For days after the Majherhat bridge collapse, 17-year-old Mampi Das took to sleeping under the open sky on a footpath, instead of her usual spot beneath the Bijan Setu flyover. But she returned soon. Between the pillars that carry Kolkata’s traffic, is the space she calls “home”.
Worry, however, can be seen across her face — will death come in the form of falling chunks of concrete and steel or will the government evict her family?
Bijan Setu is one of the seven “most vulnerable” bridges in Kolkata, identified as needing urgent repair. Gouribari Aurobindo Setu, Belgachia bridge, Tollygunge Circular Road bridge, Dhakuria bridge, Tallah bridge and Santragachi bridge are the others.
The people who dwell beneath these bridges are now worried about the prospect of eviction. While some shop vendors and dwellers are demanding that alternative arrangements be made, others are ready to move temporarily — but only after the festive season.
Mampi Das, the eldest of five children, has lived under the Bijan Setu flyover for over eight years. She said her father runs a small paan shop with the help of her mother Gita. The family’s monthly income is around Rs 3,000, and this too is not fixed.
“When you don’t have any options, you adjust… When the Vivekananda flyover collapsed, we felt it was unfortunate and criticised how under-construction bridges are collapsing. We also felt luckier that the older flyovers and bridges seemed strong enough to stand against rain, thunderstorms and heavy loads. Now that the Majherhat bridge too has collapsed, we have lost all hope,” Mampi said.
For 58-year-old Lakshmi Pramanik, the space beneath the Bijan Setu flyover serves as both her living quarters and workspace.
“The pillars of the flyover are my cloth hangers. I had come here about 40 years ago. My husband was a biri seller. He also helped in the construction of the flyover, following which he set up his shop beneath it. Now that my husband is no more, this shop is my everything. I have four daughters. Three are married while we are looking for a groom for my fourth. For many people, the flyover is just for commuting from one place to another. For me, it is my lifeline, my home, my office and everything. I earn from this shop and pay monthly EMI for loans that I had taken for my daughter’s marriage. If the government wants me to vacate this place, they have to arrange for an alternative so that we have a place to stay in and a shop to earn with,” she said.
Another flourishing area situated beneath a flyover is the Sealdah market, also known as the ‘Sisir market’. Situated beneath the Sealdah bridge, the market has been flourishing in Kolkata since the 1980s. For the PWD, this has now come in the way of survey and repair work.
“Below the flyover, you will see many stalls that are impediments to regular inspections,” said a PWD source.
He said options are being explored so shopkeepers can be shifted to another location until restoration work is finished. “Sealdah bridge is a crucial one in the city and it requires immediate repair,” said the official.
However, unlike the people residing beneath other “unsafe” flyovers, the vendors of Sealdah market say they are confident about the structure.
“Death is unpredictable. We have never felt unsafe in that sense and have been doing our business 24×7,” said Sourav Das, a vendor.
Agreeing with him, another vendor said, “Now that the (Majherhat) bridge has collapsed, government agencies, media and everyone are active. After a few months, everyone will forget and we will continue running our shops. No one can escape death but if the government wants us to leave this place, we won’t do that so easily.”
Meanwhile, the Sealdah Market Merchant’s Association, a body comprised of vendors in the area, said it has agreed to shift temporarily to another area, but only after the festive season is over.
“We have been told that for repair work, workshops will be shifted on a temporary basis. Sisir Market is divided into five blocks. So, when one block will be repaired, the shopkeepers of that block will be shifted to another place inside Sealdah Market only. We have requested KMC to initiate repair work after Kali Puja is over. The festive season is boom time for us. We are ready to follow instructions of the corporation and administration, but only if they postpone it till pujas are over,” said association general secretary Biswajit Choudhury.
When contacted, MIC (Market) of Kolkata Municipal Corporation Amiruddin Bobby told The Indian Express, “We already held a meeting with all agency and police regarding Sealdah Market. Yes, the festive season is around but it is far too serious a matter and we cannot take the risk. If the PWD requires, we will make a temporary arrangement. Accidents are never planned, hence, we cannot delay repair work.”
Following the collapse, which killed three and wounded over 25 persons, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said that 20 major bridges across the state — including seven major ones in Kolkata — have expired and might be dangerous. Speaking to mediapersons after a meeting with Public Works Department, Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) and Kolkata Police officials at the state secretariat Nabanna on Thursday, she had stated: “Twenty bridges of the state including seven major bridges in Kolkata… have expired. They will be repaired soon and a detailed report has been sought on the work needed.”
Not all people live and set up shop under flyovers illegally. Sources said a number of settlements are RPH (Record Permit Holder) and pay rent to the KMC.