Friday, January 11, 2008

Basti redevelopment in metropolitan Calcutta

Priya Manna Basti, Shibpur, Howrah.

All my dawns cross the horizon
And rise from underfoot.
What I stand for
Is what I stand on.

Wendell Berry


Metropolitan Calcutta’s basti dwellers have lived as tenants in their hutments for several generations. They form the bulk of the poor and low-income population of the metropolitan area.

Through the Basti Improvement Programme undertaken from the early-1970s, some basic, long-due attention to bastis was begun. The living environment was significantly improved through in-situ improvements.

With growth in basti population, living densities have increased. Civic amenities, such as water and sanitation are deficient. Environmental health risk in basti localities is quite serious; incidence of gastro-intestinal and waterborne diseases, infant mortality testify to this. In some areas of Howrah, dry latrines in bastis pose severe health risks.

The population in most – though not all – basti localities continues to remain at a low socio-economic level. Unemployment, insecure livelihood, lack of education and skills, school drop-out, low wage employment prevail in such localities. In the context of economic globalisation, the basti dwellers are not at all well-placed currently to realise secure livelihood and positive stakes in the rapidly changing world. The reach of NGOs is very limited, and their activities are predominantly of a philanthropic nature, rather than for long-term positive change and structural transformation.

The degraded conditions in bastis and the poor quality of life of basti dwellers is most acute in the large Muslim bastis spread across Calcutta, Howrah and the municipal areas on the two sides of the Hooghly.

The time has come for bold, visionary, committed and purposeful action to positively transform the physical and social landscape of Calcutta’s bastis.

Shelter, livelihood and education must form the three basic pillars of any positive intervention in favour of basti dwellers in metropolitan Calcutta.

Shelter, Housing

Just as land to the tiller was the basic slogan inspiring transformative action in rural West Bengal, today one has to call for ‘shelter to the dweller’ in the urban context. Ultimately, the present bharatiyas or tenant dwellers in bastis have to get title to their dwelling. But the dwelling would be something like a 250 sq ft apartment in a redeveloped complex.

This calls for state action to take over all Thika land in the metropolitan area. This requires an appropriate strategy in order to pre-empt any judicial action. It is not simple, but it is not at all impossible. It has to be established that the public interest is being served, and that an offer is made to the Thika tenants which is at least as good as their present status.

Thika land has to be taken over, land consolidation needs to be done, and with the involvement of private developers a new salubrious complex constructed, in phases. All present dwellers would more and better quality built-up and common space, with civic amenities. They would have to pay a modest sum for title to such a unit. Credit financing would support this. And substantial additional residential and commercial built-up area would also be created, for sale at market rates to higher-income sections. This would give a good return to the developer, while also achieving important social ends. The economics of basti redevelopment would also allow for taking care of the interests of the Thika tenants, besides enabling the creation of a fund for ongoing social and community development activities in favour of the basti dwellers.

The Calcutta Corporation has shown remarkable success in undertaking various water supply and sewerage augmentation programmes to meet the emerging needs of newly developing areas. This augurs well for the future, keeping basti redevelopment in focus. To support the newly developed complexes in erstwhile basti localities, augmentation of water supply is needed, and also installation of sewerage lines etc. These would be undertaken by the Corporation or municipal authority. But when the present basti area is being considered for improvement in civic infrastructure, this also becomes an opportunity to assess the infrastructure deficit in the entire locality, and the augmentation plan prepared accordingly. Given the huge spread of basti localities across Calcutta and the metropolitan region, basti redevelopment thus becomes part of a large urban renewal programme, beginning with the city- and metropolis-wide basic infrastructure upgradation.

Large-scale illegal construction in basti localities across metropolitan Calcutta – poses severe threats to the future of basti dwellers. Bastis are becoming even more congested, sanitary conditions are significantly worsened. Most of all, the possibility of wholesome redevelopment of the entire basti, with the requisite civic infrastructure in place to support a completely redeveloped complex, is doomed.

Basti redevelopment rests most crucially on the awareness, active and organised involvement of the basti dwellers. That entails a major programme of grassroots action, education, capacity building, leadership development, organisational building and development. This is also a kind of ‘infrastructure’ development, that must parallel the physical infrastructure programme.

The KUSP project was recently begun (supported by the UK govt). This project’s goals are poverty reduction and habitat improvement in bastis. It has to be ensured that the project does actually improve the lot of poor. Equally, KUSP has to be strategically utilised in furtherance of this vision of basti, city and metropolitan renewal.


Bastis are also the site for extensive tiny-scale manufacturing activity. Several essential products in the city are produced from bastis – e.g. garments, footwear (leather and rubber), paper products. Traditionally bastis have been the sites of a large number of small industries and crafts. But the plight of the workers and owner-workers in all these trades is vulnerable. Given the unorganized nature of these trades, workers and small traders are at the mercy of middlemen and large traders. Lack of access to capital and hence reliance on high interest charging money-lenders; lack of proper marketing opportunities; lack of skill and technology upgradation - are some of the principal problems affecting the trades. Given that all these trades together employ a few hundred thousand workers, their vulnerable situation poses a severe threat to their livelihood and hence also to the future of the city.

In such a context, there is a need for an action-research effort on basti-based manufacture, towards comprehensive structural upgradation of these economic activities. The resulting benefit from such structural upgradation, to the large numbers of workers and small entrepreneurs tied to these trades – is much more than anything the state or NGOs can achieve through their livelihood and employment generation activities. Following upon the research study, a pilot project could be taken up to implement the recommendations in a specific area. Thus, a local skill development and marketing centre could be started in an area where a trade is concentrated.

Such an effort also requires the awareness and active participation of the workers and small entrepreneurs in basti-based manufacture. An action-research project could also be the means for identifying and mobilising all the stakeholders.

Such action is already being initiated by the state govt, e.g. in flower market, zari-making, in Howrah. This has now to be given a larger vision and thrust.

There are several capable and experienced scholars, professionals and researchers in Calcutta who could make a valuable contribution to such an endeavour. The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, a renowned academic institute, could also conceivably be involved in this. Financial support can be obtained for such an action-research programme – e.g. under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.


In the sphere of education, special mention must be made of Urdu medium primary education. The number of schools is highly inadequate to meet the demand for primary education, existing schools are highly overcrowded, and the quality of the existing schools has to be drastically improved.

An enlightened initiative aimed at Urdu medium primary education is seriously needed. This can begin with a rapid assessment study on the existing schools in Calcutta and Howrah. This could be based on a pilot initiative, taken up in 1 ward in Calcutta and / or Howrah.


Anonymous said...

The measures suggested are of course long overdue but funding, management and participation would need serious consideration while the implementation process would need rigouous monitoring if it has to be at all meaningful.

The large housing schemes coming up these days often include so-called LIG housing for fairly prosperous people. So much the better for the developers!

HM said...

Comment on comment of Anonymous dt 1/22/2008
I do not believe funding is any problem so long potential value of the slum land is high, when opened-up. Actual planning strategy would be as follows: Unite slum families to form a co-operative society and plan for resettling them in say 3 storied tenement building. Wishfully about half of the land shall be necessary for construction of the building for slum dwellers (allowing open spaces around the building) . As such about half of the land will fall vacant. The vacant land if disposed in the market the sale value will be sufficient to finance the construction. Alternatively, build two buildings side by side, 1st one for slum dwellers and the 2nd one for middle income group people. Sell the tenements of 2nd one to finance construction of the both.
A model of development in the line can possibly demonstrate the possibility of Self-financed development of slums. But one has to come down to the grass root level for catalyzing such process of slum/city renewal. What ever difficulty is perceived in slum redevelopment is nothing of technicality but in mindset of the society, the politicians and the administrative machinery.