February 3, 2023 marks 80 years since the inauguration of Kolkata’s iconic Rabindra Setu, known popularly as the Howrah Bridge. Connecting the railway terminus and suburb of Howrah on one side of the river Hooghly with Kolkata proper on the other, the majestic cantilever bridge has long been synonymous with the metropolis. Countless films have used it to evoke a sense of place, as a backdrop for song sequences, even as a title.
Unsurprisingly, given its imposing appearance, most accounts of the Rabindra Setu’s history emphasise its status as an engineering marvel. Constructed between 1936 and 1942, the bridge – with a 1,500-foot span – was the third longest cantilever bridge in the world at the time, behind only the Forth Bridge in Scotland and the Quebec Bridge in Canada.
A cantilever bridge uses neither piers nor cables for support. Instead, it has arms extending inward, parallel to the water’s surface, from towers at either end. The Howrah Bridge additionally has a central span suspended between the two cantilever arms.
The Rabindra Setu’s construction required 26,500 tonnes of steel, 90% of it custom-produced by the Tata Iron and Steel Company. It was an international project: the bridge was designed by the London firm of Rendel, Palmer and Tritton and built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company of Darlington, UK, using structural elements fabricated by Braithwaite, Burn & Jessop (BBJ), a conglomerate of Calcutta-based engineering companies.
What is little recognised, however, is the complex political background against which the story of the Howrah Bridge played out. The project was conceptualised and debated over more than 25 years. It was a time of important changes in the political economy of colonial India.
The stakeholders in the debate were many and varied, including the Calcutta Corporation, the Port Commissioners of Calcutta, the Bengal Legislative Council, and various associations of Indian and expatriate businesses. The final shape of the bridge owed as much to the financial and political considerations brought forward by these different bodies as it did to the many engineers who did the challenging work of designing and constructing it.
From 1874, the Howrah-Calcutta crossing had been provided by a bridge designed by Sir Bradford Leslie, sometime Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway. This was a floating bridge – a roadway slung over a series of pontoons that floated on the surface of the river. A detachable span in the centre allowed ships to pass at specific times of the day, although it disrupted road traffic across the river in the bargain. By the end of World War I, with the bridge coming to the end of its life, the Bengal government began to plan for a replacement.
Leslie, now nearing 90, offered a new design, comprising two parallel floating bridges. But the government decided that the bridge didn’t need an opening span; it was enough to provide for a certain headway so that vessels could pass under it. With this in mind, they appointed an Engineers’ Committee headed by the prominent Calcutta engineer and contractor Rajendra Nath Mookerjee, asking them to consider various types of bridges and recommend a suitable design.
This committee – which included engineers from the Public Works Department, the Corporation, the Port Commissioners, and a major railroad – went into the pros and cons of different bridge types: single-span arch, suspension, pier and girder, floating, and cantilever.
In a 1922 report, the Engineers’ Committee recommended a cantilever bridge. They took into account various considerations, including the nature of the soil along the Hooghly, the seismic nature of the area, the pattern of the river’s flow, and the relative ease with which a cantilever bridge could be maintained. It could bear heavy road traffic, would allow enough headway for ships and boats going upstream from the Calcutta docks, and wouldn’t exert horizontal stresses on the alluvial soil at the site.
There was a catch, however. The cantilever option would be much more expensive than a floating bridge – its closest rival in terms of suitability – at a staggering estimated cost of Rs 6.34 crore. The question, then, was how to finance it. Erecting toll gates at either end of the bridge was not an option, given the volume of motor and pedestrian traffic in Calcutta. Instead, the government included, in a 1924 Bill, provisions to tax the municipalities that stood to gain from the new bridge, rail and ferry passengers who would benefit from it, and goods arriving at the Howrah railway terminus.
This move immediately placed businesses, municipal leaders, and state legislators on their guard. Some parties wanted the government to content themselves with repairing the old bridge. The Marwari Association wanted the government to choose a floating bridge, spending no more than Rs 3 crore on it. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce, the voice of the expatriate business community, warned that the cantilever option would end up making Calcutta “the most expensive port in the east for the merchant as well as the ship-owner.” These associations were concerned primarily with the immediate financial implications for their own members.
