A township that barricades itself

Anuradha Sengupta | Updated on January 12, 2018

Top-down growth: The New Town has brought new commerce and newcomers to the once tight-knit pastoral-agricultural communities of Rajarhat Image: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Weeded out: Farmers protest against the acquisition of their land for the new township in Rajarhat Photo: Special Arrangement
land for the new
township in Rajarhat
photo: special arrangement


Urban Legend

The tale of Rajarhat — Kolkata’s wannabe hip sister — is one of displaced farmers and fishers, supplanted by gated communities and clubs for the better-off

Turn left from Chinar More, towards Rajarhat, and the noise of Kolkata gradually fades away. The buildings are no longer densely packed, and gated communities appear one after the other, some still under construction, and punctuated by a few shanties, parks, hotels, hospitals, and enormous office complexes.

Welcome to Rajarhat-New Town. Conceived in the early 1990s to decongest Kolkata, this township on the eastern fringes was developed under a public-private partnership.

Three main ‘Action Areas’ were planned:

I — malls, planned residential and commercial plots;

II — a central business district, institutional plots, IT business parks like DLF, TCS Gitanjali Park and Unitech, plots for large apartment complexes, and an Eco Park built around a water body; and

III — high-rise residential complexes, mini sub-townships like Uniworld City, and upscale gated residential communities such as DLF Newtown Heights, Unitech’s Uniworld City and Tata’s Eden Court.

Educational institutes such as the University of Engineering & Management and St Xavier’s College, and IT majors Infosys and Wipro, too, have set up campuses here, as also overseas firms like the BT Group.

But the reality is not all rosy.

While the authorities tom-tom Rajarhat as a city of the future, a closer look reveals design flaws that could cancel out much of its appeal. International property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle had reported in August last year that real estate in Rajarhat, “long regarded as the bellwether of growth in Bengal, is bleeding with one in three units vacant”. The speculative growth witnessed some years ago was not matched by a comparable growth in infrastructure, the report said. Titled ‘A Tale of Two Hotspots: Gachibowli and Rajarhat’, it compared Rajarhat’s unfulfilled potential with the surge in economic activity in Hyderabad’s latest IT hotspot, and tied this to the curtailed expansion plans of DLF, Unitech and even local builders like Ambuja Neotia and the Mani Group.

A city built on wetlands

The tale of Rajarhat is one of displaced farmers and fishers, supplanted by gated communities and clubs for the better-off. Ratoola Kundu, an assistant professor at the School of Habitat Studies, TISS Mumbai, has made a case study of Rajarhat for her doctoral dissertation. “My study shows that farm labourers, fisherfolk in wetlands (that were converted to land), and owners of small farming plots were badly affected as they had no recourse to compensation or protests. Many of them have joined the informal sector in and around New Town as maids, gardeners, security men, and so on. As many of them lack construction skills, outsiders are gaining those jobs,” Kundu says.

The region’s pastoral-agricultural economy was already undergoing changes, but the new town accelerated the process, she says. She points to the new waves of informal workers, settling along the banks of canals, who are servicing the residents of the gated enclaves and towers. “These settlements have political backing and are quite organised. There are a few instances of villagers and farmers resisting the New Town’s top-down mode of acquisition by continuing to farm on acquired land. Inside the villages that still remain, things have changed. Some residents have opened shops, or built additional floors at their homes to house migrant workers. So there is new commerce and newcomers in these once tight-knit communities. Inequality has sharpened between those who received more compensation for larger land and those who were mere farm hands. Social functions have become more ostentatious.”

Environmentalists too have a bone to pick with the new township. A huge chunk of Kolkata’s wetlands was reclaimed for the project. The wetlands serve two functions that may, at first glance, seem contradictory: they are the city’s free sewage works and they are also a fertile aquatic market-garden. Besides fishing, the waste water is used to irrigate paddy fields; additionally, vegetables are grown on the verdant banks, as also on the long, low hill created by Kolkata’s organic waste.

“The entire area has been built on water bodies and wetlands that were filled up,” says Pradeep Kakkar, who runs the civic improvement organisation PUBLIC. “Not just people but even flora and fauna have been displaced.” Adding insult to injury, the new township has no solid waste management plan in place. “As a result, solid waste is being dumped into existing wetlands — an illegal practice that everyone acknowledges but no one is doing anything about.”

