"The property scenario in Kolkata is changing fast and it has indeed changed drastically since the time it was known as 'Calcutta'. The image of erstwhile Calcutta with modestly-built houses and slums is fading swiftly and in its place a new image of modern Kolkata with high rises and plush houses is in the making".
I love the way these PR guys write this stuff - smooth, sweet, leaving a fresh taste in yer mouth! But is this stuff really true?
While I've been visting Kolkata this last week or so, I've done a lot of poking around to see how much new housing is going up. I've walked hither and thither, photographing and listening to what people have said to me. You can learn a lot by asking taxi-drivers! One taxi driver described the previous (Communist Party of India - Marxist) administration as 'arrogant thugs'. They built very little new housing in thirty-two years of power. But things have improved.....a little!
But for at least a third of the population (this is guesswork), Kolkata is still a grim place to exist. Many people come nowhere near 'living': they survive from day to day on the pavements. Kolkata still needs a huge housing transformation. The figures are bad. Very bad, in fact. Official figures (Kolkata MDA 2000: Vision 2025 Perspective Plan) reckon the city needs 70,000 plus new dwellings each year.
That's the official line anyway. Unofficially? Things are worse. The city only recognises bustee
dwellers who are registered. One researcher (M Christiensen, writing on Calcutta in the Encyclopedia of Homelessness Vol 1 2004) thinks that there are five million people living on the streets or in cardboard or bamboo make-shift homes who are not being counted. And up to a half of all Kolkatan families live in just one room (some live four families to a room, each family having just a chowki
or cot to themselves - see Times of India, April 4th 2009). Four fifths of Kolkatans are officially "low income earners". So anyone hoping for a nice new place as advertised in the New Kolkata is going to need to figure out carefully how to pay for it. The blue plastics:
Everwhere you look in Kolkata, you can see little islands of blue plastic tarpaulins squeezed in amongst the highways, the railway lines, old factories and rundown housing blocks. These shacks are packed together like sardines in a tin. Some people were lucky (see my photos): they moved to the city early and found spaces near where they might get work. Some have been able to make small improvements to their shacks - better roofing, sturdier frames, better storage space, a second flloor maybe - things like that. Nothing ideal of course, but they've made the best they can out of the space they've won. Saving a bit of money here and there, getting the kids to find work or beg, and putting that towards an extra room, or a lockable door. The lucky ones
Perhaps they found a space with some peace and quiet, away from the traffic, in the lanes that criss-cross downtown. In some places, there are even public toilets. And the men at least can wash at the street corner faucets (women have to carry their water inside somewhere to get some privacy). Some bustees also have electricity. Around the edge of Salt Lake City (a new town built in the 60s and 70s) that houses middle income groups, there are strings of blue plastic roofs with rickshaws parked here and there (see Anousha's excellent photos of Salt Lake City bustees), or some cooking equipment placed outside. And the canal that surrounds Salt Lake doubles up as the "Rest Room" as Americans quaintly put it.
These of course are the lucky few. Most bustees
are nothing like that. Many are little more than tents of plastic, held down at the corners with stones.The kind of thing that wise words from the UN should have outlawed long ago. (Question: why isn't basic quality housing for all part of the UN Millenium Development
Goals?). So clearly, the city has a lot on its plate if it wants to fulfil its PR vision. It has made a start. It is selling off its own stock of housing to tenants at knock down prices. Quite smart thinking for an authority that makes a huge loss each year on its own housing. But that makes it harder for new people in desperate need to stand any chance of getting a council home. The dream Kolkata:
But the really lucky ones are the minority group - that fifth of the city's population not in desperate housing need and with decent, steady incomes to pay for what is built. They are the New Kolkatans: those professionals who will come to work in the IT call centres, the engineers and technicians bringing the new prosperity for this City. They will live in the luxury housing, with big windows, gorgeous views over lakes, and all the modern conveniences (sorry that should now read - luxuries).
Kolkata desparately needs these new factories and capital investments if it is to compete in the new globalised landscape. It can only do this by public-private partnerships (PPPs) now. That means it has to consider the needs and interests of this new international capital and make sure there enough profit there to attract them. So it plans to clean up the city and build the super,duper new Kolkata of sleek towers with dream names on the edge of Kolkata. But politicians are optimistic.And everyone knows there will be tradeoffs
Of course, officials have to consider the poor too. At least on paper. Ive read some of the documents: "Social measures... designed to ensure that no population groups are disadvantaged.... equitable accessibility t o ...services .....affordable by the poorer groups .......... plan addresses needs .... socially disadvantaged trash sorters..... resettlement also includes an approved resettlement
...blah, blah blah. And the World Bank: "will seek to halt environmental degradation of Calcutta ..... equitable .... investments in urban infrastructure.... sustained delivery... directly benefit about 190,000 slum dwellers, 1.4 million people through improved sewerage.... improvements will assist the welfare of the dwellers.... sewage...... facilitating their mainstreaming into the city economy. About 180,000-210,000 of the slum dwellers live below the poverty line....... stakeholder consultative process will help to empower communities, and give them confidence to participate in the affairs of their local area".
