Kolkata set for 'London Eye' in major facelift

2nd August 2011, Comments 0 comments

The local government in Kolkata, once capital of British India, is to kick off plans Tuesday to transform the congested city into a "second London" replete with a London Eye ferris wheel.

Mamata Banerjee, the feisty newly elected chief minister of the state of West Bengal, made an election pledge to transform the dysfunctional and poverty-stricken Indian metropolis into a world class city.

"Kolkata was the second city of the British empire. Why can't our Kolkata be a second London?" Banerjee told AFP ahead of the official ceremony launching the project later on Tuesday.

The planned facelift marks the first major urban renewal effort in the state by Banerjee, who became known as "the giant killer" after toppling the world's longest-serving communist government in West Bengal in May.

The bustling metropolis of 15 million, whose name was officially changed in 2001 from Calcutta, was a cluster of villages on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River before it became the capital of British India.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Kolkata had become one of the world's wealthiest cities, leading to a building spree that left a rich architectural heritage.

Many parts of the city, particularly the Maidan that was inspired by Hyde Park and the centre where the large administrative buildings are located, closely resemble the British capital.

A huge memorial to Queen Victoria remains a city centrepiece and tourist attraction to this day.

But after decades of under-investment and neglect, the walls of many buildings are crumbling and the grandeur of the city has long faded in the fierce local climate of heat, humidity and heavy rains.

Banerjee's transformation will focus on the waterfront along the Hooghly River, which cuts Kolkata off from its twin city, Howrah, once known as the "Sheffield of the East," a reference to the one-time British manufacturing hub.

A "Kolkata Eye" inspired by the London Eye will be built so that visitors can get a bird's-eye-view of the city as well as the river from rotating capsules, Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee told AFP.

Rows of dilapidated warehouses, most built in the colonial era, line the riverfront of the Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges.

"We have plans to transform the riverfront into a heritage cultural zone as part of the project to beautify Kolkata along the lines of London," Chatterjee said.

"There will be landscaped paths, places for meditation, food outlets, parks and an art gallery and museum on the 12-kilometre (7.5 mile) stretch from north to south where the river widens," said Chatterjee.

He said city officials were aiming to complete the work by January 2013.

The pavements will be made of herring-bone bricks similar to those used along London's Thames river front and lamp posts on the pavements will be replaced with ones resembling those that existed during the colonial era.

The government has also banned billboards around heritage structures to restore a colonial look to the city's centre.

The British capital in India moved from Kolkata to New Delhi in 1911.

© 2011 AFP

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