Last edited 06 Jan 2021

From Calcutta to Kolkata - legacy and modernisation

Kolkata city skyline from Hoogly Bridge.


[edit] Introduction

The colonial legacy of the city of Kolkata and its evolving landscape as a modern metropolis are captured by this 12-lecture series describing the most critical aspects of city planning and urban sustenance.

[edit] A city of rapid growth

Following its inception as a commercial centre under colonial rule in 1690, Kolkata evolved as an important centre for production and trading over the next 300 years and observed phenomenal growth to become a sprawling metropolis. Serving as the nerve-centre of the East India Company, it remained the administrative capital of continental India until 1911.

Kolkata’s development as a modern metropolis in the fields of commerce, industry, transport, health, education, urban amenities, public utilities, waterways, port, literature, art and culture can possibly be compared to that of contemporary London as the first metropolis of modern times. Barely any city had grown as rapidly as Kolkata - from a mere place of local trading to a hub of Indian social, cultural, educational and literary development.

From the late-18th to mid-19th century, Kolkata became the “crowning glory” of the British Raj in the Indian Subcontinent. In 1776, the Writer’s Building started as the administrative headquarters of Kolkata and the erstwhile Bengal Residency. Sir William Jones established the Asiatic Society (1801) and other educational institutions followed on - Fort William College (1800), Hindu College (later Presidency College, 1817), Sanskrit College (1828) and the Medical College (1835).

[edit] Infrastructure takes shape

The next phase of development took place after 1850 with the establishment and introduction of the telegraph line (1851), Bengal Engineering College (1856), brick sewers (1858), High Court (1862), water supply (1868), Sealdah railway station (1869), port (1870), horse-drawn trams (1873), Sir Stuart Hogg market (1874), Zoological gardens (1876), Indian museum (1878), motor car (1896), electricity (1898), Tallah water tank (1911), Lalbazaar police station (1914) and the Airport (1920), to mention a few important ones.

In 1858, administrative power was handed over from the East India Company to the British Crown, and in 1869 the foundation stone for Victoria Memorial Hall was laid by Prince of Wales (opened in 1921). The only bridge linking Kolkata to its twin city Howrah over River Hooghly was built in 1941 and became an icon.

Kolkata had sustained several periods of administrative and political turmoil over the past centuries starting from the Sepoy Mutiny (1857), transfer of the Capital to Delhi (1911), air raids during WWII (1945), religious riots (1946), influx of refugees (1947) and again during creation of Bangladesh (1971). Some of these incidents put enormous stress on the city's already strained infrastructure.

[edit] ICE online lecture series

With an attempt to document and capture the civil engineering heritage of this colonial city, ICE Kolkata organised an online lecture series on the various assets established during the colonial era and some of which have outlived their design period to serve the city even in this new millennium. The series contains 12 such lectures and the details of these topics and speakers are briefly given below. (Links to each lecture are included.)

The series started with a lecture on Tallah Tank, the largest water tank in the world. The lecture described the background of its conceptualization leading to its novel planning, staging and foundation design and implementation. Several pioneering features of this megastructure were highlighted in this talk delivered by Dr Ayanangshu Dey, ICE Kolkata representative.

Howrah bridge has served for more than 75 years more as a city icon and less of a connecting link over River Hooghly. The extraordinary story behind its planning and subsequent revisions, challenges in design and execution, operation and maintenance were discussed in this talk by one of the leading bridge experts, Mr Amitabha Ghoshal.

The next lecture was based on the story as to how the Victorian brick sewer technology traveled half the world to Asia for helping a city solve its sanitation and drainage problem, contemporary to similar works being executed by Joseph Bazalgette for London’s central sewerage system. This talk was delivered by Dr Declan B Downey, one of the leading sewer rehabilitation experts.

Ms Dhruba DasGupta, an active conservationist, talked about the history and continuing relevance of a much-forgotten asset of Kolkata, the East Kolkata wetlands. This complex system of receiving, storing, treating and discharging wastewater generated from the city has been acclaimed nationally as recognized wetlands.

The commissioning, operation and development of Asia’s first surface-water based organised water supply system (Palta water works) was the topic elaborated by Mr Parthajit Patra, a water expert. The gradually upgraded supply system still serves more than half of the city with potable water using century-old slow sand filters.

Kolkata port came into formal existence in 1870, being prompted by the opening of the Suez Canal (1869). Since then it has played an immensely significant role in the development of regional trade, commerce, import, export, connectivity and the very social fabric of the city. Mr Ron Gardner presented this in a very succinct manner in his talk on the very first riverine port facilities in continental India.

Since its inception, at a time when regional connections were heavily dependent on canals and creeks, Kolkata’s canal system was gradually developed to reach out to - and connect - internal areas otherwise difficult to reach by proper roadways. The contribution of Kolkata’s canals in its development was the topic of the talk delivered by Ms Anasua Gangopadhyay, an independent consultant.

A hidden jewel, and yet silently functioning and facilitating the operations in port activities and city transport, is the Bascule bridge in the Kolkata port. The bridge is located at a very strategic location to ensure better connectivity within the port facilities. Mr Srirup Mitra, a bridge engineering professional, speaks on this.

Mr Kaushik Gangopadhyay, an expert in underground engineering, talks about the history, planning and emerging investments for subterranean connections between the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata located on either side of River Hooghly, comprising initial planning of a tube railway, a subsequent utility tunnel and finally, a modern transportation tunnel under the river.

There are several colonial bridges across the city which were gradually built to connect different parts of the city as Kolkata evolved and spread up to accommodate its ever-increasing population. These bridges are still being operated beyond their service life and their features will be discussed by Mr Partha Roy, a structural engineer, in his talk on colonial bridges

Victoria Memorial Hall is an emblem of colonial Kolkata and is completing its centenary as a modern marvel since its opening in 1921. Dr Hirak Sen, an expert civil engineer, will discuss its magnificent architecture and unbelievable planning with special references to similar structures in the UK.

Mr Partha Roy will return to speak this time about the Vivekananda bridge (previously known as the Willingdon bridge) which has connected the city with its regional centres being one of the very first railway/roadway bridges in the world.

[edit] Online lecture links

ICE Kolkata’s series of lectures by national, international experts and chartered engineers aims to spread the very important and relevant message of sustainability, diversity, heritage preservation, urban renewal, and inclusion among all engineering communities and especially upcoming engineers who will likely find a lot to recognise, reference, use, and enhance in developing new urban areas across any country.

The links for the online lectures conducted under this lecture series are presented here:

  1. Tallah Tank: Largest water tank in service since 1911 by Ayanangshu Dey, PhD, CEng FICE.
  2. Howrah bridge: A city iron for 75 years by Amitabha Ghoshal, FICE.
  3. Victorian brick sewers for a clean flowing colonial city by Declan B Downey, PhD, CEng FIMMM.
  4. East Kolkata wetlands: A unique legacy in wastewater management by Dhruba Dasgupta, MA.
  5. Palta water works: Serving silently since 1868 by Parthajit Patra, ME, CEng MICE.
  6. Kolkata port: 150 years of Indian’s first riverine port facility by Ron M J Gardner, MSc., CEng FICE.
  7. Kolkata canals: History and contribution in development by Anasua Gangopadhyay, ME, GMICE.
  8. Bascule bridge: An important component for efficient port activities by Srirup Mitra, MSc., CEng MICE (scheduled for 9 Jan 2021).
  9. Kolkata-Howrah subterranean connections by Kaushik Gangopadhyay, MTech, CEng MICE (scheduled for 23 Jan 2021).
  10. Revisiting important heritage bridges of Kolkata by Partha Roy ME CEng MICE (scheduled for 6 Feb 2021).
  11. Victoria Memorial Hall: Development, conversation, modernisation by Hirak K Sen, PhD, CEng FICE (scheduled for 20 Feb 2021).
  12. Vivekananda bridge: An emblem of city connectivity by Partha Roy, ME CEng MICE (scheduled for 6 March 2021).

This article originally appeared on the ICE Community Blog under the headline, 'From Calcutta to Kolkata, lasting legacy and evolving modernisation'. It was written by Ayanangshu Dey, BEng, MEng, PhD, CEng FICE, FIE, MASCE and published on 6 January 2021.

--Institution of Civil Engineers

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