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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)

Bastis in Calcutta

Basti (meaning ‘settlement’ or ‘place of habitation’ in north Indian languages) in Calcutta has a culturally loaded connotation: the place where the city’s low-income and the poor, the laboring people, live. Bastis are physically distinct, with tile-roofed huts made of brick, earth and wattle (Wattle is a framework made of sticks and twigs; hence the term in building wattle-and-daub, for earthen walls where earth is applied over the wattle.), and are generally poorly serviced in terms of water, sanitation, sewerage, drainage and waste disposal.

The metropolis grew around the colonial port, trading and administrative hub. Large numbers of laboring people were absorbed in factories, manual labor and domestic service. An arrangement developed that eventually led to a unique three-tier tenurial structure. A landlord would, typically, rent out vacant plots under his ownership to members of his retinue, who in turn built a large number of huts on the plot. Rooms in the huts were rented out to the laborers. As this part of the city attracted more people and started getting civic improvements, the landlord would have these plots vacated and sell them for a handsome gain. The laboring tenant dwellers were then forced to move on to another site.

This arrangement, and the informal settlements or bastis, ensured that a place existed in the city for its laboring population, albeit an insecure one. However, with no investments being made by either the landlord or the civic authority, the deplorable basti conditions were viewed as a threat to public hygiene. Colonial Calcutta saw frequent basti demolitions in connection with civic improvements benefiting its affluent citizens; these were usually inspired by public health goals. But the plight of the labourers, and the question of their shelter, was never substantively addressed.

By the time of India’s independence in 1947, the metropolitan area had a large number of bastis that had been in existence for a considerable period of time and housed the overwhelming majority of the city’s low-income, laboring and poor people. Calcutta has a unique demographic feature of being home to a large number of single male migrant laborers from the eastern hinterland, e.g. in the jute factories. The bastis accomodated them, as well as others with their households, extended families and kin networks.

With the influx into the city of a huge number of refugees after the partition of India in 1947, bastis were severely overcrowded. The largely unresolved question of responsibility for civic services in bastis meant that living conditions were deplorable. Post-independence legislation curtailed the rights of the landlords, while granting secure tenancy rights to the intermediate (land-renting, hut-building) tenant. A communist-led movement in the 1950’s that focused on the shelter rights of the basti dwellers, coinciding with the development of national ‘slum clearance and improvement’ legislation, ensured that all dwellers were entitled to resettlement in the event of basti demolition. Bastis were brought under the purview of the Slum Act, which was introduced with a view to enabling provision of basic amenities to the dwellers.

Traditionally bastis have been the sites of a large number of small industries and crafts. Before the development of automobiles the transport system was almost entirely in the hands of the basti people. They controlled the milk and cattle market and the horse market. They also housed the masons and construction workers.

All these trades and crafts catered to the needs of the city and also areas far beyond. But there has also been a persistent process of the basti people, and especially Muslims, losing their independent occupations and turning into wage earners under those possessing superior financial resources and networks. The city’s development and economic blight has meant continuing marginalization for the laboring population. Garment-making, footwear, paper and stationery are some of the sectors that are still based in large Muslim bastis in the city. But given the unorganized nature of these trades, workers and small traders are at the mercy of middlemen and large traders. Lack of access to capital and hence reliance on high interest charging money-lenders; lack of proper marketing opportunities; lack of skill and technology upgradation - are some of the principal problems affecting the trades. Given that all these trades together employ tens of thousands of workers, their vulnerable situation poses a severe threat to their livelihood and hence also to the city’s social stability.

From a social planning perspective, bastis are significant because the bulk of the city’s vulnerable population resides here, in a concentrated manner. This includes Hindus and Muslims. On the whole, basti dwellers are not the poorest of the poor, though many very poor people may also be found. They are subject to marginalization by socio-economic forces; but, by virtue of having a legally recognised foothold in the city - their basti tenant status - and the stability that this brings (in comparison to less fortunate, unrecognized squatters), it is possible to think about their social development.