Filter +

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)

The Unintended City

In 1975, Jai Sen, an architect-planner, wrote an influential essay titled ‘The Unintended City’. He argued that hidden within the commonly perceived ‘respectable’ city, of wealth, institutions, planned improvements, intellect and culture, was another city, an unintended one, of the laboring poor. This city was characterized by the survival struggles of its inhabitants. Every planned improvement for the ‘intended’ city also necessarily meant displacement and hardship for the unintended. It was the unintended who ensured that a range of services and products were available to the city; in a sense, they subsidised the quality of life of the citizens, through their own deprivation.

Sen called for a programme of empowerment of the unintended, through community-based action-planning initiatives. Such initiatives could become the basis for a holistic understanding of the city, and hence a planning intervention that sought to advocate the interests of the unintended and integrate such concerns with the formal planned developments. And thus lead to the transformation of such planned development itself, as well as of the cityscape and its social relations.

Sen started a social action group in 1977, called Unnayan to take up an ambitious, long-term programme in east Calcutta, which was just about to witness major infrastructure investments by the state government in middle-class housing, water supply, drainage, transportation and electrification. Unnnayan anticipated that the process of displacing development would again result and sought to intervene in such a context - towards enabling a future for east Calcutta that would be more in keeping with the lives and aspirations of the marginalised laboring communities settled there.

By the end of the 1980’s, Unnayan’s work had grown to cover social and technical support initiatives to a number of poor communities across Calcutta. It took an active part in the formation of the Chhinnamul Sramajibi Adhikar Samiti (Organisation for the Rights of Uprooted Laboring People), an umbrella under which local committees from squatter settlements across Calcutta came together in 1984 to take up a campaign against forced evictions and demolitions, and more generally to press for recognition and regularization or resettlement. A national workshop on the housing question was organized in 1985. Legal strategies and actions were taken to advance the housing rights of unrecognized dwellers. Persistent advocacy was taken up, at city, state, national and international fora. Unnayan played a key role in the formation of the National Campaign for Housing Rights (1986) and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR, 1988).

Unnayan networked with organizations and individuals in the city and nationally, and tried to bring into this fold other groups such as political activists, trade unions, professionals, academics and sections of the intelligentsia, civil liberties organizations, cultural activists and groups, NGOs and other social movements.

Through all this, in the absence of any other institutional effort on the crucial public domain issue of rights and social development of the city’s laboring poor, an ‘alternative’ planning perspective had entered the public space.