Vanishing Parking

Pradeep Gooptu

Our parking spaces are gone! This problem is making self-drive motoring in the city a nightmare. A look at New Market will prove the case in point.

A Saturday visit to New Market in the family car was till recently the favourite outing of thousands of families. Access was easy and it was the only market that offered abundant parking. How times have changed! This article records the loss of parking spaces in the city only to highlight the need to restore them.

Today, thousands of illegal businesses and hawkers have seized complete control of Calcutta’s parking spaces. If anybody is foolish enough to park near New Market, the car is soon covered with hawkers’ goods and a confrontation is inevitable.

Car owners pay huge purchase and user taxes, but conveniences are vanishing. Our historic parking zones are under illegal hawkers who cheat the government of hundreds of crores of revenue as they are outside any tax net.

Let us look at New Market as a test case.

A motorist’s delight
Set up in stages from 1874, the S S Hogg Market, or New Market, was the first western-style planned mart in Asia with separate parking zones for horses, carriages and animal-drawn goods carriers. The whole area was transformed by such novel planning. In 1903, the grand heritage building in the centre was renamed after Stuart Hogg, the head of the city municipality.

The government recognized the importance of motor cars for the success of the market. With time, parking zones were reassigned. The area for horse or animal-driven carriers was moved away and the grand square in front and the street on the west was reserved for cars. As the 1920s lead picture in this article shows, parking was a breeze. We see a Baby Austin and several expensive luxury cars parked outside.

1930s
The 1930s picture, taken at a time when the country (and the world) was going through a huge economic crisis, shows a busy New Market. Many cars are parked in front of the market building while other cars crowd the market portico. One can detect some of the staff that made the market special: its dedicated team of shopping coolies that only New Market offered.

While most of the cars are tourers (open cars with canvas tops), we see quite a few large luxury vehicles jostling for space with smaller wheels.

Wartime woes
By the 1940s, the overall situation in Calcutta and Bengal had turned quite critical. There was widespread disruption caused by the Second World War. The picture from that era reveals a parking lot crowded with US Army trucks and jeeps, with only a few private cars. However, there is no shortage of people and shoppers, and nor of any parking for cars!

The entire nature of car usage had changed at those troubled times. Petrol was rationed so general car usage was limited. Everything had to make way for American army vehicles as a huge regiment of US GIs were fighting the Japanese invasion of north east India, with Kolkata as the base. Incidentally, Red Road was redeveloped at this time as an airstrip to enable US and British Air Force planes to land and take-off, refuel and be serviced!

The 1950s and ‘60s
The rise of populist policies and corruption in public life that pushed West Bengal into a decline was still some way off. This period was according to many the best years, offering ease of living, great shopping and a happening night life. Then still, parking was not a problem.

As the 1950s picture shows us, Hogg Market was significantly full of foreign cars belonging to shoppers. Car ownership had expanded rapidly and the market needed two rows of parking for the first time in its history. Besides the usual Austin and other English cars we can detect a luxury American sedan. By this time complaints had started about how the double row parking had reduced the driving area available.

By the 1960s, the same parking lot was dominated by HM Ambassadors. Another interesting point was the complete disappearance of open touring car bodies; all the cars were closed sedans.

The real lesson
At present, the situation in New Market is that all the existing parking infrastructure has been seized by illegal hawkers while the mechanized car park under the square is of no help either. As a result, buyers have to park on Chowringhee Road and make a hazardous road crossing to shop. The magic of New Market and it’s stylish parking facilities appear to have been destroyed and this cannot be good news for anybody—not for the car owner and definitely not for the government as the tax-evading class appears to be thriving at the cost of the honest tax-paying car-owning public.

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