There is only one thing that remotely reminds people of what was once a marshy expanse on the northern fringes of Kolkata. And that is its name: Salt Lake.
A lot has changed in the half-century since Bidhan Chandra Roy, the then chief minister of West Bengal, laid the foundation stone of the town that rose out of the marshland and went on to become an IT hub and destination for real estate giants.
Salt Lake turns 50 this year. Its story begins in 1962 — or even earlier, in the aftermath of Partition, when Hindu refugees from East Pakistan started flooding West Bengal. For many, Kolkata became their new home. The influx of migrants was bound to create a pressure on the city and the government, led by Roy, decided to do something about it.
New urban land had to be created, and this was done by reclaiming 2,400 acres of a marshy saltwater lake. Serbian architect Dobrivje Toskovic was called in and a township was created along the lines of another new city, Chandigarh. Town planners decided to lay down a spatial arrangement of block units with linear walkways, complete with facilities like designated market areas and a community centre for each block.
“There was a conscious attempt by the government to integrate Salt Lake with the administrative structure of the state,” says Tapati Guhathakurta, professor of history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, and a resident of CB block in Salt Lake. So, important government departments like Bikash Bhavan [education department], Purta Bhavan [Public Works Department], Jala Shampad Bhavan [waterways department], Shech Bhavan [Department of Irrigation and Waterways] were set up at Salt Lake. The township was named Bidhannagar, after B C Roy. The name Salt Lake came from laban hrad, Bengali for “salt lake”.
In 1972, after the Bangladesh War, came another wave of almost 1 lakh refugees. They were sheltered at a relief camp in Sector II. The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, stayed at a house here. It was later renamed Indira Bhavan and became the home of former chief minister Jyoti Basu.
But the most visible change has taken place in the last two decades. Bungalows, lifestyle stores and malls have come up. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the population was dominated by middle-class professionals. Today, this is home to an affluent non-resident Indian population and non-Bengali businessmen,” says Guhathakurta. With time, Salt Lake got its first mall, named Charnock City after Calcutta’s British founder Job Charnock. Now there is also the City Centre Salt Lake mall, a favourite of youngsters with its shopping, restaurants and multiplex.
The earliest residential areas were government housing complexes at Karunamoi and Laboni. Soon after came private bungalows. “There was an influx of retired professionals who had worked in Kolkata but wanted a house away from city noise. Salt Lake was the best fit,” says Guhathakurta.
There was one problem. The lack of public transport till the late 1980s left Salt Lake isolated from Kolkata. “Very few buses would ply between Salt Lake and Kolkata’s nodal points. The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, which now connects Salt Lake to Kolkata, had not been developed,” says Guhathakurta. The IT boom of the mid-1990s, which brought in Wipro, Infosys, TCS, Capgemini, IBM and others, changed all that. Today, besides the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, there are autorickshaws and buses. And, the East West Metro is under construction. Most Salt Lake dwellers, however, continue to rely on private vehicles.
Sectors IV and V, where the IT offices are located, are not under Salt Lake municipality but under the Naba Diganta Industrial Township Authority. IT professionals who work here have made Salt Lake their home. Coming from across India, they have also changed the local demography. “From being a close-knit, educated, urban, middle-class community that shared a sense of belonging, Salt Lake is now losing its once-thriving community culture, owing to the growing cosmopolitan fervour resulting from the IT boom,” says Narayan Basu, president of the Salt Lake Welfare Society.
Salt Lake, with an official population of 214,052 , is still dominated by senior citizens, many of whose children live abroad. “There is a growing sense of insecurity. There have been cases of burglary and theft,” says Basu.
Drinking water is another concern. The tubewells upon which the residents rely have badly shrunk the water table. Bidhannagar Municipality officials say this problem will be solved once the water treatment plant in Rajarhat comes into operation.
One cannot legally buy land in Salt Lake. It is all owned by the Urban Development Ministry and was originally allotted to claimants only after each one submitted an affidavit stating that he or she did not own any land in the Kolkata metropolitan area. These plots were then allotted on 999-year leaves. This town may be 50 years old now, but it has a long way to go.