Elaborate plans exist to redevelop the banks of the Hooghly in Kolkata, but little has been done. Why the stalemate? Devjyot Ghoshal investigates
The political winds of change in West Bengal carry with them hope for the Hooghly. The river, central to the British city, has gradually fallen out of favour. The once-vibrant riverfront, centre of a bustling riverine trade, has decayed into a disfigured sliver of land marked by unplanned and illegal growth, pockmarked by crumbling warehouses and jetties. All but a handful of the old ghats, each of which has its own history, are in disrepair.
For decades, the West Bengal government has made attempts to breathe life back into the east bank of the river. In 2003, a report prepared by British organisations including Alan Baxter & Associates, English Heritage, HTA Architects, the London Rivers Association and Urban Space Management, suggested a 45-point programme for a short stretch of the Kolkata waterfront.
The group suggested that the old warehouses along Strand Road be redesignated as heritage buildings and restored to serve new uses, and that other key buildings be protected, to reinforce the historical urban form of the area. The consultants also called for the beautification of the east-west streets to improve pedestrian links between the waterfront and the nearby Central Business District, and for extending Millennium Park, on the waterfront near Howrah Bridge. They urged the creation of a heritage-led design framework in which the Hooghly waterfront would become the centrepiece of a wider revitalisation.
Unfortunately, not much came of it.
Now, however, hope is rekindled. The Trinamool Congress (TMC), West Bengal’s main opposition party, is in control of four administrative agencies crucial to the implementation of riverfront projects — the Union ministries of shipping (Mukul Roy), railways (party chief Mamata Banerjee), urban development (Saugata Roy), and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC).
The first seminars and workshops on saving the riverfront were held in 1997. In 2003, organisations including the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT), KMC and the UK’s London Rivers Association (LRA) were called in by the state government. The LRA came up with its prescription, but progress is very limited. Just one proposal from the LRA list was implemented: the Millennium Park on the Strand.
People involved claim that the KoPT showed little enthusiasm. The KMDA, which implemented the Millennium Park project, says its plans depend on the port trust freeing up land. As per rules, the port trust has to sanction any development on the 47.5m-wide strip of land along the river. “KoPT is the owner of the land, so they must give it to us,” says a KMDA official. Asok Bhattacharya, West Bengal’s minister for urban development, also blames the KoPT. “The problem,” he says, “has always been with the port trust.”
The TMC seems to have found a way around this deadlock. It took the initiative soon after sweeping the municipal polls in June this year and formed a new KMC board. The party also brought together the KoPT, KMC and the Railways-controlled infrastructure consultancy RITES to enter into a memorandum of understanding for the “beautification” of the riverfront.
RITES will create a detailed project report (DPR) for a 10 km stretch of the riverfront from Cossipore in the north to Khidderpur in the south. “Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture has been roped in to create a concept plan, which it will submit in about two months. After that, we will take another month to prepare a DPR,” a RITES official says. RITES is also working to see how much land is available, the official adds, and identify existing plans that can be merged with the new blueprint.
Why the TMC is so eager to beautify the riverfront is unclear, but it seems to be part of Mamata Banerjee’s programme to turn, as she says, “Kolkata into London”.
The RITES undertaking is seen as the first study of the Hooghly riverfront that involves all stakeholders.
It will not be an easy report to produce. Some roadblocks are already up. To begin with, not much of the 10 km waterfront is open space. Many of the city’s 48 ghats are located here. “Access to the ghats is difficult as there aren’t broad approach roads to them,” says the RITES official. “There are unauthorised structures and illegal encroachments. We won’t be able to do much unless the encroachments are removed.”
And any plan overseen by the TMC will not have an easy time with the Left Front-led state government. “There isn’t any problem with preparing plans. I am happy to do so, but the state government will have the final say,” says Bhattacharya.
Earlier this year there was some consternation when Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh turned down Mukul Roy’s request that National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) funds be routed through KoPT instead of the state government, which Ramesh felt was doing well. West Bengal has got Rs 105 crore under the NGRBA for river-related works, including developing the riverfront.
A small success
Amidst the stalled plans, the river tourism initiative of the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) provides a glimmer of hope, especially for the private sector.
Vivada Inland Waterways, which runs cruises along the river, has seen traffic from Kolkata increase by 40 per cent year-on-year. “Last year we took about 2,000 overnight tourists and another 20,000-25,000 for day cruises,” says R Sushila, executive director of Vivada.
State tourism minister Manabendra Mukherjee says the response is “very encouraging”. The WBTDC, together with the West Bengal Surface Transport Corporation, is building 12 new jetties across the state, at a cost of over Rs 20 crore, for private and public sector operators. This will be especially useful to players like Vivada, which now operate out of their own jetty.
With infrastructure in place, the river could become a substantial revenue-earner, and some of it should prove useful in financing the riverfront regeneration plan.
RITES officials are reluctant to spell out estimates, but sources indicate that a minimum of Rs 200-300 crore is required. KMC commissioner Arnab Roy says all options, including Central funding, will be looked at. “There will be a dovetailing of schemes [for] renovation of ghats and other such projects. Once the concept plan is created, we will have to identify which parts can be developed under PPP [public-private-partnership] and those that will have only government funds,” he says. For its part, KoPT says it is open to commercial utilisation of its properties along the riverfront.
It remains to be seen whether the winds of political change in West Bengal can turn the tide.