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From Calcutta to Kolkata, lasting legacy and evolving modernisation

06 January 2021

The unique colonial legacy of  Kolkata and its evolving landscape as a modern metropolis are captured by this 12-lecture series describing the most critical aspects of city planning and urban sustenance.

From Calcutta to Kolkata, lasting legacy and evolving modernisation
View of the modern cable-stayed bridge across River Hooghly overlooking the James Princep memorial

Following its inception as a commercial centre under colonial rule in 1690, Kolkata evolved as an important centre for production and trading over the next 300 years and observed phenomenal growth to become a sprawling metropolis. Serving as the nerve-centre of the East India Company, it remained the administrative capital of continental India until 1911. Kolkata’s development as a modern metropolis in the fields of commerce, industry, transport, health, education, urban amenities, public utilities, waterways, port, literature, art and culture can possibly be compared to that of contemporary London as the first metropolis of modern times.

A city of rapid growth

Barely any city had grown as rapidly as Kolkata from a mere place of local trading to a hub of Indian social, cultural, educational, and literary development. From the late 18th to mid-19th century, Kolkata became the “crowning glory” of the British Raj in the Indian Subcontinent. In 1776, the Writer’s Building started as the administrative headquarters of Kolkata and the erstwhile Bengal Residency. Sir William Jones established the Asiatic Society (1801) and other educational institutions followed on, Fort William College (1800), Hindu College (later Presidency College, 1817), Sanskrit College (1828)and the Medical College (1835).

Main street in front of the Government house, built in 1803.
Main street in front of the Government house, built in 1803.

Infrastructure takes shape

The next phase of development took place after 1850 with establishment and introduction of the telegraph line (1851), Bengal Engineering College (1856), Brick-sewers (1858), High Court (1862), Water supply (1868), Sealdah Railway Station (1869), Port (1870), horse-drawn trams (1873), Sir Stuart Hogg market (1874), Zoological gardens (1876), Indian museum (1878), motor car (1896), electricity (1898), Tallah water tank (1911), Lalbazaar police station (1914), and the Airport (1920), to mention a few important ones. In 1858, administrative power was handed over from the East India Company to the British Crown, and in 1869 the foundation stone for Victoria Memorial Hall was laid by Prince of Wales (opened in 1921).

The only bridge linking Kolkata to its twin city Howrah over River Hooghly was built in 1941 and became an icon. Not to mention, Kolkata had sustained several administrative and political turmoils over the past centuries starting from the Sepoy Mutiny (1857), the partition of Bengal (1905), transfer of the Capital to Delhi (1911), air raids during WWII (1945), religious riots (1946), influx of refugees (1947) and again during creation of Bangladesh (1971), some putting enormous stress on its already strained infrastructure.

ICE online lecture series

With an attempt to document and capture the unique civil engineering heritage of this colonial city, ICE Kolkata organised an online lecture series on the various assets established during the colonial era and some of which have outlived their design period to serve the city even in this new millennium. The series contains 12 such lectures and the details of these topics and speakers* are briefly given below.

Tallah water tank, the largest overhead water tank
Tallah water tank, the largest overhead water tank

The series started with a lecture on the largest water tank (Tallah Tank) in the world describing the background of its conceptualization leading to its novel concept in planning, staging and foundation design and implementation. Several unique and pioneering features of this megastructure were highlighted in this talk delivered by Dr. Ayanangshu Dey, ICE Kolkata Representative.

A bridge (Howrah Bridge) has served for more than 75 years more as a city icon and less of a connecting link over River Hooghly. The extraordinary story behind its planning and subsequent revisions, challenges in design and execution, operation and maintenance were discussed in this talk by one of the leading bridge experts Mr. Amitabha Ghoshal.

The next lecture was based on the story as to how the Victorian brick-sewer technology traveled half the world to Asia for helping a city solve its sanitation and drainage problem, contemporary to similar works being executed by Sr. Joseph Bazalgette for London’s central sewerage system, and the talk was delivered by Dr. Declan B Downey, one of the leading sewer rehabilitation experts.

Ms. Dhruba DasGupta, an active conservationist, talked about the history and continuing relevance of a much-forgotten asset of Kolkata, the East Kolkata Wetlands. This complex system of receiving, storing, treating and discharging wastewater generated from the city has been acclaimed internationally as recognized wetlands.

The commissioning, operation, and development of Asia’s first surface-water based organized water supply system (Palta water works) was the topic elaborated by Mr. Parthajit Patra, a water expert. The gradually upgraded supply system still serves more than half of the city with potable water using century-old slow sand filters.

Calcutta port at a glance in 1945
Calcutta port at a glance in 1945

Kolkata port came into formal existence in 1870 being prompted by the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and since then, played an immensely significant role in development of regional trade, commerce, import, export, connectivity, and the very social fabric of the city. Mr. Ron Gardner presented this in a very succinct manner in his talk on the very first riverine port facilities in continental India.

Since its inception, at a time when regional connections were heavily dependent on canals and creeks, Kolkata’s canal system was gradually developed to reach out to and connect internal areas otherwise difficult to reach by proper roadways. The contribution of Kolkata’s canals in its development was the topic of the talk delivered by Ms. Anasua Gangopadhyay, an independent Consultant.

A hidden jewel and yet silently functioning and facilitating the operations in port activities and city transport, is the bascule bridge in the Kolkata port. The bridge is located at a very strategic location to ensure better connectivity within the port facilities. Mr. Srirup Mitra, a bridge engineering professional will deliver on this.

Mr. Kaushik Gangopadhyay, an expert in underground engineering, will talk about the history, planning, and emerging investments for subterranean connections between the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata located on either side of River Hooghly, comprising initial planning of a tube railway, a subsequent utility tunnel, and finally, a modern transportation tunnel under the river.

There are several colonial bridges across the city which were gradually built to connect different parts of the city as Kolkata evolved and spread up to accommodate its ever-increasing population. These bridges are still being operated beyond their service life and their features will be discussed by Mr Partha Roy, a structural engineering, in his talk on colonial bridges

Victoria Memorial Hall is an emblem of colonial Kolkata and will shortly be completing its centenary as a modern marvel since its opening in 1921. Dr. Hirak Sen, an expert civil engineer, will discuss its magnificent architecture and unbelievable planning with special references to similar structures in the UK.

Lastly, the concluding lecture will be delivered by Mr. Partha Roy, a structural engineering professional, on the Vivekananda bridge (earlier Willingdon bridge) which has connected the city with its regional centres being one of the very first railway cum roadway bridges in the world.

ICE Kolkata’s series of twelve (12) Kolkata Lectures by national, international experts and chartered engineers aims to spread the very important and relevant message of sustainability, diversity, heritage preservation, urban renewal, and inclusion among all engineering communities and especially upcoming engineers who will likely find a lot to recognise, reference, use, and enhance in developing new urban areas across any country.

Online lecture links

The links for the online lectures conducted under this lecture series are as below:

  • Ayanangshu Dey CEng FICE, ICE Representative for Kolkata at ICE