Cities & Architecture

Kolkata Comes Crashing Down on its People Once Again

Is the “moneyspeak” world of Burrabazar just a microcosm for the whole of India?

Right from its inception there was considerable amount of protest as certain sections of this flyover crossed shockingly close to adjacent buildings, with the minimum distance being as less as 3 feet at certain stretches. Credit: Swastik Pal

Right from its inception there was considerable amount of protest as certain sections of this flyover crossed shockingly close to adjacent buildings, with the minimum distance being as less as 3 feet at certain stretches. Credit: Swastik Pal

Kolkata: “If a bus or car on the flyover lost control, it could have crashed into my room!”

Today any resident near the fallen flyover in Burrabazar, Kolkata, can access the story-hungry media. And the media presents each story as new and momentous.

But this story of the collapsed flyover has been long in the making. The recent tragedy should awakened the country to what has been happening in Burrabazar for many years.

An old tale of corruption

It seems strange that a government would build a flyover that nearly touches half-century old mansions on both sides of the road, to traverse just 2.2 kilometres.

There were other alternatives to speed up traffic in this congested commercial area, which has, according to conservative estimates, a turnover of Rs. 3,000 crores daily.

The government could have just posted honest policemen in Burrabazar, who would stop all offloading trucks from obstructing the road in return for a parallel salary higher than those earned by newly-minted MBA graduates. Or the government could have developed a better public transport system by creating one-way traffic areas and pedestrian zones, or even by shifting part of the transport zone of ‘Alooposta’ elsewhere.

These solutions, however, might seem silly to people who have a fetish for “development”. And, for a bankrupt state government, aligned with an equally debt-ridden federal government, the promise of “development” is the safest way to lure the voter.

Of course, “development” is also an excellent opportunity to strike gold.

The public never learns the names of the real beneficiaries of such development projects. The conglomeration of beneficiaries usually consists of infrastructure companies, local sub-contractors with some clout, bureaucrats, the elected municipality, and the omnipresent political leaders. Every one of them has at least one, but usually many, fingers in the “development” pie.

The rubble of the flyover that collapsed on 31 March 2016 in Burrabazar will be tested for quality. But the people who are complicit in the compromise of quality will be munching on popcorn and watching on TV the CCTV footage that replays the flyover falling like an avalanche on unsuspecting pedestrians and vehicles.

The repeat of a 25-year old story

The choir of Indian democracy singing along to an orchestra of corruption, callousness, and irresponsibility is not new to Burrabazar.

This is a repeat performance after twenty-five years. When the metro tunnel was being dug in the area, a whole stretch of four-storied mansions built by Rajasthani traders in 1930s with unique architecture combining Greco-Roman pillars with haveli style jharokhas, started tilting towards the road, because of defective, ruptured diaphragm walls.

My recent novel Jankidas Tejpal Mansion (2015) traces the fate of one such mansion, which housed 80 families, and swayed with every passing bus on Central Avenue.

The travesty of justice ruptured many hearts as the residents of Jankidas Tajpal mansion ran from the shuddering pillars of their home to the exalted posts of governance and judiciary. They discovered very soon that all they could do was accept a humiliatingly trivial compensation, if they even ever received it. The huge gains extracted by the nexus of “landsharks,” officials, politicians, police, and the local hooligans from the rubble and coffins of the mansion are unimaginable.

In Burrabazar everything is for sale

In the two and a half square kilometre area east of the river Ganga in Kolkata, money flows and changes hands on a scale that is staggering.

It’s complete chaos for the local residents of the area, with many people trapped in their own houses. All the shops in the vicinity have been shut down as there is still fear of the other hanging section of the bridge falling.

It’s complete chaos for the local residents of the area, with many people trapped in their own houses. All the shops in the vicinity have been shut down as there is still fear of the other hanging section of the bridge falling. Credit: Swastik Pal

Burrabazar is a truly gigantic bazaar, selling in wholesale every product from cotton to steel, scrap iron to vegetables, ready-made garments to tarpaulin, and glass bangles to gems.

It is said that every inch of land in this area is under the scanner of all powers that be. To some extent, crime has always been a part of this money-land. As politics has become more and more criminalised and consumerism has made money the supreme value, the traditional markets have incorporated payments to the powerful and their henchmen as another necessary expenditure. It is said that if you want to put a nail in a wall in your house here, you have to make payments to more than one person in Burrabazar. If this is more exaggeration than reality, it points to the exasperation the residents feel in the present, and the despair with which they view their future.

There was another flyover collapse in Calcutta three years back, on the way from Burrabazar to the airport. But a flyover collapse in Burrabazar seems to contain signals that are somehow more ominous, which are not connected to mere technical incompetence.

Looking back at every stage of work that went into the flyover’s final completion, from the idea of building a flyover in this congested locality in the first place, to the stalled construction, to the resumption of work, one has to suspect that a hidden agenda of profit and power motivated each move.

With the blame-game on amongst political parties, it’s difficult not to be sceptical of all motives. Amidst the clamour of blaming the other and justifying oneself, the hapless common man with the single vote in his hand does not know who is really trustworthy, whose word can be taken as honest. In this world of “moneyspeak” that is Burrabazar, nobody’s faith is inviolable, nothing is sacred, and no words are believable.

The thunderous sound of the falling flyover crushing hundreds of men and women made each resident of Burrabazar spring up with alarm and fear on April 1. Each person who witnessed the tragedy is desperate to know who is to blame for the misery, but at the same time, she knows in her heart that the real answers will never be given.

A microcosm of India?

Is India heading towards becoming just a bigger, badder Burrabazar?

Is Burrabazar just a microcosm of the real India?

The vote for “development” will bring more catastrophes, not just for the environment, but also, and more so, for its people. And this is because the attitude of looking askance – of bypassing responsibility and accountability for personal gains – has become firmly entrenched all over the country.

Alka Saraogi is a novelist and short story writer. In 2001 she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for Hindi for her novel Kalikatha: Via Bypass.

  • NewHorizons

    Corruption, greediness, me or my family alone syndromes are a part of our daily life..

  • NARENDRA M APTE

    (1) We have seen construction of flyovers in all cities in India. It is worth finding out in how many cases of construction of flyovers some serious and independent cost-benefit analysis has been done. (2) In all infrastructure projects wherein a government department or agency is involved, one notices that there are delays and cost-escalations. But it is common experience that not one official is held accountable for delays and cost overruns. (3) Flyover construction project in Kolkata is in no way different. After collapse of a part of flyover, however, two ugly aspects of public projects- negligence as regards safety standards and failure to take action against erring contractors- have been highlighted. But as in the past an enquiry will be ordered and cases may be filed in the Court. Cases will drag on for a decade or more. Past experience about all infrastructure projects underscore the fact that we must have in place a very efficient process for award and execution of infrastructure and other projects.