Ever since "Calcutta port" was established in 1870 it has, like all river ports, been gradually making its way to the sea. Thus Satgaon yielded to nearby Hugli (Portuguese), Chinsura (Dutch) and Chandernagore (French), and Calcutta (British) to Haldia in more recent times.
Reduced drafts with shrinking upland flows and the ever-growing size of vessels have dictated this migration. The Farakka Barrage, commissioned in 1975, offered a useful but no more than an interim solution.
The Calcutta Port Trust has now determined on a two-step move to the ocean with the development of Saugor, at the head of the Hooghly estuary 145 km below Calcutta (but above Tamluk of yore), and Sandheads, a further 84 km away in the Bay.
Calcutta Port will not die. It will be reborn. It will actually handle far more traffic and generate a great deal more employment than at present as a vibrant poly-nodal inland water port and redistributive centre.
This will enable it to reclaim its lost role as an engine of growth for a vast hinterland embracing eastern and northeastern India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. It will remain the "mother port" managing the Calcutta Docks, the Haldia Docks, the Saugor anchorage and Sandheads.
Figures tell their own story. In 2003-04, the Calcutta and Haldia Docks handled 8.7 m.t and 37.7 m.t of traffic respectively. Drafts are currently 7 metres in Calcutta, 8.5 metres in Haldia, 10.5 metres (going up to 12.5 metres with dredging) at the Saugor anchorage (which has been in use since 1950), and 50 metres at Sandheads.
By 2007, it is estimated that Saugor on Sagar Island will be connected to the mainland by a rail-road bridge and will handle around 46 m.t of traffic with the commissioning of three virtual floating jetties. With the completion of full-fledged cargo-handling facilities in 2011-12, Saugor is expected to handle 64 m.t of cargo as against 65 m.t by Haldia Docks and 20 m.t by Calcutta Docks.
The Sandheads bouy(s) will be supported by a floating terminal and will have the capability to go beyond oil pumping to handling containers, as Saugor is already doing. These containers will move up and down the river to Haldia and Calcutta by barge.
In the fair weather of 2004, Sandheads handled a 484,276 DWT vessel, one of the largest in the world, a feat not equalled by any other Indian port. Its floating dock will in future enable it to handle containers that could move by barge up the Hooghly-Ganga and the Brahmaputra, with Calcutta becoming a nodal IWT hub.
Port development, under the National Maritime Development Programme (earlier named Sagarmala), and IWT are both being granted incentives and subsidies for selective privatisation and public-private partnership as well as fleet, HRD and infrastructure development.
A number of private container jetties and wharves have come up, some of them for new products such as fly ash, which has found a growing market in Bangladesh.
If Calcutta Port made Calcutta, its re-engineering as a great, revivified ocean-cum-inland port from Farakka to Sandheads has the potential to transform a decaying city into a truly born-again, happening metropolis. Herein lie a huge challenge and opportunity.
The Calcutta Port Trust "owns" the river and a lot of prized waterfront all the way from Farakka to Sandheads. The defence ministry (owner of the Calcutta maidan) and the Railways are two other large landlords.
A lot of derelict and dying jute and engineering works and warehouses are strung out along the river. As an "ocean port", Calcutta has had to handle and move 7-8 m.t of cargo through the heart of the city, clogging the roads, adding noise, squalor and pollution and degrading the quality of life.
Think what a quadrupling of cargo loads over the next 20 years would do to the city on a business-as-usual scenario. Calcutta could be ripped apart.
All this obviously can and must change. But it is not a task that can be left exclusively to the Port Trust. Redesigning Calcutta will affect transportation patterns, land use, redevelopment of derelict or to-be-vacated sites, public housing, new zoning regulations for multiple new IWT jetties, environmental controls, new commercial hubs, waterfront development, water supply, sewerage and a host of services.
Several local authorities, state and central government departments, town planners, architects, utilities, trade unions, shipping and business interests, environmental and cultural agencies and real estate interests will be among the stakeholders.
There will be need for detailed planning, wide consultation and consensus-building. Tricky issues of heritage, land acquisition and future land use could arise. The mess over Mumbai's sick mill lands should be a salutary warning.
All manner of speculators and vested interests will want to get into the act. In all of this the Port Trust will be literally completely at sea, despite its own important role.
A Calcutta port changeover from ocean to IWT carriage will also modify river- flushing requirements and "save" 20,000 to 25,000 cusecs of lean season water released into the Bhagirathi-Hooghly from the Farakka pond. How is this vitally scarce water resource going to be reassigned?
A unifocal approach will simply not work and haphazard development could lead to disaster. What therefore is required is some initial, wide-ranging brainstorming to lay out the issues and priorities. This should be followed by the constitution of a multi-disciplinary consultative body to formulate a blueprint.
This is a task in which the universities, Indian Institute of Management, Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), chambers, political parties and eminent citizens could be usefully engaged. Media support will keep everybody informed and provide feedback loops.
That Calcutta Port is absent-mindedly in the process of virtually reinventing Calcutta city without anyone really knowing, caring or debating the options is amazing. It is typical of the kind of poor urban governance that prevails all over the country.
The Planning Commission too should get involved, as the trigger effect of redeveloping Calcutta and reviving the waterways will also impact on regional development. Calcutta has the largest hinterland of all ports in India, and much of it, as in Bihar and Jharkhand, is an extended slum.It takes a real leap of imagination and visionary zeal to build or rebuild a great city and social heritage. Calcutta has that opportunity. Seize it.