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Renewing the City: Efforts to Improve Life in Calcutta’s Urban Slums

Poverty and environmental degradation: Inside PM Basti, Howrah. (Achinto Bhadra)

Poverty and environmental degradation: Inside PM Basti, Howrah. (Achinto Bhadra)

By V. Ramaswamy

Metropolitan Calcutta is characterized by acute geographic, social and ethnic disparities. Such disparities severely threaten health, the urban environment and social harmony. A third of the metropolis’ population lives in deprivation from basic civic amenities in highly congested and degraded slums. These occupy large tracts of land in the metropolitan core. Simultaneously, uncontrolled urban sprawl to meet large-scale housing requirements endangers the ecologically sensitive wetlands fringing the city.

Metropolitan Calcutta, home to some 14 million people, sprawls over 1,350 sq km, spread in a linear north-south alignment along the east and west banks of the Hooghly river. (New York, for comparison has a population of 8 million in 800 square kilometers or 309 square miles), on the two sides of which lie the core cities of Calcutta (pop. about 5 million) and Howrah (pop. about 1.5 million).

Muslims constitute a bit under 20% of the population of Calcutta city. Over three fourths of the city's Muslim population may be living in slum neighbourhoods. There are likely to be deep-rooted and institutionalized attitudinal constraints to development in ethnic minority settlements. Socio-economic deprivation and disparity also breeds a criminalised polity and enhances sectarian strife.

Howrah, a million-plus, historically neglected city, is among the most blighted areas. Over half the population here lives in slums, a significant proportion belonging to the minority Muslim community. Available health and infant mortality statistics indicate high morbidity and mortality on account of waterborne diseases. Infant mortality rates in slums may be more than double those in non-slum areas. This stems from the continuing reliance of millions of vulnerable people living in the slum-like bastis (see below for a complete description) on contaminated water sources, in the absence of access to adequate supplies of potable water, and inadequate sanitation.

This forms the city context within which I have been working since 1984, when I joined the Chhinnamul Sramajibi Adhikar Samiti (Organisation for the Rights of Uprooted Laboring People), an umbrella-front of squatter communities in Calcutta struggling against demolitions and forced evictions. In 2001, I convened the establishment of the Metropolitan Assembly for Social Development, a civic platform to take up a concerted city-wide programme of slum community empowerment. This article seeks to elaborate on the problem situation, and the journey through civil society action interventions in pursuit of greater social and environmental justice in my city.