After 25 years in salubrious California, Bonani and Prahlad Kakkar returned to Kolkata in the 1990s. “The Calcutta [they refuse to call it by the new name, Kolkata] we grew up in was a compact, organic city,” says Bonani, a former public health specialist. “Offices and homes were within walking distance and we had 625 parks in this city.”
They found the city of their childhood had changed dramatically. Diesel, a cheaper alternative to petrol, had made an entry, and there had been an explosion of cars, buses and auto-rickshaws on the roads. Out of deep anger and frustration, they decided to launch Public (People United for Better Living in Calcutta), a civic improvement organisation.
Down the decades, Kolkata’s chaos has been compounded with the city prioritising cars over public transport, something all Indian cities are guilty of. Traffic crawls on Kolkata’s roads at an average speed of 14 to 18 kilometres per hour, as against 22 kmph in the rest of India.
The slowdown has had an economic and environmental impact as well, something that Public is seeking to address by working with local authorities on awareness campaigns, such as encouraging citizens to lodge complaints about the worst polluters in the city with the Calcutta Police Traffic Department.
A study of 10 city roads found that just two hours of a traffic jam cumulatively costs commuters 74,000 rupees (£872). Kolkata residents breathe in air that has 3–5 times higher pollution than normal. The impact of this on public health has been studied by the Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute in Kolkata in many reports. One of them shows that more than 7 in 10 people suffer from respiratory diseases in Kolkata.
These factors have put Kolkata bottom of 100 world cities in the 2016 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, which ranks according to three dimensions – people, planet and profit.
Kolkata ranks last in planet and profit – the environment and economic indicators. On environment, it does badly on sanitation, green space and waste management. On the economic front, it rates poorly in ease of doing business, tourism, connectivity and transport, among others.
There is just 2mm of metro rail per inhabitant as against the average 14mm in our index Alasdair Cavalla, Centre for Economic and Business Research
“The parameters on the transport front are congestion ratings, kilometres of metro or light rail lines per inhabitant, and airport customer satisfaction,” says Alasdair Cavalla, senior economist at the Centre for Economic and Business Research, which provided the research for the index. “There is just 2mm of metro rail per inhabitant as against the average 14mm in our index. Kolkata’s airport does not rank in the top 100 airports by customer satisfaction.”
The hairy transport situation, experts say, is due to a lack of vision and integrity in transport planning down the decades.
Some of the policies adopted in order to ease road congestion are arbitrary. For example, two years ago, the police banned cycling on 174 main thoroughfares, when the national policy advocates the promotion of non-motorised transport.
There was outrage from green crusaders and unions of milk vendors and domestic workers, who filed a petition in the Kolkata High Court. The ban is still in place but only on 62 roads, mainly flyovers.
Kolkata needs to turn the politics of transport provision on its head, says Madhav Pai, India director for WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. “The majority of people walk and cycle, while the streets are designed for cars, and this has led to huge inequity. Kolkata needs to prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and buses. Instead it continues to invest in flyovers, expressways and more roads.”
Kolkata is exploring options to address its transport problems by sharing experiences through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group that helps mega-cities of similar size and population density to connect. Kolkata was the first city in south Asia to join the network in 2015. Under C40, every mega city has to identify three top priorities it wants to work on. Kolkata has identified solid waste management, transport and air quality.
“Kolkata is the first city in India to look at fare integration, which means a single ticket for bus, metro and tram,” says Sanjay Sridhar, the C40 regional director for south and west Asia. “It is looking at rationalising bus routes to help improve efficiency and reduce fuel usage.” Intermodal connectivity options, using the existing system of ferries, the metro and trams, are also being looked at.
The next decade in India is about “showing citizens that change is possible’’, says Pai. “All these measures are examples of such change being attempted in Kolkata. To see large long-term change, these projects have to succeed and give hope for new innovative ideas to be implemented.”
Thei article was published in The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/oct/10/how-can-kolkatas-chaotic-transport-system-be-untangled