At this time, both the Calcutta Corporation and the Bengal Legislative Council had undergone significant transformations, arising largely from the post-World-War-I constitutional reforms. In the elections of 1923, Bengal had voted to the Legislative Council a large number of Swarajists: members of the Congress who believed in opposing colonial rule from within its legislative bodies. The Calcutta Corporation too had been considerably Indianised under the veteran Congressman Surendranath Banerjea.
The new municipal leaders ranged themselves against technocratic colonial bodies such as the Calcutta Improvement Trust, and sought to protect their constituents from additional forms of taxation. Members of the Legislative Council (not all of them Swarajists) raised other concerns. They argued that the Government of India, which hoovered up huge sums from customs duties at the Calcutta Port, ought to foot at least a part of the bill for a structure that would serve that port.
On the other hand, the Bengal government was going to budget 4 lakh rupees a year for the new bridge: that was taxpayers’ money that came largely from the poor Bengal countryside. Others suspected that the cantilever bridge reflected the colonial government’s desire for a lavish paean to British imperialism, calling it, for instance, “a very costly luxury”. They argued that the project was yet another excuse to enrich British industrial firms, which would undoubtedly be engaged to execute it, at the expense of the Indian (here Bengali) taxpayer.
The cantilever proposal had other opponents too, not least among them Bradford Leslie and his supporters in the engineering fraternity. The issue became a cause célèbre. Further possible designs were proposed and critiqued in the engineering press, including one for “a 40-feet box bridge with two platforms, one above the other”: one deck for cars and another for electric trains. In 1930, the Bengal government even constituted a fresh committee to look into the possibility of a pier-and-girder bridge, although that option had been ruled out by the Mookerjee Committee.
After several years of wrangling and stalling, however, the cantilever proposal won out in 1933. It appears the Government of India was in favour of it, as they wanted a bridge that would serve not just current but also future needs. By this time, moreover, Leslie, who died in 1926, was no longer around to press his case.
Nevertheless, the debates of the 1920s and 1930s did have a strong impact on the specific form the bridge would take. It had become clear in the course of these discussions that the project’s cost would have to be brought down. A later version of the Howrah Bridge Bill had reduced the proposed taxes on the municipalities.
Significantly, Rendel, Palmer and Tritton, consulting engineers to the Government of India, had come up with a more frugal design for a cantilever bridge. By designing it for lower loads, they had whittled down the estimates by a million pounds. The project in its approved form was projected to cost Rs 3.22 crore, cutting the original estimate nearly in half.
It was on the basis of this modified design that tenders were invited – and political questions moved centre stage once more. Legislators as well as businesses pressed strongly for the work to be given to local agencies. In the end, as they feared, the contract was won by a British-based firm, the Cleveland Bridge Company. But a condition was imposed: they would have to buy the elements for the superstructure from a Calcutta-based company, which had put in one of the rival bids.
This was BBJ, a joint venture between the expatriate firms of Braithwaite & Co, Burn & Co., and Jessop & Co. Even this, some observers noted, was hardly a concession to Indian enterprise and expertise, for BBJ’s constituent companies were Indian only in name, and employed mostly British engineers.
Beginning in 1936, it took six years for the bridge to be constructed, amidst various challenges, including the threat of aerial attack during World War II. Professional engineers have provided excellent accounts of this phase. But eight decades after its opening, the Howrah Bridge can be seen not only as a remarkable technical achievement – which it was – but also as a reminder of a moment in history when India’s political economy was neither entirely colonial nor fully independent.
The bridge in its final form embodies the varied requirements and interests of a dizzying range of actors: governments, global engineering firms, local businesses, the Bengali middle class, the proletariat of Calcutta and Howrah, and emerging nationalist leaders. All of them shaped the Rabindra Setu.
A more detailed version of the author’s research on the Howrah Bridge has been published in an edited volume in French and is forthcoming in another, in English.
Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of science, technology, and business, and an associate professor at Ahmedabad University. The views expressed here are personal.