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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)

Crime and Politics

Slums have also to be understood in the light of the growing criminalisation in these localities. Bastis may be the sites of a considerable amount of illegality and crime. Illegal building construction is a major activity.

All this takes place blatantly, with political protection and involvement of the authorities. It is part of the common knowledge of people in bastis that the local members of the ruling party are closely involved in all this. With them ruling the roost in most localities, over the years a terrible lawless, corrupt, rowdy environment has grown. Common people prefer to stay out of any trouble and remain in the background. Thus, a cloud of fear and violence hangs over the community.

Generalized society-wide youth unemployment, breakdown of social values, rising material aspirations and growing consumption, widening socio-economic disparities, mass media exposure, impatience among youth with traditional values, together with criminalization of politics through political protection of criminals, endemic corruption, the police-crime nexus - it is in this context that one can begin to understand the socio-cultural environment in bastis today.

Party politics at the grassroots level is about power, for oneself and those one considers one’s own. Power can mean material benefit, besides being in a position to do what one might want, without any disruption. Having power means being able to appease a few people, and thus remain in power. Gratifying some also helps to keep them in obligation, for repayment in one form or another - donations, participating in party rallies, voting for the party and getting one’s friends and relatives to also support the party, joining the party group in its conflicts etc.

There is a vast gulf between the senior leadership in the party and the basti-level party workers. The latter view themselves as local lords, free do to as they choose. They intervene in all affairs in the basti, in order to ensure their total dominance. And ordinary people try to keep themselves away from any trouble or conflict. Hence the dominance of the party activists.

Calculations for the party are only in terms of numbers - who will be affected by any step, who will gain. What is correct, or legal is of no importance in such a context. In this milieu, the predominant urge in any situation is to gratify, or benefit, to gain or seek support. What is right, or correct, or legal often gets obscured as a result.

Higher-ups in the party do not have a personal base in the basti, nor would they like to devote any of their own time or efforts here. Hence party affairs are entirely in the hands of the local unit. They are a kind of local broker to deliver the bloc vote of a community living separate and segregated.

Within the party, there are groups and sub-groups, with allegiances being flexible in line with emerging circumstances. Thus petty politicking, factionalism, cliques, and continuing conflicts, sometimes mild, sometimes serious, as attempts are made to settle scores - this is a key feature of the local environment.

Ultimately, patronage to criminals is simply a practical thing to be done by any political party. In their view, only this can ensure that there are ‘fair’ elections. Also, it is only with the help of muscle-men that any party can be in a situation of complete dominance locally. Thus, politicians and criminals help each other to survive and thrive. Senior, committed leadership within the party is quite aware of and concerned about the situation in basti localities. But they are unable to act forcefully because the party is severely compromised.

For ordinary people, their social background and personal circumstances serve to render them powerless and keep them dependent upon others for the smallest matters. This also means that efforts made on vital matters - such as water supply or electricity - follow community-level practices. Thus, if at all someone decides to do something, they would typically approach one or other of the local power wielders for help. The means through which such a powerful person helps the needy one would be inherently individual-oriented rather than community-oriented, creating dependence rather than independent capability, and often, illegal rather than legal.

There does not exist at this juncture any prospect for any positive improvement, in fundamental terms, in the living conditions of the people in bastis. Nor does there exist any institution, organisation, entity, actor or individual, who is capable and committed enough to take up a long-term improvement-oriented programme.

The prospect for united action by households at large, and especially the poor households, so as to seek, pursue and secure sustained improvements in their socio-economic and environmental stakes and thus be successful in mitigating the poverty and environmental degradation confronting them - is extremely remote.

Women, and poor women in particular, emerge as the worst sufferers. In the existing psycho-socio-cultural milieu of bastis, the prospects for united action by poor women, to secure improvements in environmental services, in collaboration with people and groups from the wider basti and community - are virtually zero.