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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)

Unrecognized Settlements

Unrecognized or squatter settlements on vacant land on the margins of city infrastructure began to emerge in Calcutta from the early 1960s. It was a result of stoppage of basti expansion in the post-Independence era, the insignificant role of public housing schemes in providing for the low income and economically weaker sections, and the absence of any private sector mass housing programs.

There is no authoritative official data on dwellers in unrecognized settlements - along rail tracks, canals, highways, under bridges and flyovers and on vacant public and private land. Broad-brush surveys undertaken in the mid-1980s by Unnayan estimated the number of unrecognized dwelling, of all types, at between 5 -10% of the metropolitan population.

These settlements are viewed as ‘unauthorized’ or ‘illegal’ and are hence entirely unserviced. The fear of eviction and demolition looms large over them and serves to inhibit any community initiative to improve housing and settlement conditions. Their ‘unauthorised’ status is in effect a means for the complete disenfranchisement of these communities.

Unrecognized settlements represent some of the most degraded environmental conditions, with severe health impacts for the people living there, and with potential larger public health consequences as well. Given that most unrecognized settlements in the metropolis lie on the margins of infrastructure features, like canals, rail tracks etc., the relevance of in situ regularization here is questionable. Resettlement in a new location also poses serious difficulties. Residence for such dwellers is closely related to livelihood opportunities, and hence relocation could be disruptive unless the resettlement program includes economic rehabilitation. That requires considerable external support, and puts the people into a situation where their dependence on others is increased.