Updated: September 11, 2017 9:34:35 pm
The chaotic Kolkata traffic is known to be a hindrance to daily commuters and tourists for years now. Back in the mid twentieth century though, the haphazard and slow vehicular movement in the city came across as a major source of worry to the American military who had been stationed in Calcutta. Its constant struggle to manoeuvre while shifting across military supplies resulted in an organised traffic control system. A short film made in 1945 by the war department and army pictorial service signal corps, depicts in full detail the traffic control system inaugurated by the military police in Calcutta and the planning and regulation that went into ensuring its sustenance.
The China-Burma-Indian Theatre (CBI) was the designation of the United States military for the Chinese and Southeast Asian war zones during the Second World War. In the early 1940s, the United States made up its mind to support the Chinese in their war against Japan. Accordingly, military supplies to China was a priority to the Allied forces. In order to facilitate the movement of supplies from Calcutta, where American ships ported, to China, the Allied forces had to build the Ledo road, since the alternative means of transport had been cut down by the Japanese.
The video begins with a description of the kind of traffic issues the CBI theatre had to deal with in foreign countries. “In the CBI theatre the military police were faced with two kinds of traffic problems. Traffic through a tortuous, unexplored jungle, on a road still under construction, and street traffic in ancient foreign cities, not yet geared to the high speed of modern world. One such city is Calcutta, India, the metropolis of the Orient,” says the narrator as the short film begins.
Like most of the British reportage of that period, the tone of the narration in the video is expected one – of the uncivilised East, in desperate need of governance of the West. “Its native population, their customs, their very religions were set to a tempo much too slow for the swift efficiency of a modern army,” says the narrator.
He then goes on to explain in intricate details, the precise measures undertaken to deal with the problem of traffic control, which was necessary for the American supplies to reach their destination in the quickest possible way. As per the order of the base section commanding general, it was necessary to “apply modern principles of traffic management to a city not even accustomed to walking on sidewalks.” Accordingly, the military police first did a recce of the traffic situation in the city. Notes taken during the examination stage were then studied minutely by the military police of other areas. A fleet of radio patrol cars were then organised. These cars were then connected to each other for communication and thereafter they were kept in contact with the military police headquarters.
“A small fleet of radio cars can be as effective as a policeman on every corner,” explains the narrator. The American military police, the British police and the native police worked in close collaboration with each other in order to maintain effective traffic control. Further, the military police also went about creating a large number of attractive traffic signals, since the patrol cars could not be everywhere at all times.
The military police was then kept in close contact with the patrol cars and the supplies reached the docks using the most convenient route at a given point in time. Using visuals of snake charmers, bullock carts and rickshaws, images necessary to create the stereotype of an ancient uncivilised land, the film is an attempt by the British to showcase their contribution in pushing the transport situation in the East to become more modern and efficient as per the standards of the West.
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