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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)

Displacement of the Laboring Poor

Bastis present a further major challenge for policymakers. Ultimately the improved housing is taken over by relatively better off people. The burden of the overall housing shortage in the city is borne by those at the bottom. The tenant basti dwellers are in a situation of insecurity as the housing scarcity and real estate forces work to push out the poor and low income - either to fringe areas, or to unrecognised dwelling. Sooner or later the imperative of strategic redevelopment of basti lands has to be acted upon.

However, this can mean the complete displacement of a huge population, with devastating social and economic consequences for the metropolis. Lessons have to be learnt to avoid repeating the negative experiences in Bombay, where, since 1991, the attempt to undertake slum redevelopment on the basis of land sharing, through private developers, meant that insecurity, intimidation and even violence was unleashed upon the slumdwellers. Thus, basti redevelopment, that is led by an empowered community acting through a capable local institution, is the objective that has to be worked towards.

But today, bastis in Calcutta do not offer any hope of such tenant-led development. The principal actors so far have been political parties and the state, with some philanthropic agencies and community-based organisations undertaking welfare activities. Basti dwellers are not organised as a class, and in the bastis it is the intermediary tenants, building developers and their allies (often political party activists in league with muscle-men ) who are more powerful. Given that bastis are spread all over the city (rather than in a separate shanty-town), basti lands are very valuable. The major success of the BIP has been in reinstating these settlements in the land market. With the existence of a large unmet demand for housing among the lower-income groups and middle class, the blighted bastis represent a site for considerable profiteering through illegal building construction, and thus attract ‘money power’ and ‘muscle power’. The tenant dwellers are the most vulnerable within this environment.