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A Flashback: The Seamless Bonds of Time
The end of the 17th Century Kolkata witnessed the gradual emergence of the city of Kolkata brought about by the merger of three villages - Kolkata, Sutanati & Gobindapur, on the eastern bank of the river Hooghly, the other name of River 'Ganga'. On the western bank, Howrah came up as a bustling site of commerce.
The twin cities of Calcutta (re-named as Kolkata in the year 2001), and Howrah , were separated by the River Hooghly, and shared a common historical linkage towards the eventual construction of the Rabindra Setu, more commonly known as Howrah bridge. While Kolkata, from a small sleeping hamlet of artisans and mercantile community eventually developed , as a commercial hub of a modern metropolitan city , Howrah (virtually the store house of raw material resources) became its industrial satellite.
Kolkata was declared the capital of India by the British and remained so till 1911. The railway station at Howrah set up in the year 1906 and the bridge (later popularly known as Howrah Bridge) thus served as the logistic link with the country's one of the oldest metropolies, Kolkata. The Legislative department of the then Government of Bengal passed the Howrah Bridge Act, in the year 1871, under the Bengal Act IX of 1871.
Sir Bradford Leslie's famous floating pontoon bridge, the earlier avatar of the modern Howrah Bridge, was initially set up in 1874, almost coinciding with the establishment of the port of Calcutta in 1870 (www.kolkataporttrust.gov.in).
For the convenient plying of passenger and vehicular traffic, the pool was connected as a whole. However, this was unfastened everyday, particularly during the night for safe passage of steamers, boats and other marine vehicles. From 19th August, 1879, the bridge was illuminated by fixing electric poles at the centre.This was done by using the electricity rendered from the dynamo at the Mallick GhatPumping Station. The Bridge was then 1528 ft. long and 62 ft. wide. On both sideswere pavements 7 ft. wide for the sake of pedestrians. The 48 ft. road in between,was for plying of traffic."
The emergence of Kolkata as the political capital of the nation and expanding volume of merchandise routed through the port of Kolkata had a synergistic effect on the commercial importance of the bridge. The location of the initial pontoon bridge, was around 100 yards down-stream of the present Howrah Bridge (renamed as Rabindra Setu in the year 1965) after Rabindranath Tagore, the philosopher - bard and one of the most important nineteenth century renaissance personalities to leave a lasting impression on modern India.
The Early Initiatives
The newly appointed Port Commissioners in 1871 were also appointed Bridge Commissioners and were enjoined to take charge of the structure . The Commissioners took over the management of the Howrah Bridge in February, 1875. Since the early part of the 20th Century, the bridge showed signs of duress for catering to the increased traffic load. The Commissioners of Port of Calcutta instituted a Committee under the convenorship of Mr. John Scott, the then Chief Engineer of the Port. The other members included Mr. R.S. Highet, Chief Engineer, East Indian Railway and Mr. W.B. MacCabe Chief Engineer, Calcutta Corporation.
The telling observations made by the Committee make a fascinating reading even today. The committee observed that "bullock carts formed the eight - thirteenths of the vehicular traffic (as observed on 27th of August 1906, the heaviest day's traffic observed in the port of Commissioners" 16 day's Census of the vehicular traffic across the existing bridge). The road way on the existing bridge is 48 feet wide except at the shore spans where it is only 43 feet in road ways, each 21 feet 6 inches wide. The roadway on the new bridge would be wide enough to take at least two lines of vehicular traffic and one line of trams in each direction and two roadways each 30 feet wide, giving a total width of 60 feet of road way which are quite sufficient for this purpose.................... The traffic across the existing floating bridge Calcutta & Howrah is very heavy and it is obvious if the new bridge is to be on the same site as the existing bridge, then unless a temporary bridge is provided, there will be serious interruptions to the traffic while existing bridge is being moved to one side to allow the new bridge to be erected on the same site as the present bridge".
(Source : Adapted from the Resolution adopted by the Commissioner's of Port of Calcutta).
The Options at Hand
The committee explored six major options viz:-
a) Large ferry steamers capable of taking vehicular traffic (One time set up cost Rs. 29 lakhs, annual cost: Rs. 4.37 lakhs).
b) A transporters bridge [One time set up cost Rs. 20 lakhs]
c) A tunnel [one time set up cost Rs. 3382.58 lakhs, annual cost: Rs. 17.79 lakhs]
d) A bridge on piers (One time setup cost: Rs. 225 lakhs)
e) A floating bridge (One time cost: Rs. 21.40 lakhs; annual maintenance cost: Rs. 2 lakhs).
f) An arched bridge (Cost to be ascertained).
The committee, after considering the financial aspects and traffic potential, zeroed in on installation of some form or other of a floating bridge. It decided to call for tenders from 23 firms for design and construction of the new bridge. A prize of money £ 3,000 (Rs. 45,000, at the then exchange rate) was earmarked for the firm whose design would be accepted.
The Aborted Attempt
The construction of the bridge, in spite of an early and well meaning effort, had to be postponed because of outbreak of the First World War (1914 - 1919 ). The bridge was partially renewed in the years 1917 and 1927.
The Renewed Efforts: Small Steps Towards the Final Grail
1921 : A committee of Engineers, named the 'Mukherjee Committee', was formed, comprising Sir R.N. Mukherjee, Industrialist, Sir Clement Hindley, Chairman of Calcutta Port Trust and Mr. J. McGlashan, Chief Engineer.
