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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)

Metropolitan Assembly for Social Development (MASSDEV)

Inspired by the HPP program in Howrah, the Metropolitan Assembly for Social Development (MASSDEV) was established in 2001 by a group of concerned citizens in Calcutta to work purposefully for all-round community development in the basti localities in the metropolis.

The objective is to catalyse, facilitate and guide effective community development programs under the leadership of capable local organizations. The main focus of MASSDEV would be on economic uplifting of the poor, through a network of vocational training and production centers supported by a marketing effort. Local-level ownership of initiatives and efforts in this direction through committed and capable community organizations would be complemented by a central, facilitating, training and linkage effort through MASSDEV.

The work of MASSDEV would be to build, sustain and strengthen long-term efforts for the empowerment of the laboring poor and vulnerable sections. This would take place principally through capable community organizations in basti localities. As a pluralist, metropolis-wide, civic integrating platform, MASSDEV would seek to enable the building of civil society and grassroots ownership and practice of action for social and environmental justice in the Calcutta metropolitan area.

A similar initiative has been undertaken since 1995 with very positive results in the slum areas of the old city in Hyderabad, through the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA). COVA is closely associated with the efforts in Calcutta.

MASSDEV may be seen in the light of the current situation regarding public domain institutions in Calcutta. The institutional infrastructure remains to be built for the critical grassroots and civic roles vital for sound urban governance and environmental and social justice. Pro-poor city renewal, at a metropolitan scale, is principally hostage to this systemic deficiency.

MASSDEV may also be seen in the context of the forthcoming city infrastructure, slum improvement and poverty reduction projects in Calcutta, under the aegis of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), DFID etc. The earlier slum improvement efforts had failed to build any systemic institutional capability for socio-economic-habitat development at the slum community level. So all these new projects would require active and capable community organisations, resource organisations and civic fora. That cannot be built by the project funder or the recipient state or local government, though the process of building this institutional infrastructure could be facilitated by the government.

The challenge for the citizens of Calcutta is to exercise effective and capable ownership of the public domain concerns of social and environmental justice.

V Ramaswamy is a Calcutta-based business executive, public policy consultant, community development worker and teacher. He has been associated with a number of social and people’s organizations, campaigns and movements. He is Chairman of Howrah Pilot Project and Secretary of the Metropolitan Assembly for Social Development, Calcutta. He is also a Public Policy Associate at the Jerusalem Institute of Urban Environment, a visiting Master at the Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehradun, and Guest Faculty in the Department of Architecture at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Click here to e-mail.

Achinto Bhadra is a Calcutta-based photographer who has documented extensively life, labour, habitat and community in India's villages and towns. He has undertaken assignments for international development agencies and NGOs. His work has been critically acclaimed and been published and exhibited in India, Europe and America.