Kolkata: Between February and July 2012, the erstwhile UPA government at the Centre and the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal exchanged several letters over a change in the sanctioned route of Kolkata’s ambitious East-West Metro corridor.
The letters, accessed by ThePrint, reveal that a realigned route was initially opposed by the then Union Ministry of Urban Development, the nodal Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (KMRCL), and funding partner Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) over issues of cost overruns, unforeseen delays and probable subsidence.
However, the West Bengal government insisted on the realignment, stating that the original plan would adversely affect 250 shop-owners and tenants in the Lalbazar and Bowbazar areas of the capital.
On 1 September, seven years later, the project that has already missed several deadlines came to a grinding halt after a tunnel boring machine (TBM) hit an aquifer in Kolkata’s densely populated Bowbazar area while making way for the realigned route.
In the last few days, the construction of the project has resulted in the collapse of five huge houses while parts of several others have caved in Bowbazar.
At least 20 more houses will have to be pulled down while 75 more are under the scanner in the same area, affecting nearly 700 people, found a four-member committee formed by the KMRCL in the aftermath of the incident to examine the stability of existing houses in the area.
Nearly 695 old and unstable buildings are present on the route — something that was duly pointed out during discussions over changing the original plan, said a senior official in the Ministry of Union Urban Development who didn’t wish to be named.
West Bengal Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim refused to comment on the realignment issues, but blamed the KMRCL for its “negligence” for all that happened this month. A senior official in the state’s urban development department, who did not wish to be named, said an expert committee led by the chief secretary has been formed and would submit its report soon.
The latest set of calamitous events, however, has only brought the focus to the origin of the crisis — back in 2012.
What the letters said
In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government sanctioned the East-West Corridor of the Kolkata Metro, approving the route from Salt Lake Sector V to Howrah Maidan, via Phoolbagan, Sealdah, Mahakaran and Howrah.
The project was launched with the objective of connecting Kolkata and Howrah on either side of the Hooghly river, as well as linking west and east Kolkata. The existing Metro line connects the north to the south.
Work started amid a change of governments in West Bengal, as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress strode to power in 2011.
Nearly a year after Banerjee took over as chief minister, her government began discussions in 2012 with the UPA government — of which TMC was a member — seeking a realigned corridor in the face of protests over land acquisition. This came just years after the protests in Singur against the Tata Nano project, led by Banerjee.
During the early stages of the discussion, the then transport secretary of the West Bengal government wrote to the urban development ministry on 21 June 2012 that “serious problems (were) being faced in most of the land acquisition cases in the present alignment between Howrah to Sealdah (the two major stations on the route)”.
The secretary added, “There are a number of representations from the land owners, tenants, religious places etc. The present alignment does not touch upon the most important common point of central business district of Kolkata that is Esplanade.”
The absence of the Dalhousie area from the route was also pointed out.
On the same day, the KMRCL — a Government of India enterprise currently under the Ministry of Railways — wrote a letter to the state chief secretary, saying a change in route nearly four years after sanction for the metro corridor might take a toll on the entire project.
The agency added that the project was sanctioned by the Government of India at a cost of Rs 4,874 crore, of which Rs 2,253 crore was to be provided as senior term debt by JICA. The loan was sanctioned after a thorough appraisal of a detailed project report (DPR) — prepared by the West Bengal government.
“Financial closure having been achieved, any alteration in the approved project alignment will certainly require further negotiation with JICA which I fear will be a long drawn out affair involving Railway Board, MoUD and Department of Economic Affairs,” said the KMRCL.
Almost Rs 40 crore had been spent on the land acquisition process, and Rs 14 crore had been invested in the construction of a new building to rehabilitate the affected traders, it added.
Almost a month later, on 18 July 2012, the then secretary of the Union urban development ministry wrote to the West Bengal chief secretary stating that a change in the original alignment had not been done so far in any metro project in the country and this could become a precedent for other projects as well.
“Moreover, casting of tunnel lining segments in the casting yard has been slowed down owing to the uncertainty regarding the alignment,” the central government official said in the letter.
By 31 July 2012, the JICA chief representative also wrote to the West Bengal chief secretary requesting him to proceed with the project “as planned originally and facilitate its timely and successful completion”.
“Our position on the matter related to change of project scope and design was adequately communicated through our letters dated February 22, May 14, June 11, 2012. We also find that similar opinion and concerns were shared by the MoUD and MoR (Ministry of Railways) during the June 30 meeting. Even thereafter, the government of West Bengal seems to be proceeding with the alignment review,” said the letter.
The project was shifted to the Union Ministry of Railways from the MoUD in 2012. At the time, TMC’s Mukul Roy (now a BJP leader) was the railway minister, and Sougata Roy was the minister of state for the Union urban development ministry.
