Kolkata: On 13 February, the Indian Railways flagged off its second metro service in Kolkata, even though the project is incomplete. Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal inaugurated a 4.88 km-long stretch of Line 2, or the East-West Metro, between Sector V Salt Lake and Salt Lake Stadium.
At some point in the future, the East-West Metro will connect Kolkata with Howrah, across the Hooghly river, via a 10.8 km-long tunnel, about six kilometres of which lie under water.
Kolkata got India’s first metro rail system 36 years ago, when the north-south corridor between Esplanade and Bhowanipore opened up. It was later extended to run from Dum Dum to Tollygunge, and now on to Noapara in the north and New Garia (named Kavi Subhash) in the south.
But the east-west corridor was envisioned long, long before that — under the British administration in 1921. Almost 100 years later, it is yet to become fully operational, with a railways official calling the project “no one’s baby”. Others have called it a “planning disaster”, and one of the slowest metro projects in the world.
The only good news is that funds haven’t stopped flowing in for it from the central government, thanks to the fact that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is partially funding the project.
Aloke Kumar, associate professor at IIM-Calcutta, who has conducted research on the railways and the Kolkata Metro, told ThePrint that the East-West Metro project across the Hooghly was conceptualised by the British in 1921, at the same time as the river Thames was being tunnelled in London. However, it was shelved because of a paucity of funds.
“The underwater tube rail in Kolkata was planned by the British government when they were building a tunnel under the Thames river in London. However, after soil test in Kolkata, they dropped the idea — the project cost was six times higher than the one they built in London,” he said.
Dr B.C. Roy’s Congress government revived the idea for a metro rail system in 1969, supported by then-PM Indira Gandhi. But Roy’s government chose a north-south corridor to build India’s first metro rail, in collaboration with the Indian Railways.
Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone in 1972, but construction work only started in 1978, as the project needed a lot of improvisation and innovation.
Between 1982 and 1984, Union railway minister and senior Bengal Congress politician A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury gave the project a push, resulting in the Esplanade-Bhowanipore section opening in 1984. But soon after, the project hit political hurdles, with land acquisition being the chief problem. At several points, including Chandni Chowk, Esplanade and Central Avenue, people protested against land acquisition, supported by some local politicians. The railways had to take time to resolve issues through negotiation and compensation.
Work resumed only after six years, meaning that the 30-km-long Dum Dum-Tollygunge line could only be opened in 1994. While that line has continued to be extended, the East-West Metro project remained in cold storage, and was only revived by Manmohan Singh’s UPA-I government at the Centre in 2008.
One of the factors often touted for the delays is that the Kolkata Metro is the only system handled by the Indian Railways. Since the end of the Emergency in 1977, the party ruling West Bengal has been part of the ruling central government for very short periods — from 1996 to 1998 when the United Front was supported by the Left at the Centre; from 2004 to 2008 when the Left supported the first UPA government; and from 2011 to 2013, when Mamata Banerjee had taken power in Kolkata and her Trinamool Congress was still part of UPA-II. This often led to Centre-state coordination issues.
Like her predecessors Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of the Left, Banerjee also accuses the central government of depriving the state financially. Both the Left and Trinamool governments have asked the Centre for financial restructuring, but the last three central dispensations — the two UPA governments and the first Modi government, have rejected such proposals time and again.
The East-West Metro was sanctioned in 2008 by UPA-I, at an estimated project cost of Rs 4,754 crore. The foundation stone was laid in 2009.
Initially, the state government was to bear 30 per cent of the cost of the project, the Union urban development ministry was to contribute 25 per cent, while the other 45 per cent would come from JICA. However, after Banerjee came to power in 2011, the state pulled out of the project, and it was fully taken over by the Indian Railways, which was controlled by her Trinamool Congress at the time. In 2013, Mamata Banerjee walked out of UPA-II protesting against the petrol and gas price hike, and announced that her government would not be part of any central project.
The Kolkata Metro is the only such system in the country operated by the Indian Railways
As a result, the funding arrangement changed again. Now, JICA is contributing 48 per cent of the project cost, Indian Railways is putting up 40 per cent, while the Union urban development ministry is providing 12 per cent. This administrative exercise took two years (2013-15).
By the end of 2012, the East-West Metro also started facing issues related to land acquisition and slum relocation. There were three major problem spots — at Duttabad near Salt Lake, and at two locations in Bowbazar. This led to the project deadline being pushed back from 2012 to 2015.
IIM assistant professor Aloke Kumar said: “The main problem the railways faced are land issues, which still exist. Railway lines, especially underground lines, cannot run in a zig-zag manner. They have to be straight lines. There were temples along the route which needed to be removed. There were other land problems too. It was only then that the railways thought of bringing in an act to ensure acquisition of land for a public project,” he said.
Despite opposition from the urban development ministry, some senior officials of the KMRC and railways, and even JICA representatives, the project underwent a re-alignment in 2012-13, which cost it nearly three years. The old alignment was supposed to be Salt Lake Sector V-Karunamoyee-Central Park-City Centre-Salt Lake Stadium-Phoolbagan-Sealdah-Central-Mahakaran-Howrah-Howrah Maidan. After the re-alignment, the line is to go from Sealdah to B.B. Ganguly Street, and on to Subodh Mullick Square-S.N. Banerjee Road-Esplanade-Dalhousie-Brabourne Road before going under the Hooghly.
