Kolkata’s gold hub residents reduced to refugees after Metro work leads to building collapse
As the third house at Bowbazar, the oldest part of 300-year-old Kolkata, came crashing on Durga Pituri Lane on Tuesday morning, Namita Baral (59) stared blankly at the labyrinth of narrow lanes leading towards her home at the adjacent Sakharipara Lane.
“I heard from people that a part of the roof of our three-storeyed house has collapsed. We are doomed,” muttered her 69-year-old husband Kesto Baral.
There has been no loss of life due to the incident but the residents of a roughly 300 square metre pocket in Bowbazar are living like refugees in a war zone since August 31, when the tunnel boring machine of the Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (KMRCL), which is working on the East-West Metro project, accidentally hit an aquifer beneath the affected zone.
Water and sludge started to gush into the tunnel, gaps developed in the layer of soil above it and tremors hit the surface. The houses in that area which suffered severe damage are old, stand dangerously close to each other and some even share common outer walls. The railway authorities stopped work and moved 254 residents to nearby hotels on Saturday evening. Till Tuesday evening, around 375 people had to evacuate.
East-West Metro will connect Howrah to Salt Lake. A part of the tunnel runs beneath the Hooghly river, a first of its kind in the country.However,the residents of Bowbazar which happens to be the gold and jewellery hub of Kolkata, are currently unimpressed with the marvels of engineering.
“I am undergoing treatment for a fracture in my back. I am in extreme pain. All my medicines and medical reports are lying in the house,” said 51-year-old, Mamata Sen who is wearing the same saree since August 27 when her family of seven members were hurriedly moved to a hotel.
The matter reached the court on Tuesday. While hearing a petition, the Calcutta High Court division bench of chief justice TBN Radhakrishnan and Arijit Banerjee directed KMRCL to stop the work immediately.
“The court said work cannot resume without leave of the court,” said Riju Ghosal, advocate for the petitioners.The court also said that people who have been shifted to hotels could enter their houses to retrieve valuables. “One member from each family, escorted by KMRCL personnel and police can enter and bring out valuables, the bench observed,” said Ghosal.
A day after visiting the spot, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee held a meeting with KMRCL and top government officials on Tuesday afternoon.
A house for a house and a shop for a shop were part of the rehabilitation package as discussed by Mamata Bannerjee. Proposals discussed at the meeting also included rebuilding these houses, repairing damaged ones, temporary accommodation, compensation for loss of income and lump sum payments.
While KMRCL authorities agreed upon the rest, they could not take any instant decision on the lump sum compensation of Rs 5 lakh that Mamata Banerjee proposed. “Both the state and KMRCL should pay Rs 5 lakh to each affected family,” said Banerjee. KMRCL managing director Manas Sarkar said the decision can be taken only by the company’s board of directors.
The chief minister also announced building a committee comprising state and KMRCL officials and representatives of the affected families.The project was supposed to be completed in 2021. The KMRCL MD said it might be pushed back by a year or more. He said experts would be brought in from Singapore and Hong Kong. He pointed out that relaying the route was not feasible at this stage.
Describing the mishap as “unprecedented in the country,’’ Sarkar said KMRCL had taken adequate precaution before the boring had begun. “Soil tests were carried out in all layers at every 100 metre for six months. We prepared a 250 metre tunnel before reaching this spot,” said Sarkar.
Sarkar, while outlining the challenges, said that extracting the tunnel boring machine “is going to be extremely difficult.” “It’s an extremely congested area. We can’t take any machine there and can’t work from the surface,” said the KMRCL MD.