What poppycock! Down to earth:
Personally speaking, I don't believe anyone who uses phrases like "will seriously address the issues" or "sustainable"..."participative"..blah,blah, blah. I smell the stink of tradeoffs
instead. Call me a cynic of you like. Only in 1996, the City launched Operation Sunshine to evict over 50,000 hawkers from the main streets and bazaars, as part of its attempts to create the city beautiful ( S Banerjee: Revisiting Kolkata - Econ & Planning weekly Dec 4, 2004
). And I'm particularly suspicious of the Asian Development Bank's: "Involuntary Resettlement Policy
which, it claims, ensures no group is disadvantaged as a result of project implementation".
Pull the other leg, matey!
It's true that, in the past, a portion of the new towns like Salt Lake City (built in the 60s and 70s) had an area specifically for low income housing. The city kept its promises then. But that was then. This is now. The economic climate is..er...harsh. Profit margins squeezed. Property prices plummeting.
A lot of energy is going into constructing some new blocks of luxury and modest housing, along the highway leading to the airport. It is a massive undertaking, in an area next to the new economic zone which the City hopes will be the next big IT centre. Already there are a few IT call centres in the city. There's also a huge amount of land that has been flattened where nothing is happening. And Tata have called off their plans for a new vehicle construction plant. There are some stories in the Times of India and The Telegraph that paint the City's plans in day-glow colours but these seem little more than the PR releases. For instance, the Times of India (June 2007): "Highrise towers could soon sprout in slum land and in prime locations like Golpark, Gariat and Alipore Road - without evicting slum dwellers. A large amount of land has been earmarked for this development". Ditch the poor:
But also, there is what A Roy calls 'amnesia' (City Requiem, Calcutta: gender and the politics of identity, 2003). In plain English that means the city is more or less ignoring the needs of Kolkata's poor and hoping to fill most blocks with people who can afford to pay for the housing. I'm sure the authorities believe they are doing what they can to solve the housing problem. But they are kidding themselves since many people in need of housing can't even register - they are the illegal jhuggi
dwellers. These are people with no secure, stable jobs and certainly no means of paying market rates even for low income housing. But I did find an article describing the problems the City is having in getting the jhuggi
dwellers to move out.
Officials have been looking for plots of land where they could redevelop part for social housing and the rest for commercial uses (to pay for the subsidised housing) but the law is complicated and would need changing. Some of the jhuggi dwellers are willing to move; many others are not and have taken the case to Court. The British developers are screaming at the City over the time delays and no one knows what to do next. I'm sure British local authority officials would laugh and say to their Indian counterparts: "welcome to the problems of redevelopment".
Two researchers who have looked in detail at Kolkata's plans are Urmi Sengupta and Allen G Tipple (Urban Studies v.44.10 2007). They are critical. Very critical. All the talk by Kolkata of "a perfect mix of balance of profit-making and welfare" is unrealistic. So far, they say that less than two percent of the City's budget in the past has ever gone towards the needs of the poor. And so far, of all the housing units, less than twenty percent has gone to the poor, leaving a huge gap in supplying the needed 70,000 units a year. For the researchers the key issue is the cost of building low income housing that people in the bustees
can afford. The government wants banks to offer at least some 2% low income loans. They banks have refused, arguing they will never get their money back from the poor. The researchers make some withering coments too about the way nearly all the funds being invested are going towards the private housing. Instead, they say that money would be better spent in upgrading the facilities of the 5,000 existing bustees
by providing proper water and sanitation, roads, and services (such as clinics and schools). Milan's vote:
Milan is 18 years old and a first time voter. The Times of India (April 4th) says he intends to vote, like his father has always done. "We have been here for 40 years. Elections come and go. Many promises are made. But politicians conveniently forget our existence after the election. There has been no change in our lives".
He lives in Kalikapur colony no. 3, close to the Ruby General Hospital on Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Milan works as a car-cleaner and dreams of owning a car some day. "But his bigger dream is to take his family out of this hell. After a day's work. as he rests with his siblings and parents in a tiny mud and bamboo hut, he wishes he had a flat like the one where his mother works as a maid to make ends meet. It's a dream he sees every day. And every day it ends with a sigh. The stark reality of living in a slum that has no toilet and one tube-well for the 2,000 people has throttled many a dream".
Kolkata's approach to financing these housing developments through public-private partnerships may be radical. But can you see a City that has for years ignored the needs of its poor now change its direction and plan adequate housing for them? Would it be prepared to bite into the huge PPP development budgets to build the new luxury housing for the New Kolkatans that it hopes to attract to the City of the future. I don't think so! Photos: There are many pics to illustrate this account, only sometimes they disappear into cyberspace. They are an important part of the story. If you can't get them, click at the bottom of the story. Post script
: This is a rather simplified picture of the complex housing problems that Kolkata is facing. I hope it gives a flavour of the many difficulties.