Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reflecting on Calcutta renewal

V Ramaswamy

Renegade Calcutta

It was only many years after I began working in PM Basti did it strike me that if one were to be really honest, then there is no denying what the basti is, and what the basti-dweller is. In a city of cruel and perpetuated disparity and exploitation, in this apartheid city, the basti is the heart of darkness. It represents the city’s discontents. It is a factory of the renegade. The slum youth may sleep at night, out in the open under the rain, clad in a plastic sheet. But so long as the basti exists, the city shall not sleep in peace. Destruction, in the most horrific manner, is writ large everywhere as far as I can see. The slums of Kolkata are powder-kegs for widespread destruction. But it is a humane transformation that I seek, and have been trying to realize, from one place to begin with. And that is Priya Manna Basti.

Some field reports on public policy

In February 2008, the state govt declared its policy to permit construction of multi-storied buildings on thika tenancy land in Kolkata and Howrah, provided the tenants gave their consent. The term “manufactured consent” would get a whole new dimension in Kolkata! The real estate development and builders’ lobby had for long been lobbying to be given the huge plots of land in Kolkata under bastis. It is my honest opinion that the capability does not yet exist in this city to ensure that such commercial developments in bastis do not go against the interests of the basti dwellers.

And in February 2010, the state govt announced its policy of granting land tenure to squatters on public land. 25 years ago, the squatters’ organization, Chhinamul Sramajibi Adhikar Samiti, had demanded the same. But that has come only now, because the next assembly elections are imminent, and now political competition has emerged. Defending the policy the state urban development minister declared that the govt had carried out land reforms in the rural sphere, and through this policy on squatters, land reform was now being undertaken in favour of the urban poor. I am reminded of something written by the author Nikos Kazantzakis: intoxicated by the sound of his own words! Actually, land reform in the city will mean grant of housing title to the city’s basti dwellers. Refugees and now squatters have been granted secure tenure. But the basti dwellers, who number many more than the others, who have been legal tenants for decades, and in some cases for over a century, have been specially chosen to be excluded from any so-called land reform. As the proposal on canal-side renewal demonstrated, it is through basti redevelopment that squatter resettlement is most effectively taken care of.

In the context of the impossibility of top-down development, the Department of Panchayats and Rural Development, in the Govt of West Bengal, has been involved in the SRD, or "Strengthening Rural Decentralisation" programme. Building on that, now a project on "Institutional Strengthening in Gram Panchayats" (ISGP) is to be taken up, with support from the World Bank. Here, the objective is to stimulate bottom-up forces at the grassroots, as the only means of ensuring that resources in the system reach the needy. We need something like that in the urban sphere as well.

But the programmes we have seen in the city have belied that hope. The KEIP and the KUSP may be mentioned. I wonder if ADB, who funded KEIP, have been down here to see for themselves what has actually been implemented in the name of squatter resettlement. And KUSP was in fact was supposed to have a bottom-up planning and implementation methodology. But that is not what transpired. It was a top-down affair, and by the ruling party rather than the state govt, but, interestingly enough, with a kind of whitening cream, in this age of fairness creams, to give it a bottom-up complexion. The JNNURM has also failed to be an instrument for bottom-up development. Now I believe the Rajiv Awaas Yojana is to supplant the JNNURM as the lead programme of housing for the urban poor. So it is to that that our attention must now be trained.

The rot

The riots in Calcutta following 6 December 1992 demolished the delusion that Calcutta and West Bengal were supposedly secular places, places of communal harmony. How blind and apathetic I had been, to the reality all around me.

Since then it was also a personal journey for me of becoming aware of the layers upon layers of one’s own habitual assumption, presumption and prejudice.

I wish I could draw for you a diagram, a kind of X-ray analysis, which depicts the situation we have here, and especially around its lower tiers. The under-life around where light does not fall, but upon which the whole edifice of our city life and its power relations stand. But, to tell the truth, for me the very elegance of that diagram only adds insult to injury, it mocks. For it is not out of ignorance, out of ‘not knowing’ that we have what we have. At root is willful ignorance and apathy. At root is will, or the lack of it, depending upon one’s perspective. I recently had the opportunity to join in some rural surveys in some of the districts of West Bengal. I interacted with rural households, panchayat officials and members, govt officials at district and block level, and finally senior officials from various departments in Kolkata. That was a real eye opener. When pushed to explain matters, some officers admitted that at root was the fact that no one gave a damn for the so-called policy goals, of uplift of Scheduled castes, Schedules Tribes and Muslims.

Perhaps this is what prompted Dr Siddiqui to investigate the roots of communalism in India. He tells us that from the time of our so-called Bengal renaissance, from the time of the earliest stirrings of Indian nationalism, one sees a willful exclusion and demonisation of the Muslim.

What we have in West Bengal is not governance by an elected govt, but rule by a party, in close nexus with criminals and various other vested interests. Public institutions are therefore weak and devoid of any substantive capability. But now that the ruling party is facing a rout, there seems to be a move to push the agenda of governance, as well as a flurry of sops and schemes. And at the same time, in a bid to survive, the ruling party is trying to initiate reform, by purging itself of criminal and other vested interests. A pervasive rot characterizes public institutions and the society at large, including its ruling party. This is a social crisis, a sociological phenomenon. Muslims are marginalized in that overall picture, despite the party’s professed commitment to their uplift, or because of its dominant tendency. But this is not a static situation. Now we are witnessing a frantic effort within the party, to avert rout.


I mentioned 6 December 1992. Kolkata is, of course, also the city of 16 August 1946, the day of the Great Calcutta Killings, which put the seal on partition. Partition happened because of the question of the nature of self-rule, about power and governance. That question remains unresolved through these 60+ years. My journey has been an education in how power and governance actually happen, here in Kolkata. My own quest, is for swaraj.

The positive side of all this is that we are fighting for some fairly profound and historic things here. The overturning when it comes, will be a big overturning.