Howrah is a crowd. Despite all the tall claims, all the real estate and all the thriving business, Howrah town remains the child of apathy. It's a wounded town.
Despite being called twin cities and connected by four bridges, two of which are considered landmarks in engineering, Howrah is all but a cousin of Kolkata. The Howrah railway station, two national highways (NH 2 and NH 6) the Botanic Garden, Bengal Engineering and Science University et al have not been able to elevate the status of Howrah from town to a metropolis.
Residents of Howrah seem to have accepted their lives with some amount of sarcasm. Noted homeopath Ramkrishna Ghosh Mondal has lived here for 60 years. He recalls that there was only one two-storey building in his neighbourhood when he was young and the whole town turned into a concrete jungle before his eyes. "This is the only sign of development," he said.
"The public health system has virtually shut down. Development of drainage system, which is necessary for any town, has been neglected. See the result for yourself. Earlier, there used to be about 5,000 persons in every square mile. The population in the same area has now gone up to 50,000," said the doctor.
There are five colleges, including one for girls only, in the town. According to the 2001 census, the average literacy rate in the town stood at 77%, which was higher than the national average of 59.5%. The male literacy rate was 81% while the female literacy stood at 73%. "But every year, meritorious students are enrolling in colleges in Kolkata and elsewhere. The location of most colleges is bad. I would like to say that poor condition of the Belilious Road, one of the most important thoroughfares in the city, is also a factor. Students have a tough time commuting. Despite repeated appeals, the Howrah Municipal Corporation (HMC) has paid no attention," Manas Choudhury, a professor at Narasingha Dutta College, said.
The town, which was once called the Sheffield of eastern India for its small-scale steel industries, especially the foundries, has lost that glory. All these factories were located on Belilious Road, Bantra, Bally, Liluah and Jagachha. But most of them wound up over the years and the workers shifted to other trades.
"Prior to 1980, we had at least 1,000 foundries in Howrah town and there were about 50,000 people earning their daily bread from these foundries. But now there are hardly 300 foundries and most of them are considered sick. This happened because of shortage of raw materials, labour problems, crisis of electricity and other factors. But, above all, I hold the state government responsible because it showed little interest in the traditional industries," said Asit Chatterjee, president, Howrah Traders' Association.
Apart from foundries, there were many small-scale industries in Howrah town. Most of them have closed down and the rest are struggling to survive. India Machinery set up by Alamohan Das at Dasnagar wound up on November in 1989. "We used to produce weighbridges and other products. Unfortunately, the factory closed down. Now, I sell grocery to local shopowners. I am married and have a daughter, who is doing her graduation. Like the rest of the 500-odd workers of the factory, I struggle to ensure two square meals a day for my family," said Taraknath Mondal, former employee of India Machinery.
The residents of Howrah Town have become habituated to crimes such as murder, extortion, snatching and other gang wars. Notorious criminal Ramua alias Madrasi Ramua, against whom cases such as extortion and murder are pending, hails from Shibpur. He is regularly seen near Shibpur police station but has not yet been arrested by the police, local residents allege. The Howrah Police have to frequently seek help from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to solve local criminal cases. When Yash Lakhotia, a schoolboy, was kidnapped and murdered, it was the CID that arrested the prime accused. Opposition parties have raised these issues before the Howrah SP several times.
"The inefficiency of Howrah police is not a new phenomenon. For a long time there has been a nexus between a section of the local police and criminals. The police have understood very well that if they can please the CPI(M) leaders then their promotions and postings will not be affected. It is the common people who suffer in Howrah," said Arup Roy, local Trinamool leader.
In terms of area of jurisdiction, Howrah Municipal Corporation (HMC) is the second biggest civic body in Bengal. But as far as civic facilities are concerned, allegations are all that are hurled by citizens and tax-payers. A vast portion of north Howrah and six wards have been added to the HMC area. But persisting civic problems in these areas have not been taken care of. During monsoon, the roads at Pilkhana and its surrounding areas get inundated and sewerage from the drains flow into the streets. The muck flows into houses. People who live in the added areas have to use boats during monsoon. The situation has not changed over the years.
An important part of greater Howrah is Bally. The small town, with its own municipality, houses the famous Belur Math, a favourite destination of tourists and pilgrims. Bally also boasts Asia's largest scrap-iron market, the Bujrangbali market, which is Asia's biggest. But the area is a free zone for local criminals and gangs from other states. "Bally became famous because of the Bally Co-Operative bank scam four years ago. Thousands of customers lost their money," said Bhaskargopal Chatterjee, a Trinamool worker. "The same thing happened at Ramkrishnapur Co-Operative bank in central Howrah."
Mongola Haat, a weekly market on Bankim Setu where traders from all over the state come to do business, also remains a picture of neglect. HMC has done nothing to develop the market, local traders allege.
Across the river to the west lies a town in darkness!