The smell of putrefaction all but assaulted Md Nasim as his four-wheeler was crossing the wholesale fish market in Howrah. The 34-year-old — a resident of Liluah in Howrah who&’s been working for the past five years as a software engineer in Mumbai — instantly covered his face with a handkerchief. “Nothing has changed since I left the city. The fish market was stinking then and is stinking now. These traders are so busy minting money that they don’t spare a thought for people who use this busy thoroughfare. Even the fish would hate the stink,” a disgusted Nasim was overheard telling a co-passenger as their vehicle sped off, leaving behind questions that demand answers.
While Nasim&’s use of a handkerchief is mandatory for not-so-frequent users of this thoroughfare, the locals have grown accustomed to the stench at this market that is a stone&’s throw from Howrah Station and which serves as a gateway to Kolkata&’s twin city since it is the arterial route used by devotees headed for the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission in Belur Math.
This market has been supplying quality fish to Bengali homes for more than a century and to understand the present turmoil it is important to know the history of the place. The Howrah wholesale fish market came into existence during the beginning of the 20th century when people from Kolkata and the nearby districts began to settle in Howrah because of its water link and proximity to the railway station. With fish obviously being most sought after in Bengali homes, traders sensed business opportunity and set up a wholesale fish market very close to the railway station since this took care of transportation to other states as well. The water connectivity was added incentive for their trade.
Slowly, business began to flourish and the place emerged as one of the largest fish markets in the country, with businessman flocking here in search of different varieties that were not available in their states. But while the market has been witness to several changes that have taken place over a century, its condition has remained unchanged. It continues to operate in a filthy environment, with no proper garbage disposal facility – which explains the miasma spawned by entrails and dirty water.
The traders are quick to concede that the unbearable stench has made them villains of the piece, that people blame them for the nuisance, but they say that such unhygienic conditions would not have prevailed had the administration been serious about them.
“Everybody points fingers at us for all the troubles arising from unhygienic conditions and the garbage issue but no one spares a thought that we too are human beings forced to survive in the most inhumane conditions,” says Sushant Bose, joint secretary of the Howrah Wholesale Fish Market Stall Owners’ Cooperative Society Limited.
Seated in the society&’s office, he says they have been cold shouldered by the authorities, with none of them showing any major interest in the market&’s revamp. Till 1975, he says, the market had been functioning under the control of a private landlord. Then the state government acquired the land for development under the Land Acquisition Act and entered into an agreement with the World Bank for a complete overhaul. Back then the land was acquired by the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority and it was decided to build a complex over an area of 48,000 square feet.
“The government promised to provide us with cold storage facilities, a parking zone, a mini ice factory and a vat for garbage disposal so the market would be kept neat and clean. A brick wall was to be erected to prevent theft and we were promised that the area would be kept clean to prevent the bad odour,” he says.
They were, he says, shown rosy dreams but nothing was done for the next 15 years, save for an “under construction building” that makes a mockery of the government&’s tall promises.
Bose pauses for a minute and asks for his wearable glasses to show me a detailed plan that had been chalked out by the development authority back then. “We were shifted to a nearby plot while construction was on. But we began to lose patience because nothing was accomplished even after nearly two decades of the land being acquired except for this under construction building from where we run the cooperative society office,” he says.
In 1991, the fish traders finally moved the High Court and sought retransfer of the land to them. Six years later, the court asked the development authority to return the land to the traders.
Dilip Sonkar, vice-president of the cooperative society, chips in, “The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Society handed us a ghost market with no electricity, drainage and water supply system as promised by the government. We arranged everything, spending money from our own pockets. The hollow promises of the administration died a slow death. People blame us for the garbage and the stink but they fail to realise that we also suffer. Vegetable vendors have encroached on our land and litter the place with leftovers and hotels in the vicinity also pollute the environment.”
The traders claim they pay regular taxes to the government but yet have to employ men to clear the garbage. “The authorities collect taxes from us but do nothing for cleanliness. We instead have to hire sweepers to remove the garbage twice a day,” says Birendra Singh, a fish trader. “We had also demanded the erection of a boundary wall because the market is notorious for thefts, but nothing has been done.”
Another major issue is the shortage of parking space. Left with no alternative, truck drivers park their vehicles by the roadside and traffic is all to often thrown into chaos, especially during busy hours. “Several times we have requested the authorities concerned to build a proper parking area in the vacant land between the fish and betel markets, but nothing has been done. Trucks parked on the potholed, narrow roads outside cause traffic jams, for which we are blamed,” says another trader.
Over the years, they say, several foreigners visited the market to study the infrastructure and various activities and though they had good words for the market and business, they were really concerned about the poor sanitary conditions and the lack of proper facilities. A team from the fisheries department had even assured them of looking into their grievances, but work is yet to take off, they add.
On their part, officials say a Rs 15-crore project has been sanctioned and sent to the National Fisheries Development Board for approval. “We have prepared a budget of Rs 15 crore for the modernisation of the fish market. The survey has already been done and the report has been sent to the higher-ups. We plan to illuminate the fish market, construct a proper parking system and provide a vat for dumping garbage, among other things. Once approved, the work will start within a month,” says A Banerjee, chief engineer-cum-managing director of the West Bengal Fisheries Corporation, Limited.
KMDA officials, however, refuse to comment, but some of the senior ones admit that the development authority should pay proper attention to the fish market. “It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for the delay of a project that was launched with much fanfare. Several years have passed and the officers have retired. We will look into the complaints brought by fish traders,” says one of them.
Gautam Choudhary, mayor-in-council of Howrah Municipal Corporation, says plans are being made to render the area surrounding the fish market garbage-free. “We have been thinking seriously of removing the garbage so that people do not come across the foul smell while crossing the area.” However, he refuses to give any deadline for work to start.
Apart from civic issues, old timers say the market has lost its charm as compared to those days when people would come from far and wide to make purchases. “We hardly had a minute to spare. The market was choc-a-bloc with people. You wouldn’t find space for even a toehold, especially during Jamai sasti and important festivals. We made a good profit those days,” says 70-year-old Nitayi Pal, a retired businessman.
“It was a fish market in the true sense, with total commotion and people running here and there. Times have changed and so have the people. Several illegal markets have mushroomed in the city and suburbs that have dealt our business a crushing blow. Moreover, several local markets have sprung up in different states and therefore traders no longer buy fish from us,” he adds.
When the din dies down – after all, establishments do shut down when the day is done — a thought crosses the mind: this not merely a fish market but a part of the rich heritage of a state in which a meal without fish on the platter is incomplete.