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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)

A Pluralist Perspective

In 1995, with support from ACHR, Unnayan took up a project to prepare a proposal substantively addressing the issue of unrecognized settlements in Calcutta. Based on an analytical understanding of the larger question of the housing situation in Calcutta, I developed a proposal (on behalf of Unnayan) looking at this - rather than just the squatters’ question. They represented only the most visible, raw end of the problem, which, however, affected large numbers of people of other classes as well. Not addressing the question of supply of shelter to middle and lower income groups would mean increasing the pressure on the space in the city occupied by the laboring poor, eventually leading to their displacement.

Thus arose the imperative of viewing the middle-class, low-income, poor and vulnerable section as a whole. It is basti renewal that can make available land to resettle squatters, while also providing a powerful beginning to city renewal itself.

A proposal was developed for comprehensive area renewal in the blighted canalside region of Calcutta. This was well within the ‘city improvement’ paradigm of government and developers, but emphasized, up-front, the normative social and environmental goals for which a part of the surpluses generated through the renewal needed to be channeled. A purposeful utilization of the real estate market mechanism, to achieve public goals for the city.

All the erstwhile residents, and especially the low-income and poor, would get new, better and affordable housing. This required maximization of net built-up area, which could be sold at the highest market rates. The most fundamental aspect of this renewal proposal was organizing the poor communities. Calcutta simply did not have the institutional wherewithal for this. A new generation of institutional forms needed to come up, to take up the immense social development agenda that would arise if bastis were to be developed in the interests of the dwellers. In turn, such social investments would directly lead to the large surpluses potentially available through basti redevelopment.