1922 : (New) Howrah Bridge Commissioners to the Government of Bengal was set up. Mukherjee Committee submitted its report.
1926 : New Howrah Bridge Act. passed. The Commissioners for the Port of Calcutta, for the time being, were made the Commisioners for the new bridge
1929: M/s. Rendel, Palmer and Tritton submitted their report and alternative estimates for a cantilever and a floating bridge were drawn up.
1930 : A committee (Goode Committee) comprising Mr. S.W. Goode, C.I.E, I.C.S., as President, Mr. S.N. Mallick, C.I.E. and Mr. W.H. Thompson, M.L.C. was constituted to investigate and report on the advisability of constructing a pier bridge between Calcutta and Howrah.
1930: Report submitted by the officiating Chief Engineer to the Chairman, Calcutta Port Commissioners. He recommended that M/s. Rendel, Palmer and Tritton be asked to consider the construction of a 'Suspension' bridge and attached the plan of a suggested type of suspension bridge prepared by Mr. Walton, Chief Draftsman.
1935: New Howrah Bridge Act. amended
The Renewed Start
M/s. Rendel, Palmer and Tritton submitted their report including the design and drawing of the bridge. The construction of the bridge was awarded to a British firm viz. Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Ltd. on the basis of a global tender invited during 1934-35. The construction of the new bridge commenced in 1936 under the supervision of the Howrah Bridge Commissioners under the aegis of the then Commissioners of the port of Calcutta.
The Impending War Clouds
The Second World War was looming large and the bridge was constructed under the tense and formidable war pressures. It was completed in 1942 and opened to public in February 1943.
The Final Deliverance : The New Structural Wonder
The new Howrah Bridge, the fourth cantilever bridge in the world, was commissioned (under the aegis of the then commissioners of the Port of Calcutta) in February 1943. It consumed 26,500 tons of steel and was constructed at an approximate cost of Rs. 250 lakhs. No incidents of major casualty were reported during the construction phase of the bridge.
Brief Technical Parameters of the Bridge
Rabindra Setu is a suspension type balanced cantilever bridge with central span1500 ft. between centers of main towers. The Anchor arms are 325ft. and the Cantilever arms are 468 ft. long at both ends. While the middle suspended span is 564 ft., main towers are 280 ft. high above the monoliths and 76 ft. apart at the top Bridge deck width is 71 ft. with two footpaths of 15 ft. on either side.
All members of the super structure comprise built-up reverted sections with a combination of high tensile and mild steel. Between towers, bridge deck hangs from panel points in the lower chord of the main trusses with a series of hangers (39 pairs). Roadway beyond the towers is supported on ground leaving anchor arm free from deck loads. Bridge deck comprises 71 ft. carriageway and 15 ft. footway, projecting either side of the trusses and braced by longitudinal facia girder.
Maintenance & Repair : Living up to Future Expectations.
Since inception, Kolkata Port Trust is the custodian of the bridge, responsible for carrying out elaborate maintenance and repair works needed for refurbishment/restoration of distressed components etc. All these years, it has withstood the unprecedented changes in the mode of transportation and traffic density and silently borne the ravages of time. Yet it has successfully stood the test, remaining as functional and reliable as ever.
The City of Joy and the Rabindra Setu : A Saga of Shared History
The New Howrah Bridge, which in itself is a structural marvel, and considered one of the wonders of the world is of immense heritage value. True to Joseph Jonhert's observation, " The monuments are the grappling irons that bind one generation to another ". It has been binding different generations of people crossing the bridge and has stoically borne the weight of nearly a lakh of vehicles and innumerable pedestrians crossing it daily, thus registering itself as one of the busiest bridges in the world. For more than sixty years now, it has come to be recognised as the living symbol of the city of Kolkata, sharing a totemic relationship with its growth and evolution. It has become the 'Gateway of Kolkata', the veritable 'city of joy'. The city of Kolkata with a strong socio-cultural and historical moorings is but a fitting citadel to cradle this technological marvel for present & future generations, including engineers, architects, city planners & other professionals from diverse walks of life to marvel and appreciate this superb work of craftsmanship. The city, justly sharing the epithet of 'Cultural' capital of the country, apart from nurturing the flame of the eighteenth century renaissance in the whole country, has provided the intellectual stimulation for such savants from the scientific, literacy & cultural circuits viz. Acharya Satyendranath Bose, Acharya Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay, Satyajit Roy etal who had trodden the world stage as colossuses.
The city is directly associated with the life and works of Nobel laureates viz. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1913), Dr. C.V. Raman (1930), Mother Teresa (1979) and Prof. Dr. Amartya Sen (1998).
The city has the oldest major port of India (Port of Calcutta - 1870) and the first underground railways in 1984 apart from housing the largest library (The National Library) and Museum (The Indian Museum etc.)
The New Howrah Bridge was re-christened as the Rabindra Setu in the year 1965, in the honour of the country's first Nobel laureate Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore. The city of Calcutta was renamed as 'Kolkata' in the year 2001.
With the phenomenal increase in city traffic and to partially release the pressures of the Rabinda Setu, the largest cable stayed bridge (in Asia) over the River Hooghly was constructed by a consortium of Indian P.S.U. and private firm under the consultancy of S&P Germany & FFP of UK. The Bridge was commissioned in the year 1992 under the aegis of Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners. This bridge was christened "Vidya Sagar Setu", after the country's greatest educationist-reformer and freedom fighter, Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar.