The history of the railways contribution to the design of residential colonies in India
The earliest railway colonies were built to a systematically designed lay out. One of the first major colonies to be built was the one at Jamalpur by the East Indian Railway. This colony developed around the Locomotive Workshop that was opened in 1862, i.e. more than 150 years back.
The Jamalpur colony served as a model for many railway colonies that came up later all over India. Even today, this rail colony is distinct from the town and once you enter it, you are in a different world.
Residences of the General Managers, those of the erstwhile Divisional superintendents (now Divisional Rail Managers), the Heads of the Workshops, etc. are not only grand in appearance but also superb pieces of architecture.
The residences of the General Managers of Western and Central Railways in Mumbai and those of the DRM Vadodra are a case in point.
To keep their staff morally and spiritually correct, church-going was encouraged by the authorities. Many colonies had more than one church to cater to different denominations of Christianity. All the same, there was a dominance of Anglican churches.
At such of the places where there were no churches within the colonies, the faithful used to visit nearby churches, sometimes a walk of several kilometers.
Generally, the administration of railway companies did not permit setting up of shrines of other religions within their premises.
One good exception that proves the rule was at Kharagpur. Here, the construction of a Ram Mandir was permitted and a temple constructed in 1920. In the same year, land was granted by the agent for construction of a Kali temple.
Today, one can find churches, temples as well as a mosque in the Kharagpur colony.
The other focal point of social activity was the Club known more as an Institute. The Anglo Indians had abbreviated it further to “Inster”. The Institutes were the exclusive preserves of the European and Anglo-Indian population.
Later, after independence, when the number of Indian employees started rising, the Institutes were opened for all senior staff who replaced the Europeans. In addition, separate Institutes were also opened for workmen and other junior staff.
The better amongst the institutes used to have a card room, a billiards room with one or more table, a ball room, often with wooden flooring, sometimes a bar, a spacious lawn, a playground for kids, and sports facilities like tennis courts, badminton and squash courts along with a swimming pool.
The European Institute at Kharagpur (now known as South Institute) also had a band stand, which has since been demolished.
Sports and games abounded in Railway colonies, with both indoor and outdoor games facilities being made available.
Railway colonies have produced some distinguished sports persons, the most prominent among them being the tennis playing Amrithraj brothers, and the world chess champion, Vishwanathan Anand, and the Indian women's cricket captain, Diana Eduljee.
Few new railway colonies have come up after the British left, except where they are attached to the railway's own production units.
Many may be surprised to know that in the post independence era, the first planned city of the nation was not Chandigarh but the railway's newly emerging township at Chittaranjan, where one of the first temples of modern India was being built in the form of a steam locomotive manufacturing facility. A colony for officers was also built on SP Marg in New Delhi, which is in use today.
Since these railway colonies were built at the expense of the forests, encounters with wildlife happened often, sometimes resulting in fatal accidents.
India at the time had plenty of forests teeming with big game and smaller wildlife. At road side stations, appearance of prowling tigers, bears, wild elephants, etc. was a regular affair. Sometimes the bigger animals strayed into the colonies.
In Jamalpur Railway colony, a grave can be seen right in the center of a well-kept 9-hole golf course.
The epitaph on the grave reads: ”Sacred to the memory of James Quilem Roberts, formerly of Vulcan foundry Warrington and afterwards foreman of the locomotive erecting shop Jamalpur who lost his life from the effects of an encounter with a Tiger near this place. Died 13th day June 1864. Age 27 years.”
Today, with changing operational requirements, many railway colonies have become redundant. Some have virtually even become ghost towns.
However, at many of the new activity centers, particularly production units, the railway colony lives on and life continues to pulsate with activity to remind us of their glorious heritage.