is today. Join us and we trace the growth of Calcutta from a swamp to a metropolis 

Topographically, the growth of this city was quite a difficult proposition; with the mighty River Hooghly on its west, the Salt Lakes in the east Calcutta, for a long time, had to develop more or less within itself.

Geologically, built on an ancient channel of River Hooghly it lacks stability; construction of a heavy nature always posed difficulty since the city is almost floating on a natural raft of clay with a vast body of water underneath.

Let us begin with Calcutta after the Battle of Plassey; the city resembled a large “undrained” swamp where malaria was the predominant killer, both for the white inhabitants and the native population. Epidemics raged first in 1757 and again five years later and a new cemetery was built close to Park Street. The city was the haven of jackals, vultures who were the natural scavengers and mosquitoes and flies, the result of stagnated and putrid water. 

Town planning too was unheard of. A visitor to Calcutta, Ms. Kinderseley wrote: People keep constantly building and every one who can procure a piece of land to build house upon, consults his own taste and convenience without any regard to beauty or regularity of the town. Besides, the appearances of the best houses were spoiled by little sort of incumbrances (sic) which are built up by the servants themselves to sleep in.” Hence, the city was an unsightly and irregular mix of beautiful and shoddy houses coupled with temporary structures of bamboos.

The Zamindar, along with his black deputy had initially taken care of public order, convenience and health of the inhabitants but the office was relieved of municipal authority in 1794. Instead Justices of Peace were appointed and entrusted with the management of town. By the end of 18th Century, the streets we are today familiar with, began to appear on the maps for the first time although unnamed. These include Camac Street, Russell Street, Middleton Street, Harington Street and Theatre Road. This part of the town was laid out with some regularity – a striking contrast to the rest of the city.

The task of metalling the Circular Road was also undertaken in 1799. In 1801 the Justices advertised for 85 pairs of bullock and equal number of drivers for use by scavengers to clean streets and drains, indicating the presence of conservancy services. But the Justices had their limitations; although permitted to raise revenue their activities were limited to repairing, watering and cleaning the streets.

During the time of Lord Wellesley the need for extensive town planning was felt. The city required public markets, slaughter houses and burial grounds along with improvement of drains and buildings and this resulted in formation of a Town Improvement Committee comprising thirty leading citizens. But the projects suffered due to the magnitude of the scale they were designed while Lord Wellesley was forced to quit by the Directors of the Company who frowned upon his lavish expenditure on his dreams to build an Empire City.

However, their records were then transferred to the Lottery Commissioners who raised funds through lotteries for making municipal improvements. Between 1805 and 1817 large tanks were dug, the Town Hall was built, the Beliaghata Canal and several roads including Elliot Road were constructed  with the proceeds of lotteries.

Three years hence the commissioners were succeeded by the Lottery Committee in 1817 which made extensive improvements in all areas save conservancy which was still under the Justices. The city really showed signs of vast improvement under the Lottery Committee which made paths and roads across the Maidan, beautifying it with decorative balustrades and excavated large number of tanks.  Arterial roads like Strand Road was completed in 1828 as were Cornwallis Street, College Street, Wellington Street, Wellesley Street and Wood Street. Large squares with a tank in the middle such as Cornwallis Square, Wellington Square and College Square were also laid out. Other streets which were widened included Free School Street, Kyd Street, Creek Row, Mangoe Lane and Bentinck Street. The task of metalling the roads was also taken up in earnest.

The Lottery Committee was killed by public opinion in England in 1836 as the method of raising funds for municipal purposes was disapproved. It was replaced by Fever Hospital Committee during Lord Auckland's tenure which did not produce any immediate results. The multiple agencies of administration, the committees, Justices of Peace and magistrates were causing enormous friction and overlapping.

In 1847 a board of seven Commissioners was appointed for the town but they were not really effective enough. Lord Dalhousie, however, recognised the need for drainage and sewerage system and pure drinking water. Then Commissioners were then declared to be a Corporation with municipal funds under their control and were given powers to raise funds for drainage and lighting of the town. In 1859, the great system of underground drainage was unveiled which had taken 16 long years to be completed, continuing to benefit us till today.

