Sleeping out in Kolkata
"There's enough wealth in this city to fill everyone's stomach. It's true, I assure you. You still think like a peasant. But soon you'll be a real Calcutta wallah and know all the tricks". Dominique Lapierre, City of Joy.
This morning, I walked up Kolkata's Park Street, on my way to catch the City Metro. I skirted past the usual beggars, their hands outstretched, in supplication. When I found what I was looking for - a beggar with truncated limbs - I reached into my pocket to give him some rupees. Well above the going rate, I should add. I never give to young people, especially anyone of either gender who is good looking. A matter of policy!
I walked on a bit, to be accosted by a young woman, trying to catch my hand. Her voice, plaintive and persistent, struck a note of desperation. So I capitulated this time: she got me thinking..... Living on the streets in Kolkata is not much fun. Everywhere I go, there are groups of kids sitting around a woman. No men. Maybe they're working. Maybe these families had lost their dads?
I've been searching out more street people today. Not that they take much searching. Kolkata is full of people with no access to shelter. In the 1980s, there were a supposed 300,000 newcomers on the streets (according to the story in City of Joy), though I'm not sure who thought up that number! Now, there are fewer. But it's impossible to give any objective picture of the extent of street sleepers in Kolkata. The city has always had a history of wave upon wave of migrants washing up on its banks. Not just as a result of the Partition in 1947. That was a time of huge brutality. On the west side of India, this huge movement of people happened. It was awful and it finished. That was it.
But here in Kolkata, the streams of migration continued. And a government report issued in 1981estimated that eight million migrants had arrived in Kolkata since then. They come from Rajasthan. They come from Punjab: anywhere in north east India where the farming is poor. But they come from what used to be Calcutta's great hinterland before East Pakistan was created (in what is now Bangladesh). For Bangladesh is a country ravaged by typhoons, and Dhaka is prone to terrible floodings that can overwhelm two thirds of the city.
Many of these newcomers arrive with nothing. Migrants usually move to new countries where they have some kind of conections. Someone from the same village, a brother, cousin or some distant aunt. Even just the name of a person. Anyone. Someone to give newcomers a start of getting settled.
Finding their feet: any newly arrived migrant needs to get on their feet quickly, find their way, search the right avenues for work. They are on their own. Even refugees fleeing violence or pestilence are usually catered for, however inadequately by outfits with names like Care International; Refugee Concern. They offer basic information, rudimentary services, food and some kind of fragile hope about the future. Maybe even resettlement. Street people in Kolkata do not have these kinds of luxuries. They have to become resilient to all the hazards they are likely to encounter right from the start.
If they already had connections in the city they would not be on the streets. Instead, they would be 'doubling up' with friends or relations, in some bustee (shanty housing) in the city. That is where most people end up. According to today's Times of India, thereare 5,000 registered 'slums' in Kolkata, and many others not registered.
In fact, Kolkatan people with property - real property - are in the minority in this city. They are outnumbered two to one by bustee dwellers. New arrivals will end up around the huge Sealdah train station (if they come from Bangladesh) or the even larger Howrah Station across the river, if they are from around Kolkata. If they come by bus, they will arrive at the bus terminals at the northern edge of the Maidon. These newcomers will not venture far. Kolkata is too threatening a place to wander, without knowing where you are. And they have tasks to carry out, before the sun goes down. First things first. Find a space to sleep tonight: somewhere not already taken. Make sure it's safe: street life is troublesome. All kinds of bums, pimps, con-merchants, thieves, wide-boys around. Next: think about the heat and the sunlight. A shady place would be nice. Probably out of the question.
Last, the small issue of noise: traffic, traders, buses, carts, horns, revellers. The lot. It's always possible for a few more thousand souls to squeeze in somewhere on Kolkata's pavements. The city is like a spunge - ready to absorb what ever flotsam or jetsam arrives today. One small matter: rent! No place with all the mod cons - access to water, some nearby santitation, peace and quiet - is free. The police own the streets here, as they do in most places. And they decide what rent to charge.
But making a home on the street takes thought. It may be some time before a more permanent space turns up: somewhere to build a home of one's own.
Tomorrow is the time to search for work. That will be difficult. There are the obvious options - try to find a waste tip somewhere and begin searching for things to sell. But it will probably involve dealing with others who are there already (see picture of the trash 'king'). No easy matter. Probably heavy manual work. The kind no other person wants. Then there are the other obvious options: thievery, selling your body, selling your blood, maybe even selling a kidney or an eye... that sort of thing.
I took the pictures of these street people next to neighbourhoods that were clearly well established. One neighbourhood, still known as Chinatown (although the Chinese have long since moved out) is home to Muslims. The whole tenor of the neighbourhood is of people who know each other well, and look out for one another. They live a stable life together, in spite of whatever conflicts or differences they have and, above all, have a stability in their lives.
This is quite unlike the existences of the street people on the main roads just around the corner. I have talked with people in bustees or shantytowns in other placs in Asia. What is striking is the resilience, the toughness of people who live in established shanty housing. Very often they have set up their own organisations to resist any attempts to get rid of them. And they are well supported - even internationally, through ogansations like Slum Dwellers International.
Its a wholey different world from the fragility, the precariousness, and the hazards of life on the streets of Kolkata (and elsewhere).
An excellent anthology of writings about Kolkata is Amit Chaudhuri's Memory's Gold, 2002 Penguin.
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Saskatoon, Saskatoon, Canada