Battle for Howrah hinges on urban infrastructure, industrialization

Battle for Howrah hinges on urban infrastructure, industrialization

Kolkata: The iconic Howrah bridge across the Hooghly river is, perhaps, the most recalled landmark of Kolkata, being the gateway to the city for people arriving by train. Made of 26,500 tonnes of steel entirely by riveting, without any nut or bolt, the engineering marvel from 1943 connects, as well as separates, two urban settlements, decades apart in development.

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The city of Howrah on the western bank of the river was once known as Sheffield of the East, being the hub of engineering and shipbuilding firms located along the Hooghly river. But decades of neglect and industrial decline has left Howrah with a population of eight million in a shambles, trailing the state capital across the bridge by several decades in terms of civic infrastructure.

Not a single flyover was built, said Sultan Singh, a former police officer and a Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate from Howrah for the assembly election. “After one at Salkia was aborted at the planning stage because it would have temporarily displaced hawkers, the authorities didn’t even bother to plan any."

The people of Howrah have remained loyal to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and its allies ever since they came to power in 1977. It isn’t surprising that even now, when the Left Front is facing an unprecedented anti-incumbency wave across the state, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee managed to draw to the streets tens of thousands of people in this town for an election rally.

It seemed the people had pardoned the Left Front for not being able to deliver on its promises—Howrah was to be transformed into a modern city with millions of dollars of foreign development funds, but nothing materialized because local CPM leaders didn’t agree to be dictated by foreigners.

They even gave up the financial support the state had secured from the UK. “Now that DFID (the UK’s department for international development) has withdrawn its financial support, we are trying to secure funds from the Centre under JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) and other private partners," said Mamata Jaiswal, mayor of Howrah’s Left Front-controlled municipality.

Coming soon after political unrests in Singur and Nandigram over industrial projects, DFID-appointed consulting firm Mott MacDonald adopted a “unique consultative process" to build a consensus on the civic infrastructure for every neighbourhood in Howrah.

“The aim was to rule out political conflicts at the time of execution," a state government official involved in the project said, requesting anonymity.

A blueprint was emerging when the process was stalled because local leaders thought they would have had “little or no role to play" in this development, he added, speaking on condition he would not be identified.

The administration’s official reason was that Mott MacDonald’s redevelopment plan was “commercially unviable".

Abhirup Sarkar, a professor in the economic research unit of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, said Howrah, once an industrial hub, has degenerated into a wasteland with no industries and no development. “Surely, this will affect the political fortune of the Left, even though they might be promising many things at the last moment."

The state government, through the Kolkata metropolitan development authority, has now asked Bengal Engineering College in Howrah and the Calcutta University to draft an economic rejuvenation plan for the town, but funding remains a red herring.

The lack of development has given the Trinamool Congress a clear poll plank. The TMC’s Mamata Banerjee, Union rail minister and the state’s main opposition leader, promised to transform Howrah and restore its significance as an industrial town at a rally in which she matched Bhattacharjee’s show of strength in terms of turnout.

“The middle class and lower middle class (people of Howrah) have deserted the CPM," claimed Trinamool Congress’ candidate Singh. “There is nothing that these people have received from the current administration, and the people who live in the rural areas have switched allegiance because of the state government’s land acquisition drive."

Trinamool Congress has been steadily gaining an edge over the CPM in recent elections. Specific to Howrah, the TMC won in both the seats in the district in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

The CPM is aware that industrialization and urban infrastructure are key issues in Howrah. Through leaflets and rallies, the party is speaking of the industrial infrastructure—food parks and foundry parks—that it has created in the rural areas of Howrah district with foreign investments.

These undoubtedly have created employment in the district, but Howrah remains a shadow of what it was when the landmark Howrah bridge, now called Rabindra Setu, was built by the British.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint