Jagannath Shah was only 20 years old when he left Bihar in 1985 to work as a tram conductor in Kolkata, following in his father’s footsteps. Those days, the city of joy had about 200-300 trams snaking past crowded markets and hurrying pedestrians. Today, barely 10 trams are operational.
“All the routes have been shut down except two — Ballygunge to Tollygunge and Gariahat to Esplanade,” said the 57-year-old, whose seven-hour shift starts from Gariahat depot and involves him completing six trips in a day. “I have been hearing since 1985 that trams will stop running. Yet here we are, in a tram. In future, even if it’s only two trams, Calcutta Tramways Company will continue its journey, although I will retire in the next two-and-a-half years,” he said.
Shah’s hope rests on the fight that is currently on in Kolkata to save the last trams of India. From filmmakers to policy researchers to college students to tramway employees, a motley group of people have come together for the purpose. They protest on streets, they campaign on social media, and they spread the word through anyone who cares about trams. And in Kolkata, where trams have been an integral part of life for many generations, there are many who care about its legacy, even though some have begun to question its viability in today’s time.
Won’t let trams go without a fight
Sixty-six-year-old scientist Debashish Bhattacharya is one such tram enthusiast who can’t come to terms with Kolkata’s trams standing on the verge of extinction. As a child, Bhattacharya was in awe of double-decker buses and trams. Over the years, though, while the double-decker buses made way for faster, fuel-efficient, economical electric buses, the trams are just sliding away from people’s priority list.
Comprising two small but separate compartments with a seating capacity of 61 passengers, trams are woven into Kolkata’s historical culture. While trams also operated in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Kanpur during British rule, they survived the test of time only in Kolkata, the first city in Asia to get an electric tram in 1902. Their compartments were upgraded to include ceiling fans and then air conditioners, and they would crisscross the city to become the lifeline of Kolkata.
But now, trams are gradually on the decline.
“The blueprint of the devastation of Kolkata trams was laid during the CPIM’s rule in West Bengal. Trams had little scope for corruption, and so the government and its leaders showed little interest,” says Bhattacharya, the president of Calcutta Tram Users Association (CTUA), which is at the forefront of the mission to save the fast disappearing mode of cheap, eco-friendly transport in Kolkata. “One could siphon diesel from buses, but trams run on electricity which you cannot store. Also, bus tickets cost Rs 20-50, while tram tickets cost only Rs 6-7. You see, the scope to fill pockets by running buses is far more than trams,” Bhattacharya says, arguing why he thinks government after government have neglected Kolkata’s heritage.
“Tram depots, which were spread across massive plots in the city, were a goldmine for the government. Majority of the tram depots have been turned into bus depots. Tram cars have been neglected and ruined as there is no proper upkeep,” Bhattacharya says. He points out the non-existent recruitments to highlight the government’s disinterest in keeping trams alive. “The ones engaged are retiring but no new employees are being hired.”
But CTUA won’t let trams and its memories go. “We have over 4,000 members worldwide supporting the cause and 30 members on the ground who meet once a month to discuss measures,” says 24-year-old Arghyadip Hatua, a core committee member of CTUA who brings his urban policy knowledge to the mission. Hatua, a tram enthusiast, was an intern at the West Bengal State Transport Corporation (WBSTC) and joined CTUA in 2018.
“Our vision is to revive the trams as a sustainable mode of transport. We have researched how trams running on solar power would be a fitting upgrade for the old carriages of Kolkata. Through media advocacy, RTI, PILs, social media, we take our voices to the people of Kolkata,” Hatua said.
Tram World differs from ground reality
The state government acknowledges the issue of disappearing trams but argues against looking at global transportation models that “can’t always be replicated in India”. “Kolkata’s roads have shrunk with an increase in vehicles. But trams won’t go off road. Chief Minister [Mamata Banerjee] is constantly working for the development and we will be celebrating trams as Calcutta Tramways completes 150 years next year. We are hopeful to reopen a few more routes shortly,” state transport minister Snehasis Chakraborty said.
For CTUA, though, past few protests have been about reopening old routes, let alone the government coming up with new ones. In April and again in October this year, the association came out on streets demanding the restoration of the Esplanade-Kidderpore route, which was suspended when Cyclone Amphan hit the state in May 2020. CTUA members cut the grass to help clear the tracks so that the route could be reopened. “We hold peaceful protests at tram depots with placards. We also felicitate tram drivers who are the unsung heroes. Most of them have aged. Our campaigns are effective and the transport minister responds to our protests. We will keep fighting on to reopen the closed routes,” said Hatua.
The West Bengal State Transport Corporation attributes the decline in tram routes to the ongoing Metro construction work in central parts of Kolkata. “We are hopeful at least five more routes will be operational by March next year. We are in talks with the Metro authorities,” said Rajanvir Singh Kapur, the corporation’s managing director. He added that the state government is taking initiatives to draw more passengers. “We have Asia’s first library on wheels. It was to bring the youth to use the trams. We also have a ‘tram world’ in Gariahat depot where tram enthusiasts can stroll. The air-conditioned coaches have free WiFi and the map routes are colour-coded for easy understanding and available on the Pathadisha app,” he said.
But a source in the West Bengal Transport Department, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said “there are no funds for the trams”. “How can it be revived or promoted (then)? Everything is being done within a tight budget,” the source said.
Tram activist Bhattacharya said the state government’s efforts have been abysmal. “Trams are the cleanest form of transportation at a time when nations are focusing on climate change. But in Kolkata, there is no shelter for passengers to board a tram. It’s dangerous to board from the middle of the road where the tracks run. Kolkata already has a robust tram network; it connects the railway station with colleges and hospitals, but these tracks remain abandoned. ‘Tram world’ is of little consequence if trams are pushed off the road. Trams of Kolkata are eligible for UNESCO [world heritage] tag, but such prestigious awards aren’t given when they see the future is bleak and there is little effort for its safeguard. Trams in Kolkata have great potential, but no one seems to care,” Bhattacharya said.
Shishir Datta, 65, was going to a post office when ThePrint caught up with him. “Tram is convenient, cheap and I am in no hurry,” he said. “I often take the tram. At my age, it’s difficult to jostle in the public buses and taxis that don’t want to run short distances and I can’t understand these new app cabs. Trams are comfortable.”
(Edited by Prashant)