Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Transforming the landscape
Given the specific socio-economic conditions and history of Calcutta, under the existing conditions in Calcutt’s bastis (which is where the overwhelming majority of Calcutta’s poor live) there is very little scope for effective improvement in the quality of life and dwelling conditions of the urban poor, without involving the Corporation and linking this simultaneously with a larger basti, area and city renewal intervention. Enhancement of water supply and installation of sewer lines - the kind of major infrastructure works planned for Calcutta under ADB and World Bank projects - are ultimately needed to make a dent on the severe service deficiencies prevailing in specific basti areas. Major incidence of illegal constructions within bastis further worsens the problem and constrains improvement, and all the more demands action by the local body.
Severe overcrowding, acute service deficiencies and consequent environmental degradation, with serious health impact on the vulnerable sections; illegal developments, through which the lot of the ordinary basti tenant dwellers is significantly worsened; capital shortages, together with potential for land sharing in bastis; all these factors point to the unavoidable imperative of socially equitable basti development, in order to ensure basic and long-term improvement in the quality of life of the poor and low-income sections.
On the other hand, given the socio-politico-cultural milieu in Calcutta, at the basti level as well as in a city-wide sense, it may be argued that Calcutta today is faced with a tremendous opportunity for feasible comprehensive city renewal - a process that begins from the bottom, in a few places, and builds upwards and spatially from there, within a strategic programme, that involves convergent action by a number of actors and institutions.
The strategic initiative could begin with a survey of bastis in Calcutta, in terms of vulnerability and socio-cultural organisation of the dweller community, physical infrastructure deficiency, and development opportunities. This would enable the preparation of a city map within which bastis are ranked in terms of a composite index, with each indicated type calling for a specific intervention mix, to be undertaken within a specific time-frame, towards achieving a specific goal in terms of community empowerment, environmental improvement, basti development and area renewal.
Boundary conditions for basti-level development could provide the starting points for moving to an area-renewal focus, from basti development. In turn, a number of such basti-area development and renewal nodes spread across the city could provide the basis for an overall long-term city renewal and improvement plan.
For the local body, redevelopment significantly enhances its property tax base. More fundamentally, with proper research, it provides the opportunity and justification for the preparation of a blue-print of potential neighbourhood redevelopment zones across a number of locations in the city. From a city planning viewpoint, redevelopment in a neighbourhood could occasion an analysis of long-run infrastructure adequacy in adjacent areas as well. This can ultimately lead to a complementary long-term financially viable plan, with requisite initial feasibility, for substantial investments in infrastructure upgradation and enhancement. The neighbourhood redevelopment zones provide the initial justification market for such infrastructure.
Real city planning now comes alive, even as the social horizon for the city’s vulnerable citizens is transformed from one of despair and conflict to one of participation in city development and empowerment. Neighbourhood redevelopment can catalyse long-term city development and thus renewal.
In effect, this would be an action methodology for renewing blighted cities. Taken together, a few projects on basti development and area development would very quickly transform the socio-political and institutional environment. The attainment of basic justice in the city can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And these early projects would become the new sacred sites of the transformed urban landscape.
Pictures and drawings courtesy Devananda Chatterji, architect.