Kolkata set for 'London Eye' in major facelift
Kolkata, once capital of British India, on Tuesday began work to transform the congested and fading city into a "second London" complete with a London Eye ferris wheel.
Mamata Banerjee, the feisty new chief minister of the state of West Bengal, made an election pledge to turn the dysfunctional and poverty-stricken Indian metropolis into a world-class city.
The planned facelift marks the first major urban renewal effort in the state by Banerjee, who became known as "the giant killer" after she ended 34 years of uninterrupted Communist rule in West Bengal in May.
"My dream is to beautify the 10-kilometre riverfront of the city of Kolkata on the lines of London," Banerjee said as she laid the foundation stone of her project at the city's Millennium Park, on the banks of the river Hooghly.
"Never say no. Let us try for a better tomorrow for our city. The project will be green and environmentally-friendly," she said to hundreds of onlookers.
Kolkata, a bustling metropolis of 15 million people, whose name was officially changed from Calcutta in 2001, began as a cluster of villages on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River and grew into the capital of the British Raj.
Towards the end of the 19th century, it was one of the world's wealthiest cities, leading to a building spree that left a rich legacy of grand colonial buildings.
The architecture in many parts of the city, particularly around the central Maidan, which was inspired by Hyde Park, resembles 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, Kolkata's infrastructure is crumbling and the city's grandeur faded long ago in the fierce climate of heat, humidity and monsoon rains.
The British moved their capital in India from Kolkata to New Delhi in 1911.
Banerjee's transformation will initially focus on the scruffy waterfront along the Hooghly, which separates Kolkata 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 later be built to give visitors a bird's eye view of the city and river, Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee told AFP.
"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."
He said city officials were aiming to complete the work by January 2013.
The pavements will be made of herring-bone bricks and lamp posts will be replaced with ones resembling those used during the colonial era.
The government has also banned billboards around heritage structures to restore a colonial look to the city centre.
"It's a challenge to dream of such a project. But we are determined to make it a reality," Banerjee added on Tuesday.
The mercurial local leader, known for her feisty rhetoric and spartan lifestyle, has other ambitious plans for parts of West Bengal and critics accuse her of making exaggerated promises that can never be fulfilled.
Touring the tea-growing northern area of Darjeeling in the run-up to the local election in May, she promised to turn the impoverished region into the Switzerland of India.
© 2011 AFP