Trams may often be considered rambling relics of the past, but at the Calcutta Tramways Co. (CTC)’s Nonapukur workshop in central Kolkata, the workers are running against time.
They have to finish some of the repairing and recommissioning work by Monday, the first day of Durga Puja: Three newly refurbished trams are expected to be commissioned and repair work completed on old ones. One of the three is ready; the two others should be ready during the four-day festival.
Despite the pressure—it’s often compared with a mini railway factory by senior employees of CTC, a state government undertaking—there are none of the fumes or diesel spills that scar conventional motor workshops. The unpolluted air attests to the fact that Asia’s oldest surviving electric-operated tram system continues to be Kolkata’s most environment- friendly mode of travel.
Chug along: Balaka at the Nonapukur workshop
Under a large factory shed, surrounded by the wreckage of phased-out trams, stand Balaka and Banalata. They wear fresh colours, their spotless glass windows are draped with lacy curtains, the thickly cushioned seats look inviting, the small speakers are ready to channelize soft music, CTC employee Ujjal Dhar’s line drawings of a cityscape reflecting the era of horse-drawn trams decorate the walls, and red and green mats cover the floors. Amid the grey grimness of the workshop, the single-bogey Balaka, which can be driven from both ends, and the double-bogey Banalata—with their feminine Bengali names— stand out like brides-in-waiting.
During the four-day Durga Puja festival, Balaka and Banalata will roll out of the workshop “as a Puja treat for common people”, says Shantilal Jain, CTC chairman. Though both trams have been part of the CTC stable for many years and have been used for film and commercial shoots, this will be the first time the general public will get an opportunity to ride them, for a nominal price. They will run for the four Puja days. Jain did not give a clear idea of post-Puja plans for Banalata and Balaka but did mention that the two “luxury trams” will be used and seen more often.
“This, I thought, will be the best way to make people aware about the heritage and historical value of trams,” explains Jain.
At the CTC main office in the Dalhousie area, the mood is upbeat in the labyrinthine corridors of the old British-era building. Here, as well as at the Nonapukur workshop, senior employees are not as despondent about the future as in an earlier decade, when the idea of removing trams from Kolkata’s streets was actively considered. By then, tram services had already been discontinued permanently in Kanpur, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai.
Despite being considered anachronistic in an age of speedier transportation, the only reason trams have survived in Kolkata is that any news of tram removal is immediately countered by “an undercurrent of discontent” among people, says Debashish Bhattacharyya, a tram activist and deputy director of the Kolkata-based Indian Institute of Chemical Biology. “Other than city support groups and environmentalists, our main backing comes from senior citizens for whom trams are a habit,” adds Aniruddha Bhattacharjee, personnel manager at CTC.
But it has been a precarious ride. Tram tracks were the first to go whenever infrastructural development came calling by way of flyovers, underground and overhead Metro railway projects and an overhauling of drainage and sewer lines. The dedicated corridors for trams were dereserved to make way for wider roads. Currently, there are just 10 fully operational routes. Some “stalled” routes, where tram services were discontinued for civic and infrastructure work, still have tracks.
“The united chorus of the police, transport and municipal authorities has been for removing trams or to create a situation where people can’t use it,” says Bhattacharyya, who filed a Right to Information (RTI) application about the closed Ballygunge- Gariahat tram route a year ago. It is yet to be answered. “Most such decisions are taken by senior police officers who have never been on a tram or would like to be seen on one,” he adds.
CTC says it has a total of 268 trams, and about 80 of them are on the road. In 2007-08, there were 319 trams in the CTC stable, according to the Statistical Handbook, 2008, compiled by the West Bengal government. The number of routes is down from 29 in 2003 to about 10 now, while passenger count has plunged, to just around 30,000 users a day today. “In 2010, our budget deficit was for Rs 300 crore and every month the state government has to give a subsidy of Rs 12 crore for salaries of CTC employees,” Jain says.
A workshop where the old parts of trams are recycled. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
So why is the mood upbeat? It’s because of the news that the new state government is not keen on phasing out trams. In recent years, the CTC, strapped for money, has completely remodelled some of its condemned cars with semi-transparent fibreglass ceilings and sides, fancy lighting, and comfortable, moulded chairs—spending, on an average, Rs 13-14 lakh on each. These are used for daily passenger services.
Twenty-two refurbished trams are already operational. And another three should be ready to run next week alongside wooden-body trams dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. The CTC chairman expects a total of around 130 trams to be operational this month.
The August issue of Tramways & Urban Transit, the international light rail magazine, has indicated “a modest revival” of Kolkata’s trams against a backdrop of growing “green movements” clamouring for the revival of tramways in cities across the world.
Jain shares some of his plans—from organizing an international seminar on tramways in the city to reintroducing trams on “stalled” routes, utilizing the sprawling tram depots occupying prime city land for commercial purposes, and having only a single class on trams. Currently, CTC trams have two classes: noisily whirling ceiling fans and a 50-paise ticket rate difference separating first-class from second-class.
Both Balaka and Banalata date back to the days when trams were representative of class and struggle in Kolkata. For much of the pre-independence period of fervent nationalistic activism in the city, the 1880-established CTC was seen as a metaphor for the British ruling class and consequently, tram cars were often vandalized. In later decades, with the advent of radical Communist politics, any hike in fares would result in the carriages being damaged. In the 1950s, the Communists organized a Tram Fare Enhancement Resistance Committee. At one point,13 trams were torched on Kolkata’s streets in a single day by Left activists protesting a single-anna fare increase. Banalata was retired after it was scorched by political workers during a street protest near south Kolkata’s Charu Market in the late-1960s, says S.S. Ghosh, works manager at the Nonapukur workshop. It was here, after decades of neglect, that the tram got a steel body, and another shot at life, in 2002. Its old number, 568, still links it to its past.
Yet it’s the name that brings up yet another close association— one that is tied romantically and aesthetically with the city. The leading characters in Bengali literature and films have gone to work in trams, and have fallen in love in them.
While Balaka borrows its name from Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems, Banalata references the iconic poem Banalata Sen by the poet Jibanananda Das, who was killed by a speeding tram near Deshapriya Park in 1954.
“Worldwide, trams and light rail are the only sustainable transport systems. Private cars and buses lead to a saturation, are costlier to maintain and cause immense air pollution. Fuel prices will also increase further. Even the underground Metro system is expensive to build and operate and doesn’t have the penetrability of trams or light rail systems,” says tram crusader Bhattacharyya. “Though no honest effort has been made yet to revive trams in Kolkata, I’m optimistic. My opinion is based on a future necessity.”
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