The city got its first footpath in 1858 by filling up an open drain in Chowringhee, quite a long street with Europeans dwellings. The old High School on Chowringhee which stood on the site of present Indian Museum moved to Darjeeling and became St Paul's school. The High Court was built in 1872. Treasury Buildings were on the same site but it took its present shape between 1877 -1882. The Writers' Buildings still had the appearance of a barrack. The General Post Office opened on 1868, the Small Causes Court was in Mangoe lane in 1870 and the present building at Bankshall was built in 1874. The government departments were spread all over the city. The Bengal secretariat had begun functioning in 1, Council House Street in 1854. Two years later it went to occupy the corner of Hastings Street and Strand Road. It was only after 1880 that Bengal Secretariat started functioning in the Writers Buildings. The New Market was built between 1871 and 1874.

Meanwhile the Justices kept up their good work; piped water supply became a reality instead of the foul waters of the tanks and the open drains were replaced by 38 km of pipe sewers which daily carried sewage into the Salt Lakes. Nearly 105 miles of streets were lit by gas, slaughter houses were set up and many footpaths constructed. Between 1858 and 1876 nearly Rs two crore was spent for the improvement of the city. During the Lieutenant Governorship of Sir Richard Temple the city got its Zoological Gardens at Alipore and the floating pontoon bridge over River Hooghly connecting city with Howrah. But most importantly, the Justices handed over their administrative powers to an elected body of commissioners, laying the foundation of the modern municipal government.

Tram services began in 1880 with a track between Sealdah and Hare Street running through Bowbazar, Lal Bazaar and Dalhousie Square, initially drawn by horses and then run electrically.  A large slum was cleared at Colootolah to make room for Eden Hospital. Chitpore Road was widened and Harrison Road was constructed at the cost of Rs 28 lakhs. Insanitary tanks were filled in and converted into roads and lakes.

Meanwhile, the city has also extended its municipal limits by including the suburbs lying south and east of Circular Road in 1888. By 1923 it had included Cossipore, Maniktala and Garden Reach. In 1896 a Plague Commission was appointed to prevent outbreak of plague, indicating the squalor and filth that still existed particularly around native quarters. Finally, Calcutta lost its status as the capital city but Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) was passed in 1911 in the lines of Bombay Improvement Trust (1898) for a holistic, planned approach to improving Calcutta.

The city we see today, much of it is the contribution of CIT (now KIT) which turned 111 last year. It took schemes to develop the whole of the neighbourhood, laying down streets and roads. Under it the Central Avenue was widened into a 100 feet wide road and a new diagonal road was built to connect it with Shyambazar. In Park Circus, suburban roads which now bears the load of much traffic was constructed including New Park Street, New Theatre Road, Syed Amir Ali Avenue, Dilkusha Street and Suhrawardy Avenue. CIT Road, as the name suggest was also its handiwork. Similarly, KIT constructed Rashbehari Avenue between Russa Road and Gariahat Road redeeming marshy land; it is a dual carriageway with central grass strip for the tram tracks and the main sewer line of 9 metre diameter running under it. Southern Avenue was also constructed by the agency. The road between Beliaghata Main Road and Ultadanga Main Road too was constructed by KIT. It also constructed a number of canal bridges including at Maniktala, Narkeldanga, Alipore, Beleghata, Chitpore, Tollygunj, Ultadanga and Chetla.

The design of Dhakuria Bridge is unique because of boat race regattas that were held in the Dhakuria Lakes later renamed as Rabindra Sarobar.  The two artificial lakes, Rabindra Sarobar and Subhas Sarobar, created while filling up adjoining roads are all results of the efforts of CIT. The agency also constructed 11 markets including Dakshinapan. Meanwhile, the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority(CMDA) came into being in 1970 and sounded the death knell for KIT as its board along with Howrah Improvement Trust (HIT) and the Calcutta Metropolitan Water and Sanitation Authority (KMWSA) were superseded and brought under CMDA in 1982. The state government stopped a portion of stamp duty which KIT used to enjoy leading to severe fund crunch.

We must admit that post independence our town planning had been only piecemeal; even though we accumulated a number of reports and vision documents on long term planning it has eluded fruition. As a result Calcutta remains a least planned city with the tallest structures juxtaposing with slums and the narrowest roads. The city, once built by chance remains so even after more than 300 years. In this context, KIT and its holistic and planned model of development of a neighbourhood is still relevant and must be emulated in order to realise Calcutta's potential as a growing city.


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