The recent debate in The Hindu between Manas Ray and Amit Chaudhuri on the future of Kolkata would have rekindled memories of its glorious past among the city's many admirers. The ‘City of Joy' which was the capital of British Indian Empire till 1911 also drew many acerbic comments like Gunter Grass's “a bloody great mass that was dropped by God and called Calcutta” and Rajiv Gandhi's “a dying city”. Naturally the city's stagnant economy, poverty, squalor and disarray played a big role in inviting such comments.
Privately many may think that Calcutta and Planning look like a mismatch. But Partho Datta's recent book on Calcutta's planning tries to prove that “colonial Calcutta had not only been planned, it had been severely planned. The ignorance has arisen because the history of Calcutta planning was not written about before”.
Unlike other Indian cities, to some extent except Delhi, Calcutta being the first capital of British India, was thick in the process of development. After the Battle of Plassey with the laying out of Maidan around Fort William, the British entrenched themselves with the local administration.
Having been elevated from merchants to rulers, their immediate concern was to provide wide roads for easy movement of their army, establishment of commercial interests wherever possible and attending to the urgent needs of fire control and prevention of epidemics in their seat of power i.e. Calcutta.
With these goals in mind, Governor General Lord Wellesley (1798-1805) began the planning process with his prescriptive ‘Minute on Calcutta' in 1803 which led to the setting up of the Lottery Committee in 1817 — so called because funds for city development were raised through public lotteries.
In 1830s, the investigation by the Fever Hospital Commission followed. The name suggests the location of epidemic fevers determined areas for urban restructuring. But it was only after the threat of a plague epidemic in 1897 that an autonomous body to plan the city came into being.
After much wrangling and deliberations, the Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) was set up in 1911. On the lines of the CIT, City Improvement Trusts were formed in major cities in India. This can also be considered as a precursor of Housing Boards post-independence to bring about a planned suburban development in various Indian cities.
Calcutta was indeed going through momentous changes under the British rule. New roads and neighbourhoods were planned, channels for drainage were being dug, new structures were coming up and existing buildings refurbished. Planning encompassed not only the regulation of physical spaces, but also the multiple concerns of health, policing and commerce.
Datta's book traces the process of transformation carried out by the CIT in the city amid acrimonious debate on its absolute powers and the financial burden on the propertied class.
The CIT's engagement of experts like E. P. Richard and Patrick Geddes to find remedies to the existing maladies and future possibilities show the deep understanding they had of the subject. Diametrically opposite visionaries they are, these two great designers nonetheless gave a firm blue print for the city's future development in their own way.
It is also fascinating to learn about a proposal for a metro for Calcutta made in 1921. It was a comprehensive vision for uniting the city with larger regions around it and the ability to foresee Greater Calcutta as a single, united economic entity.
The plan for the metro clearly envisaged its future traffic needs. The estimated cost was about £ 25, 26,154. But independent India made it a reality only after more than 50 years revealing the difference in vision. Surprisingly, the CIT's pioneering work has been more or less forgotten in Calcutta today. It indeed changed the urban profile of Calcutta quite dramatically and Datta can be easily credited for bringing out the achievements of the CIT.
By highlighting the vision of the CIT in removing the maladies for an emerging city, his book on Calcutta planning provides a glimpse of successful solutions to the modern city planners to issues such as public transport, slum improvement and civic amenities. It will make the citizens live in a healthy environment.
In a sense, this pioneering work in bringing out the history of planning for Calcutta will surely be a boon to thinkers and planners of urban development.