The Union urban development ministry, the railways, KMRC, JICA and the state government agreed on the new alignment in 2013, at a time when Trinamool leader Mukul Roy (now with the BJP) was Union railway minister, and another leader, Sougata Roy, was MoS urban development.
Partha Pratim Biswas, civil engineer and professor at Jadavpur University, said this was also a political decision.
“In Bengal, a bus route also depends on local politics. It is unfortunate that the same thing happened with the East-West Metro project too. The route change was completely about politics, and had nothing to do with technology or engineering,” Biswas said.
“The state has no financial stake. Why was the project formulated in a way in which the state was allowed to sit out? It has not happened in any other state. If the state is not a partner or a stakeholder, how are the railways expected to resolve land acquisition issues?”
A senior KMRC official said on the condition of anonymity: “Handing over the project from one ministry to another, changing funding arrangements, this huge administrative exercise… None of this was needed. However, West Bengal as a state did not have the funds to execute or be a partner in the project. It could have been a matter of pride for both central and state governments, but it became the victim of bad politics.”
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress leader and former Union Minister of State for Railways, said Trinamool leaders caused the maximum damage to the project by provoking locals and forcing the railways to do the re-alignment.
“Mamata Banerjee’s government was closing down the project citing funds crunch. The railways never had any intention to take up the project, but it did when Mamata Banerjee became the railway minister. In all cities, metro projects were executed by the urban development ministry. But she wanted to take credit and that is why she transferred the project from the urban development ministry to the railways,” Chowdhury alleged.
“The railways also did not have money. I pushed for the funds. In our last supplementary rail budget in 2013, we allocated Rs 100 crore to start the project again. With the funds coming, the work started. The re-alignment was not needed, but she forcibly did it and the people are suffering. The war for credit resulted in an inordinate delay,” the Congress leader added.
However, Firhad Hakim, the urban development minister of West Bengal, said the Trinamool Congress government had always supported the project and assisted the railways in acquiring land and negotiating with locals. “Mamata Banerjee, during her tenure as rail minister, sanctioned the project. There is no way we could harm the project,” Hakim said.
Politics wasn’t the only crisis the railways faced in building the East-West Metro. The biggest setback was technical — while tunnelling, water started gushing from the river at Strand Road, which runs along the river on the east bank (Kolkata side). A senior KMRC engineer said it could only be managed as it was an open area.
Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation managing director Manas Sarkar said: “We have now secured the tunnel with 35 metres of concretisation inside, and barricaded the water source at Strand Road.”
But things went worse in September last year, when the imported Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) hit an aquifer under B.B. Ganguly Street at Bowbazar while carving out space for a tunnel towards Sealdah. Water gushed out and forced several houses to collapse. Since then, the TBM is stuck inside the tunnel, and the KMRC has been unable to take it out, despite the Calcutta High Court directing the agency to resume work.
The East-West Metro project has missed six deadlines — 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020.
The senior KMRC engineer said the TBM will never function again. “The machine is gone; there is no way to retrieve it. We have to dismantle the machine and cut it through the tunnel,” he said.
According to a senior KMRC official, the East-West Metro project is insured for around Rs 1,200 crore, and a major part of this will go towards covering the losses caused by the TBM hitting the aquifer. The railways had to compensate the displaced families and had to build new furnished houses for them. The compensation amount will run into several crores, added a railways official.
Cost escalation and missed deadlines
The repeated delays have resulted in a 100 per cent cost escalation of the East-West Metro project. In 2012, the estimated cost was Rs 4,874 crore, but the KMRC estimates that it has risen to Rs 8,574 crore now, due to the higher prices of materials, contracts and compensation.
The project has missed six deadlines — 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, and now 2020.
Partha Ranjan Das, urban planner and architect, called the project the “most unplanned ever”, and “worst hit by excessive political interference”.
“Any infrastructure project in Kolkata needs a lot of study and research. Kolkata is one of the oldest cities in the country. It needed advanced planning, which was not done,” Das said.
Aloke Kumar called the Kolkata Metro a “planning disaster”.
“To me, this project was never planned properly. In an old city like Kolkata, it needs meticulous planning and adequate study to implement such a massive project. This never happened,” Kumar said.
“The implementing authority did not go deep into the architectural history of Kolkata and did not do enough study. And that is why they are facing crises, one after another,” he continued.
The pace of construction looks even slower when compared to other Indian cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru etc., but KMRC MD Sarkar says it’s unfair to compare these projects.
“In Kolkata, we hardly have any scope of viaducts (over-ground lines). For the north-south corridor, tunnelling was a must, and after Tollygunge, some parts could be extended though over-ground connections. It is the same with the East-West Metro. There is no scope of over-ground lines for a straight 11 km stretch, and that is why we had to do tunnelling work,” Sarkar said.
“We are trying to complete the project as soon as possible. According to our estimates, we may take six months extra and complete the project by December 2021,” he said.