In the letter, the JICA representative added that “alignment for such transport projects is the most crucial” and “studies to evolve the best corridors are undertaken and concluded at the feasibility and DPR stage”.
“The Kolkata East-West Metro project is no exception since similar process was then followed by the government of WB. Please note that only after apprising this DPR prepared by the state, our funding for the project was committed.
“Review or change of alignment at this stage of the project where contractors were mobilized more than two years back and tunneling work is in active progress, would in our experience be seriously detrimental to the project schedule and result in considerable cost increase which JICA finds difficult to support. As mentioned by the secretary, MoUD, such changes have not been done in any metro projects earlier,” said the JICA representative.
Despite steep opposition from all the official agencies, the Mamata Banerjee government pushed for the route realignment. The Manmohan Singh government finally conceded to the demanded and sanctioned the new route in 2013. The other agencies agreed to it too.
Under the realigned route, the corridor was modified from Sealdah to Howrah Maidan — it now included BB Ganguly Street, Subodh Mullick Square, SN Banerjee Road, Esplanade, Dalhousie and Brabourne Road.
What the latest crisis did
Earlier this month, when the TBM was burrowing the west-bound tunnel towards Sealdah, it hit an aquifer that had not been identified before. As water started gushing out at high speed, it caused enormous subsidence that in turn damaged several houses. The TBM has also been stuck inside the tunnel since.
According to KMRCL, the TBM hit the aquifer just 700 metres before it could reach Sealdah.
At least 700 people have been displaced so far. The KMRCL has already paid Rs 5 lakh each as compensation to at least 100 families and also rehabilitated shop owners in different buildings, said the official in the West Bengal urban development ministry.
Finally, the KMRCL has assured the state government that it would build new houses for those owners whose houses collapsed. The agency is also bearing all the expenses of the displaced people who have been put up in hotels, added the official.
“Had the initial plan been followed, only 250 shop-owners would have had to be rehabilitated. The track was passing through a road and a fewer number of houses were coming inside the zone of influence. That displacement would have been a planned one,” said the official.
“But what has happened now appears to be a disaster. So many people were displaced within an hour. Moreover, it is not a planned displacement. The cost is over and above the project cost. Metro will have to spend crores to rehabilitate them,” added the official.
Just to retrieve the Rs 100-crore TBM, the agency might have to spend Rs 35 to 37 crore.
The project cost as on date is Rs 8,574 crore, according to KMRCL — a nearly 100 per cent rise from the originally planned expenditure.
While phase one, connecting the IT hub of Salt Lake Sector V in the eastern parts of the city to Sealdah in central Kolkata, is going through trial runs, the second phase, or the stretch connection the Howrah Maidan to Sealdah has no time frame or completion deadline now.
The project has already missed at least six deadlines since the approval for the new route.
The East-West Metro in Kolkata was planned to be operational from December 2019, but following the latest crisis, the project is now staring at a two-year delay, according to KMRCL MD Manas Sarkar.
Experts have cited the change of route as one of the causes for the current crisis in Kolkata.
Speaking to ThePrint, Partha Pratim Biswas, professor, department of construction engineering, Jadavpur University, said the route realignment was a “political decision” rather than an “engineering requirement”. According to him, the DPR should have taken into consideration the safety aspects of the influence zone.
“The existence of a 300-year-old dormant river or aquifer should have come to the knowledge of the implementing agency before taking TBM there. What kind of geo-technical survey or investigation was done by the agency that the soil layers were not properly identified? It is sheer ignorance and unprofessionalism of every agency and government department to justify their actions now.
“The state government which insisted on the route change should have taken responsibility for people’s safety first. But there is not a word on that,” he said.
Biswas added the tunnelling is generally done by the road side to minimise damage but in this case it’s passing through an area that has only old and unstable buildings, declared unsafe by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
“So, the realignment might be an additional cause for the crisis. The KMRCL and the government bodies are now justifying the route citing commercial viability. But that is pure conjecture. Safety comes first,” added the professor.
‘Will increase ridership’
However, the KMRCL claimed that the present route is the “best possible alignment”.
“It will increase our ridership to a great extent and the revenue will increase by at least 30 per cent from what it was earlier,” a top official of the KMRCL told ThePrint.
According to Biswanath Deewanji, chief engineer (civil), KMRCL, realignment of the metro route is not an issue as Kolkata is a 300-year-old city and underground tunnelling cannot be avoided.
“We faced no trouble while tunnelling under the river Hooghly. But at Bowbazaar an unfortunate issue happened. As far as the aquifer is concerned, we had no clue that it was there. It is a dormant river,” he said.
The KMRCL official added the agency was getting all the necessary cooperation from the West Bengal government.