A new life with hiccups

When she first moved to Rajarhat-New Town in 2011, Amrita Chatterjee had to drive all the way to Salt Lake for provisions. “Now my father-in-law can walk to fetch groceries from the nearby informal bazaars. There have been many hiccups, but I think things are getting better,” she says. Chatterjee recently moved to Gurgaon and finds Rajarhat to be the better planned of the two townships. “It has more open spaces and parks, hospitals, and so on.”

One of the earliest troubles residents faced in Rajarhat was the lack of potable water. Back in 2011, Chatterjee and the other residents in her apartment complex got a borewell and water treatment plant installed at their own cost. Many residents left, preferring to rent out the flats, leave them empty or even sell them in the face of the water woes. Supply was a problem, as was the high iron content, which heavily stained the bathroom tiles and white clothing.

For a year now, the township project’s public-sector partner, Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO) has been experimenting with an underground pipeline to carry unfiltered water from the Hooghly to a filtration bed in Rajarhat, from where it is stored in overhead tanks before being supplied to households. Initially the supply will be 20 million gallons a day and then it will increase to 100 million gallons. The estimated cost of the project is ₹450 crore.

A city for cars

100 Resilient Cities, a project pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation and dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century, had this to say: “Rajarhat has a gated-community design. It is the wrong urban design and it will lead to more motorised transport. By design you are making people captive users of the car.”

Rather than viewing streets as the shared public spaces that they are, most satellite townships make the mistake of treating them merely as zones for cars, parking, and transportation of goods. In the mother city Kolkata, on the other hand, the street has always held immense social and political significance as a public realm.

As erstwhile Kolkata resident Sunayana Roy explains, “When I did a Walk Alone intervention (pioneered by Blank Noise, a volunteer-led project against street sexual harassment) a few months ago [in Rajarhat], I actually got a little bored because there was nothing much to see, nowhere to reach. Public transport is not easily available. Walking is not pleasurable because the place is not designed for pedestrians. The footpaths are not shaded, there are no rests and the traffic is really fast.”

The clusters of high-rises give the township a rather uniform look, a generic global non-place without a distinctive character of its own. It may take a few decades to acquire a lived-in look, in place of the harrowingly sterile appearance at present. Kundu says the very design of the township ensures that it is not inclusive. “There is no provision for an informal economy to function and, as a result, there are haphazard markets, roadside eateries, and shacks springing up to respond to the needs of the residents.”

She contrasts this with Salt Lake, where the emphasis is on the neighbourhood concept, thereby leading to accessibility, the presence of parks, playgrounds, schools, local markets within walking distance, and a sense of community. “Rajarhat is exclusive. Most of the open spaces are within the larger housing complexes. Smaller, community-level spaces are completely missing.”

This begs a question: “Where will the children of Rajarhat play... especially those living in the cooperative apartments”?

Safety only in numbers?

The roads in Rajarhat — particularly in Action Area II and III — become empty and unsafe after sundown. The walls of the gated complexes can make streets more crime-prone here than in Kolkata, which has a surfeit of street-level activities. To combat the feeling of insecurity, developers were instructed by the Bidhannagar police to furnish details of security arrangements before getting a clearance. In January last year, a young couple passing through the Chandiberia area on a bike were stopped by a gang of men. The woman was molested and her husband beaten up. The New Town police brusquely refused to register a complaint by insisting first on a medical check-up for the woman.

“We do not go out of the complex after dark, or we go in large groups,” says call centre employee Rupantar Bose.

The Facebook page of Blank Noise contains several revealing comments on the township’s street-level safety: “I would not fancy walking around there. It’s boring, desolate and a little spooky for pedestrians,” says Saptarshi Chakraborty.

“The one time I was looking for an address there, I had my car,” says Shuktara Lal. “It got deserted at night. It strikes me now that I planned my commute according to when I had my car. I ruled out public transport as an option.”

Give it time

Urban development experts think it is too early to write off the township. “It has succeeded in some measure as an extended new town venture, not as a functional satellite township. Kalyani is one such, not Rajarhat,” says Joy Sen, the head of architecture at IIT-Kharagpur, under whose guidance the second campus of St Xavier’s College in Rajarhat was designed. He believes it will take some time to relieve the parent city as planned, as this cannot be achieved by Rajarhat alone but through the addition of several more “blobs or new nodes”.

The task is not an easy one, as Kundu explains, “given the mix of old and new residents, the lack of urban governance and ownership amongst inhabitants, and the grudge that land-losers have against the government and those residing on their old lands. It is a process of simultaneously erasing existing identities, cultures and ways of living and actively promoting new ways of being.”

Published on January 06, 2017

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