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Are the Iconic Trams of Kolkata Being Phased Out in Violation of the Air Act?

The Kolkata Action Plan for Clean Air made a commitment to optimise the trams. That deadline lapsed in 2019.

Updated
Climate Change
5 min read
Are the Iconic Trams of Kolkata Being Phased Out in Violation of the Air Act?
i

Large chunks of land belonging to the oldest system of electric transportation in the city of Kolkata are being parcelled out to private companies. A citizens group alleges that there is a deliberate attempt by the state government to phase out the city’s century old trams, in favour of diesel buses and private cars, this at a time when the city is experiencing pollution that’s four times the normal level.

In 2018, the National Green Tribunal had asked for the creation of an Air Quality Monitoring Committee for Kolkata and the creation of a plan to clean the city’s air in a time bound manner.

The Kolkata Action Plan for Clean Air stated in unequivocal terms that the electric trams could be the answer to the city’s soaring pollution levels and made a commitment to optimise the fleet and their frequency. That deadline lapsed in 2019.

The AQMC clearly stated in the Kolkata Action Plan that tramways would need “modernisation, further strengthening, and network development to build on the unique advantage”.

"Unlike the plans made by state governments for climate action that are aspirational in nature, the Action Plan for Clean Air is legally mandated, with clear deadlines. Not following them is a clear violation of the court orders" says environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

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Scientist Debashish Bhattacharya has been leading the fight to save Kolkata's trams.

(Photo: Bahar Dutt) 

Scientist Debashish Bhattacharya, a resident of Kolkata, who retired as a chemical biologist, found his initial passion for the city’s tram might have been steeped in nostalgia. And so he set up the Calcutta Tram Users Association. But as he delved further he noticed that there seemed to be a deliberate attempt by state governments in West Bengal to phase out the trams. In order to back his hunch with data he started by filing a series of RTI’s queries with the authorities.

In his home in East Kolkata surrounded by sheaves of paper he shows this reporter the unopened letters that were simply returned back to him with no answers. But Bhattacharya persisted to write letters demanding a reply.

That’s when he discovered what he says is a more deep-seated conspiracy to remove trams from the city’s roads and simply relegate them to museums.

What's Behind Phasing Out of Kolkata's Trams? 

One of the oldest systems of electric transportation, Kolkata’s trams have become central to the city’s identity. Till the 1990s over 400 trams operated on the city roads. But successive governments have been interested only in phasing them out.

“Trams last for 50-80 years but with buses its just 5-7 years. So when a fleet of buses is purchased there is a huge scope to make money. In addition the spare parts stolen from buses have a market, they can be installed in other private buses. But tram parts have no value, so there is very little margin for corruption”
Debashish Bhattacharya, Scientist

Bhattacharya suspected that there was malafide intent to phase out trams so that large chunks of land used as tram depots could be sold off to private companies. His RTI queries confirmed this. Of around 33 tram routes in the city, at present only 3 were still operational. The following tram depots had been sold or leased- Tolly Gunge for Rs 180 crore, Kalighat for Rs 8 crore, Kidderpore for Rs 13 crore and the one at Galif Street for 6 crores.

Bhattacharya alleges that land sharks are eyeing these lands with the ultimate motive to build high-rise buildings. The land of Tollygunge tram depot covering 16321.21 square metres of open area has already been sold to a real estate agency at Rs 181 crore.

The RTI queries revealed further neglect. The serviceable route length of tramcars was reduced from 166.34 kilometres in 2009 to 92.73 kilometres in 2019. Further, the reply from the state government stated “the average number of tramcars outshedded per day had also decreased from 91 in 2009 to 35 in 2019, showing substantial decrease in the number of tramcars plying”. The RTIs showed that the fleet strength was also being substantially reduced.

The state government for its part claims that they want to phase out trams is that they occupy too much road space, carry few people and slow down traffic. But Bhattacharya, challenges this notion.

“The tramcar emission is zero and per person energy consumption is minimal, the government is giving such a big push for electric vehicles. Here is one that the city already has, why not modernise it for the future?"
Debashish Bhattacharya
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More Than Nostalgia: Kolkata's Trams Could Be the Future

Tram World set up by the government is a mere lip service to the rich history of trams, says Bhattacharya.  

(Photo: Bahar Dutt) 

In a quiet corner off the streets in Ballygunge, The state government has set up ‘Tram world’ to celebrate the 140 year old legacy of trams in the city. The aim was to turn this place into a cultural hotspot, a place for a tram aficionado, but it seems like a forgotten project. Bhattacharya laments there is hardly any archival information provided about the trams, and for some reason bright new serviceable trams have been placed here rather than the old ones that reflect the true history of trams. Sadly, there is no information about each tram, their rich heritage and how it was intertwined with the changes that Kolkata has seen. It seems like a mere lip service to this ancient form of transportation. Bhattacharya says this is "neither a museum nor a cultural centre, I don’t know what Tram World is supposed to be.”

Bhattacharya is no longer alone in his fight. More than 400 people have joined his initiative including young people. Twenty three-year-old Arghyadip Hatua, one of the younger members of the CTUA, is a public transport and urban policy enthusiast. He sees it as his life’s mission to fight for tramways and walkability in Kolkata. He also defies the stereotype that it is only the older generation in the city that wants trams back. “There are many young people,” says Hatua, that want the city of their childhood to have clean air, “we see trams and walk-ability as part of the solution, that’s why we are passionate about them,” he adds.

Bhattacharya with Arghyadip Hatua.

(Photo: Bahar Dutt)

I join Bhattacharya and Hatua for a tram ride from the Esplanade, from where the first trams rolled out more than a hundred years ago, to understand their passion for this mode on transport. It is evening time and the tram is packed with people on their way home. “See how easy it is to board, and look how cheap is the fare,” shouts Hatua above the din of the rattling tram.

Bhattacharya and Hatua, continue chatting, planning their next meeting as the tram trundles through the busy streets of Kolkata. I leave them there; two residents of Kolkata separated by decades but united by their passion for this century old means of transport. While Delhi grabs world headlines for being the most polluted, on most days the air quality in Kolkata is far worse. Kolkata ‘s trams could be the clean mode of transport of the future, should the government choose to invest in this heritage of the past.

(Bahar Dutt is an author and award winning environment journalist)

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