Faridabad: A Woman’s Vision to Build a City

Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, The Women the prime driver in buidling of the the City of Faridabad based entirely on cooperative principles. She proved that common people with hard work , zeal and a little technical help can build an entire city from scratch

Faridabad nestled within the National Capital Territory of Delhi is an unique experiment in township building never before attempted or ever later replicated in India.

The heroine in the saga of building Faridabad is Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, who with her unfailing zeal, enthusiasm and vision converted a highway sarai settlement into a modern industrial township. How it happened is what fairy tales are made of.

History of Faridabad goes back to 1607 when Shaikh Farid, the treasurer of Mughal Emperor Jahangir founded the town primarily for protecting the highway which passed through the settlement. A fort, a tank and a mosque were built which are now in ruins. Faridabad continued its staid existence as a nondescript settlement until the partition of India and the zeal of Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay ably assisted by Sudhir Ghosh and Laxmi Chand Jain laid the foundation of Faridabad as we know it today.

The partition in 1947 brought a surge of refugees into Delhi who were housed in temporary refugee camps. Even till 1949 not much could be done for permanent rehabilitation of these refugees. The immediate problem of shelter and food for such a large numbers was so overwhelming that the official machinery was fighting a day to day battle of survival. In stepped Kamaladevi as what management gurus would call “a game changer”.

During one of her visits to the Purana Qila refugee camp she was appalled at the sight of children and women exposed to the unrelenting summer sun, their tents having been blown away by strong winds. These refugees were Hindu migrants from North West Frontier Province, proud people reduced to destitution. Kamaladevi on the spot decided to do something for permanent resettlement of these refugees. The making of Faridabad has begun!

Kamaladevi had left her studies in England to join Mahatma Gandhi in his civil disobedience campaign in 1923 and then the Salt Satyagrah in 1930 and was the first women to be arrested selling contraband salt. Post independence she had declined all government positions and concentrated on social work. She started the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) which was to play a significant role in making of Faridabad.

Back from the Purana Quila refugee camp Kamaladevi met Dr. Rajendra Prasad with a plan to house 30,000 refugees, wherein the refugees would contribute their labour to build a township, complete with housing, infrastructure and small industrial units on the cooperative pattern.

Nehru inspects the site of the Faridabad township on the outskirts of the Delhi, c.1949. Pandit Nehru reposed faith in Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and her associates Sudhir Ghosh and LC Jain despite the government engineers expressing doubts about a bunch of refugees ability to build a city from a stretch of waste land. Photo Courtesy: Two Freedom Struggle, One Life by LC Jain

The government engineers refused to accept that the refugees who were primarily traders and small shopkeepers could learn to become masons, carpenters and handymen and build a township. Pandit Nehru’s intervention cleared the decks. Faridabad Development Board was setup, with Dr. Rajendra Prasad as chairman; the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) was to manage the process of organizing the works. Leading the charge on the ground for ICU was the Cambridge educated Sudhir Ghosh, who was the trusted lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi and assisting him was Laxmi Chand Jain who later was to become Member, Planning Commission.

The refugees did not disappoint Kamaladevi. Having been organized in labour groups of 15 to 50 workers, they laid roads, erected houses; build a hospital and school and soon a fully fledged township sprung up around small industrial units for which the residents organized their own infrastructural inputs. Kamala, Sudhir and Laxmi lead from the front. They were always at hand arranging government funds, loans, advice guidance and resolving disputes. Refugees ran their own transport service, health centre and community recreational activities. They named the hospital after Badshah Khan (frontier Gandhi) which we today know as BK Hospital.

Sudhir Ghosh explaining to members of the Turkish Press Delegation the lay-out of the Refugee Township of Faridabad (Feb 1952) . Photo Courtesy: Photo Division, Government of India

In his report (Dec 1951), submitted by N Saigal (ICS) , Registrar Cooperative Societies to Governor Punjab made a very positive observation “As desired by His Excellency, I have now been to Faridabad myself and have examined the position there and have had a detailed discussion with Smt Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Mr Sudhir Ghosh and P.M. Mathai organizing Secretary of ICU. I was very impressed with the work being done at Faridabad. A township has been built there by displaced persons themselves under the guidance of Sudhir Ghosh and other officers. What was previously just waste land has been converted into a thriving colony. Not only has this been a tremendous achievement in itself, but it has been a sort of pilot scheme showing the way in which the country can be developed”

The New Industrial Town (NIT) was up and running in record three years. The entire nation took note of the Faridabad miracle. It is interesting how the first power plant was setup at Faridabad. A 6000KW German World War II repatriation plant was lying at Calcutta docks for past two years packed in 180 crates. The Central Electricity Commission had tried to hawk the plant to various state governments but there were no takers for a rundown second-hand plant. With budgets running low and urgent need for electricity, the Faridabad group had the cheek to take up the challenge. When the crates were opened, numerous parts were missing, and worse there were no engineering drawings to help put the plant together. The indefatigable Sudhir Ghosh tracked down an engineer who was earlier an operator at the plant, who put together the plant without a single working drawing.

With electricity available, Bata started a shoe factory, others followed and Faridabad was on its way.

It is not always that one woman’s zeal makes a city.

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