Monday, March 31, 2008

Kolkata Transport

While Kolkata (previously called Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal is renowned for communism and culture, it's also rather infamous for the congestion on its streets.

Besides the usual personal vehicles, there are many modes of public transport available for those traveling within Kolkata. These are so integral to the city that filmmakers and writers setting their stories in Kolkata have immortalized them in their creations. Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’, Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’, Mani Rathnam’s ‘Yuva’ (Hindi)/’Aydha Yezhuthu (Tamil) are only some examples.

Here’s a quick run-through on public transport options ranging from the humble rickshaw to the very modern Metro underground railway network.


There’s a disturbing scene in Bimal Roy’s classic film, ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ (1953), where an emaciated peasant-turned-rickshaw puller is forced to race with another on the streets of Kolkata. The patrons in their respective rickshaws competitively spur their ‘human horses’ to run faster and faster.

Hand-pulled rickshaws have been officially banned despite protests by the Kolkata Rickshaw Pullers Union claiming that it is not more inhuman than some forms of manual labour. These rickshaws plied short distances, sometimes being the only means of transport during the monsoons. It was a chosen mode of transport for most school-going children.

The cycle rickshaw in Kolkata is very similar to its counterpart in other cities in India. It is less physically strenuous for the rickshaw-puller owing to the fact that it is pedaled, and sometimes, even motorized.

There are also auto-rickshaws (or autos as they are also called) that are motorized and completely hooded. They mostly follow a fixed route, but can make exceptions.


The yellow Kolkata taxi of the nostalgic variety is of the roomy Ambassador model of Hindustan Motors. The yellow taxi is permitted to travel anywhere within the state. There are also black taxis with yellow tops of the same Ambassador model allowed to ply only within Kolkata. While most taxis here run on petrol or diesel, some of the newer taxis run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). For those who would like to navigate the city in cool comfort, there are air-conditioned taxis called 'Blue Arrow's easily available.

While the taxis and auto-rickshaws run efficiently, the same can't be said about the fare meters that are invariably tampered.


Kolkata is the last of the Indian cities with a tram system intact. It is quaint, slow, charming and environment friendly. The city has seen the tram transform from the horse-drawn variety to the electric variety. While the trams and their tracks have changed little, the din of traffic along the tracks has become louder. The speed of the tram, however has thankfully remained unchanged in these frenzied times. The joke used to be that at any time during the tram ride, a commuter could step off the tram, head to a nearby shop, buy a cigarette, light it, take a few puffs and hoist himself back into the tram that would have moved a mere metre or two.


Taking a ferry is a smoother alternative to riding across the Howrah Bridge that is almost always crowded. Local ferries ply from the ghats (river banks) along the Hooghly river every 10 or15 minutes between Kolkata and Howrah.


Kolkata was the first city in India to have an underground rail system. It began operating in 1984, connecting the North and South of the city and continues to be clean and efficient. Like underground train networks the world over, some Kolkata Metro stations have artwork on their walls relating to Kolkata.

Other than these, there are the usual buses and an electrical suburban train network. As far as recreation is considered, one can hire horse-driven carriages and some boats on the river.

When it comes to public transport in Kolkata, nostalgia rubs shoulders with efficiency.

(An edited version was published in the April 2008 issue of 'At A Glance')

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