Drowning City: A Short History of Drainage and Waterlogging in Colonial Calcutta

by Tathagata Neogi

Waterlogged streets in Calcutta during World War II (Source: Imperial War Museum)

A couple of days ago a friend invited my wife and me for lunch at one of the elite clubs in Kolkata. We had to oblige the stringent dress code of the club and attend the lunch in full formal attire in the sweltering heat. While we were at lunch, the heavens opened and a torrential monsoon downpour lasted for more than 2 hours. When the rain stopped and we could leave the club, the main roads were waterlogged, alleys submerged, traffic stagnant. Unwilling to pay the skyrocketing Uber fare, we took the metro back half way, and then waded home through knee-deep water in our formal attire. It must have been quite a sight!

Waterlogged main road and sidewalk at Shimla, one of the older neighbourhoods of North Kolkata

Waterlogging is synonymous with the monsoon in Kolkata and many other major Indian cities. Having spent part of my childhood and my college life in Kolkata, waterlogging and related disruptions have become common features of my monsoon experience. While the municipal authorities are working to prevent this predicament by installing pumps and facilitating better drainage, waterlogging continues to affect the older quarters in north, central and south Kolkata. In this post I explore the root of this by traveling back in time and tracing the history of drainage in the Second City of the (British) Empire.

Early drainage system and the problem of waterlogging

The area that is today known as Kolkata used to be a collection of fishing hamlets interspersed with forests, creeks and canals that connected the Hooghly River on the west with the Salt Lakes on the east. These creeks and canals served as the natural drainage system for both rainwater and sewage, which were carried east following the natural incline of the land and deposited in the Salt Lakes. The excess rainwater and sewage were then carried away to the sea by the tides. Apart from the creeks and canals, a large number of tanks in each hamlet collected and stored the excess rainwater, preventing large-scale flooding in the area.

Portion of a 1756 map of Calcutta (east on top) showing a number of tanks in the neighbourhood of the old Fort William, the centre of East India Company’s settlement. (Source:“Plan for the intelligence of the military operations at Calcutta, when Attacked and Taken by Seerajah Dowlet, 1756,” a map by John Call and J. Cheevers, London, 1756; from Columbia University)

The densely populated areas on the river bank — especially the markets of Barabazar and along the old pilgrims’ way in Chitpore — saw occasional flooding. The fledgling English settlement around the Great Tank (in what is now central Kolkata) also experienced some inundation, leading to deadly bouts of malaria and cholera. However, the presence of the creeks and canals ensured the swift drainage of floodwater out of the city and into the Salt Lakes. However, with the rapid and unplanned growth of the city in the 18th century, especially after the East India Company’s decisive victory at Plassey in 1757, many tanks and creeks were filled in. Newly devoid of a natural drainage route, waterlogging became a major urban problem. Apart from the discomfort, it brought with it more deadly epidemics of cholera, dysentery and malaria, which especially affected the more densely populated “native” quarters of the town in North Kolkata. To address this issue, the small and cash-strapped Calcutta Government excavated some rudimentary narrow sewers to drain sewage and rainwater to the Hooghly River. This plan was ill-conceived, as the flow was against the natural eastward slope of the city, and it led to more stagnation of filth and rainwater during the monsoon.

A portion of an 1849 survey map of Calcutta (east on top) shows that apart from the Great (Loll) Tank, most other tanks seen in this neighbourhood on the 1756 map, have vanished and were replaced by office or domestic buildings and warehouses. (Source: Map of Calcutta from actual survey in the years 1847–1849 by Simms, Thuillier, Smyth and Walker; Library of Congress)

Wellesley’s Report and the Improvement Committee

In 1803, Lord Wellesley, the then-Governor General of Brit