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close this bookPriorities in Health and Nutrition of the Urban Poor: The Case of the Calcutta Slums (CRED, 1991, 18 p.)
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View the documentCalcutta: A Premature City
View the documentSurvey Results
View the documentVarious Issues
View the documentConclusions and Recommendations

Calcutta: A Premature City

History and Context of the Calcutta Slums

The population in the Calcutta Metropolitan area had increased from 2.25 million inhabitants in 1921 to 10.2 million in 1981, with most of the increase occurring during the post World War II period. Since the partition of the country in 1947, Calcutta has suffered both economically and politically. During the Partition, a large number of refugees from East Bengal 1 (approximately one million) settled in and around Calcutta. Following the Bangladesh war in 1974, renewed waves of refugees (also in the millions) crossed the border and arrived in Calcutta with the eternal hope of making a living in the city. As a result, illegal squatter settlements developed in most of the available space in the city, including the embankments of railway tracks, bridges, and even on sidewalks. In Eastern India, Calcutta is the largest urban agglomeration. It was the major port and industrial area, which served an enormous hinterland covering much of Eastern India, until the early 1970’s. Since then, the economic growth of the city has slowed down and along with it, its attraction to migrants has diminished. Although precise estimates do not exist, migration from neighboring states was certainly one of the notable factors for growth of population in the city. It is not longer the main source of growth today (Roy, 1983; United Nations, 1985; and Row, 1974). In fact, United Nations projections for the population of Calcutta for the year 2000 have decreased from 19.5 million in 1973 to 16.5 in 1985 (Hardoy and Sattherwaite, 1989).

1 Subsequently, East Pakistan, currently Bangladesh.

A wide range of estimates are cited for slum populations. Werlin (1987) reported the slums consists of 2.8 million, or a third of the 8.3 million registered inhabitants in Calcutta Municipal area. Harpham et al. (1988) estimate that there are 5.6 million slum inhabitants, or nearly half Calcutta’s population. The Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) report in 1983 stated that the slum population for the year 1981 was 3.02 million in the CMDA area. More recently, a report by the India National Commission on Urbanisation (1988) stated that 35% of Calcutta’s population is living in «identified slums but it is estimated that all slums and squatter settlements are much higher». Based on a handbook of the National Building Organisation (1982-83), 67% of the households in Calcutta live in one room units, without private toilet or separate cooking facilities.

Estimates of the slum population of Calcutta vary greatly according to the authority addressed. It is not clear whether any of the estimates include the sizable number of unregistered poor, such as the itinerant pavement dwellers and illegal squatters. No matter which figure approaches the truth, the gigantic size of any estimate of the slum/squatter population in Calcutta is reason enough to warrant urgent attention.

Administrative Context and Efforts

The CMDA area is divided by the Calcutta Corporation into 141 wards (administrative units) and all wards have substancial slums or pavement dweller populations. The density of population in the overall CMDA area is 7,822 persons per sq. km. and the inner city of Calcutta was as highly populated as 31,779 persons per sq. km. as early as the mid-seventies (Bose, 1974).

CMDA classifies its slums into categories that are «recognised» and «unrecognised». The former are those which are officially recognised by the local self-government and therefore the urban authorities. Consisting of pavement dwellers and squatter colonies which are nearly equal or even larger than recognised slums, the unrecognised slums are treated, in an impressive flight of imagination, as nonexistent despite their tremendous size. The rationale for this policy seems to be to discourage these and other squatters from remaining in, or migrating to, the city. The hope is that without benefits, these groups will leave the city. The CMDA and the municipalities will not assist pavement dwellers or squatters because they do not want to give legal status to these two categories of the urban poor 2.

2 These nonexistent persons usually consists of the ultra-poor such abandoned wives, old labourers, handicaped persons, beggars and rag pickers who have no source of income and no links with their families. The pavement dwellers eat barely one meal a day and have no fixed sleeping place at night. Health care, whether free or not, is a low priority to both squatters and pavement dwellers and effectively inaccessible. Many arc addicted to tobacco or to liquor as and when they can obtain them.

The «recognised slums» are divided into two classes: those where the development package has already been introduced and those where it is yet to be introduced. These are known as «covered» and «uncovered» slums. Thus, the urban poor may be divided into four broad categories: those in «covered» slums; those in uncovered slums; the pavement dwellers and the squatter population.

Unlike most other cities in India and elsewhere, no section of Calcutta city is completely free of a slum. Settlements of all sizes squeeze in between upper and middle class quarters and continue to spread into any unoccupied space as an amorphous and shapeless mass. Individual slums tend to be homogenous across linguistic and ethnic groups. Bengali-, Hindi-, Urdu- and Oriya-speaking people will typically cluster into a slum according to their spoken language. Nearly all the Urdu-speaking slums will be Muslim. Some Bengali-speaking slums may also be Muslim. The remaining Bengali, Hindi and Oriya slums will be predominantly Hindu.

Consolidated efforts for urban development started in Calcutta in 1971, when CMDA was established to implement urban development plans for a total population of 10.2 million. Its jurisdiction cut across local authorities and encompassed 3 municipal corporations, 31 municipalities, and 2 special status areas extending into 5 districts surrounding the Metro core.

In 1973, slum-upgrading became part of Calcutta’s urban strategy through the CMDA as a result of an interest free loan from the World Bank totaling US$ 35 million. It may have also been motivated by the realization of the authorities that destruction or neglect of the slums could be politically hazardous. The first loan was followed by an additional 87 million dollars in 1977 and 147 million in 1983. The CMDA implemented the Bustee (slum) 3 Improvement Programme (BIP) and undertook infrastructural improvements such as installation of water supplies and latrines, and improvements of roads and lighting. Critics of the BIP have pointed out that purely physical upgrading has worsened the position of the bustee populations. Facilities, including drainage, have not been maintained and State funds have tended to be diverted towards salaries. Rent and water rates increased by 43% in the improved bustee areas compared to 16% in the unimproved ones (CMDA, 1983). This effectively meant that poorer tenants were forced to move out. Today, half of the bustees have received no benefit from the improvement programme. Informal sources cite an excess of funds couples with unplanned spending as one reason preventing sustained progress in this sector. In 1986, CMDA launched a health programme with the assistance of the World Bank but the health programme remained a very small part of the global urban development package. The overall package continued to focus on infrastructural rather than service development.

3 A slum or Bustee is defined by the CMDA as a plot of land not less than 7,200 sq. ft. of human habitation, occupied by huts or intended for the purpose of building huts. Thus all units living in smaller groups or on their own are not slum-dwellers and therefore do not fall within the purview of their programme. Between 1979 and 1980, there were approximately 2,000 bustees in the Calcutta Corporation Area. In the rest of the Calcutta Metropolitan Area (CMA), there were about 1,000 additional bustees.