Covered Drainage Brings New Life to Kolkata Street

Debika and her daughter.
Debika and her daughter.

By Karen Lane

The benefits of the box canal on Kalimarta Canal Road are multifold.

Kalimarta Canal Street is just less than 1 km long and about 9 m wide, but life for those living alongside it has become immeasurably happier and healthier in recent years.

Until 2011, the mostly wooden homes on either side of this road in Kalimarta District in southern Kolkata, India, were separated not by a tarmacked road but by an open canal with a narrow, slippery bankside track that regularly overflowed in the rainy season. The canal carried sewage and used water to the covered pipes at the end of the road, from where it went to a treatment plant to be ultimately disgorged—cleaner—into the nearby river.

Nowadays, the dirty water still flows, but through a so-called 4x3 m covered over ‘box canal’ with cement sides. With its new name, Kalimarta Canal Street runs over the top.

For Debika Das, who lives with her husband in the saffron-yellow cement home that her father–in-law bought over 40 years ago, that was a huge relief on a number of levels. She can now get into central Kolkata in about 45 minutes by walking down to the bigger Airport Road to catch a bus or rickshaw, instead of the 3 hours it takes to walk around the canal to the main road. The area is cleaner too; this is a boon for her two children, 10-year-old Ananya and 15-year old Anungo, who walk along the street to school and play on it once they are home.

“I’m much happier now because there is a road and I can easily get into town and to the hospital if I need to,” she explained. “Before we always had health problems, with mosquitos and constant flooding, and of course, a very bad odor.”

The health hazards of poor sanitation—hepatitis, typhoid, or gastroenteritis that can be fatal in small children, as well as mosquitos that spread a welter of diseases—and high subsequent healthcare costs are faced by thousands if not millions of people in India and developing countries around Asia. But they are perhaps most acute in the region’s many burgeoning cities like Kolkata, where water and sanitation systems are becoming overwhelmed.

ADB has been working since 2000 with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), which oversees the 200 km2 city of Kolkata and its 4.5 million people, to address the city’s human development and environmental health problems. Kalimarta Canal Street, for one, was made safe under the recently completed Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project that has built 378 km of sewers and drains, and desilted and lined nearly 140 km more. By KMC’s own reckoning, the city has 953 km of open drains and generates some 2,500 metric tons on average per day.

Under the ongoing Kolkata Environmental Improvement Investment Program and future projects, ADB and KMC continue to tackle these challenges. Plans include rehabilitating, expanding, and improving systems to cover the entire city with sewerage and drainage, and providing 24/7 water supply and end-to-end solid waste management services. KMC is also turning into a smart and resilient city by mapping its utilities and properties, introducing digital monitoring of water supply, and installing flood forecasting and early flood warning systems so residents like Devika don't have to worry and can be alerted in case of imminent flooding.

The benefits of the box canal on Kalimarta Canal Road are multifold. Even in the early evening when we visited, men, women, and children were wandering up and down to chat or pick up snacks at Krishna’s minimart, get pampered at Shreya’s beauty parlor, or log on to the internet at Rai’s stationary shop, all clustered at one end of the street.

Halfway down the road, 67-year-old Baidh Nath Ghosh was perched on a stool behind the counter of his hardware store, shooting the breeze with his 7-year-old grandson Sumudip.

“After the road was done, I opened the business,” he said, surrounded by brightly colored brooms, shiny taps, coiled ropes, and much more. “There is lots of passing trade. I’m retired but my business is bringing in a bit of money to help my son and his family who also live here.”

Having better access with the new road has pushed up the price of housing some five times – a windfall for those who put up with poor living conditions for years. But it’s not just having more space and cleaner environment; the neighborhood, with its many homes and business as well as families out and about, is now a bustling community.