Slum-urbanization in India: The experience of Kolkata

Prof Mahalaya Chatterjee

In India, slums are part of urban reality. It is officially acknowledged that slums are the manifestations of urban poverty. This statement is debatable as there may be other pockets of poverty in urban area which are less visible. But any discussion about urban economy is incomplete without any discussion about the economic situation in the slums.

Generally speaking, slums are the low-quality housing found in the urban areas which originated in the colonial era. The migrants came to the emerging urban areas (port cities, factory towns, plantations etc.) in search of jobs such as domestic workers which had substantial female component while other occupations were male-dominated. Due to mismatch between demand and supply of amenities and services, only some employers were able to provide for residential accommodations while others raised hutments and gave them on rent to these migrants. So, the issue of sanctity in terms of provision of separate bathing chamber/latrine/kitchen was not so serious. The overall supply of such low-prices housing was too inadequate compared to the demand. So, the density of such settlements was generally higher than the average population density of the urban area. The mal-functioning of the urban housing market and stagnant income did not allow the settlers to move to better quality housing with the passage of time. The slums became permanent features of urban India. With second and third generation migrants, the female component in the slums increased. Then the basic necessities and provisions became more and more inadequate over time.

At one time, it was believed that slums are found in big cities. The malfunctioning of the land market, high price of land or non-availability of rental housing in affordable rent forced the urban poor to live in slums. Another belief was that slums are the habitation of the migrants – male dominated bastions. But official statistics show that slums are found in urban areas of all size classes and the gender ratio of the slums of a town is not much different from the urban area itself. Both of them point to the changing nature of slums in the country. The slums are no more temporary shelters of the illiterate, unskilled migrant from the villages. They have become permanent residences for the people working in mostly in the tertiary informal economy of the urban area. The second perception about slum was that it was mainly inhabited by male migrant workers. But Census data reveals that except for Chandigarh, the gender ratio is on the higher side for most of the states. In fact in Nagaland and three southern states, it is females outnumber men. So the after generations, slums are family houses contrary to our belief. Census data also show that the average literacy rate is quite high in the slums in most of the states. It is highest in Mizoram and nowhere is it below 55%.

Though there is evidence of gender gap in literacy rate, it follows the same pattern. The lowest female literacy rate is in Bihar, but there also 50% of the females are literate. The third perception is that slums are the place from where the supply of manual labour comes in the urban areas. This is especially true for the females. Every middle class/upper middle class household depend on the slums for the supply of their domestic helps. Here comes the deviation from reality. An examination of Census data will show that the Work Participation Rate (WPR) in the slums is not at all high, rather it is almost at par with the state WPR. And the Female Work Participation Rate (FWPR) is as usual low, not different from the urban FWPR in the country.

Kolkata, the major metropolis in the eastern part of the country. It was the capital of British India till 1911 and a major port-cum-industrial hub. Low quality settlement grew in not only the main city of Kolkata but also in the industrial towns along the river Hooghly, which is now the Kolkata Metropolitan Area. Titagarh, one of the small jutetown about 30 kilometre north of the city, had the highest percentage of population living in slums in the eighties of the last century. Howrah, the twin city of Kolkata, across the river became internationally famous for the Pilkhana Bustee, which was the backdrop of the Dominic Lapierre’s novel ‘City of Joy’. It was later turned into a movie starring Om Puri.

Coming to the main city of Kolkata, of the 144 wards, there is no slum in 19 of them. These ‘no-slum’ wards are scattered all over the city – the central commercial zone, affluent wards of South Kolkata, the institutionalized area of Alipore and added areas. There are altogether 1263 bustees in the city, inhabited by 361,000 families, housing 12 lakh people, with almost equal division between the genders. The average size of a Kolkata Bustee is about 25,000 sq.metre but the largest is about ten times of it. If we look into the borough-wise count of slums, they are mostly located in 7 and 8, at the central part of the city. The average family income of the slum-dwellers is between rs.2500 and 3,500 per month. The tailoring and tannery clusters located in the south-west and east of the city show higher levels of earning. The males outnumber female as workers, the number of female workers are only one-tenth that of men. The highest number of workers for both gender are in service, permanent or temporary. The number of females is higher than that of men only in case of domestic workers and labourer. Most of the workers belong to the unorganized sector: small business, shopowners, hawkers and vendors. There are evidences of clusters depending on localized activities e.g. more than 75% of the male workers of wards 40 and 41 work in printing industry.

As for the distribution of amenities are concerned, availability of water is mainly through stand posts within the premises and on the roadside. However, the number of hand pumps is also quite high and even there are dugwells also (they are mainly concentrated in the wards along the Tolly’s Nullah). Only one-third of the bustees have proper covered drains. Illegal cowsheds (khatals) are also there. Some service latrines are still there. Econometric exercise show that the distribution of amenities is negatively related with the size of the slum and positively with the income of the dwellers.

One noticeable feature of the Kolkata bustees is that only 16 % of the hutments are pucca, the others are kutcha as far as floor and roof is concerned. This calls for further investigation, hich takes us to the issue of land market and development paradigm flowed in Kolkata. This city never went for slum removal as a policy rather than the model of in-situ development and provision of amenities followed by the Calcutta (now Kolkata) Metropolitan Development Authority started from early seventies was unique by itself. It was later expanded all over the country in the name of Environmental Improvement of Urban Slums. This could have been made possible because of the existence of the Thika Tenancy Act for the slum lands. This act was passed first in 1949. At that time, it was a three-tier structure with a landlord owning the land, a thika tenant constructing the hutment and then renting it to a subtenant. It has undergone numerous amendments in last seventy years with definition of thika tenant being changed to protect him from eviction. The other remarkable change was in 1969, when pucca structure was first allowed. The redevelopment work by KMDA was prohibited by the landowners and so by the 1981 amendment, all such land vested to the State and the thika tenant became directly linked with the State, his name being registered with the Thika Controller. By the 2001 amendment, it was extended to all municipal towns of West Bengal. The last amendment came in 2019. By this, multistoried buildings with normal FAR was allowed in the Bustees, it was to be done with the consent of both the Thika tenant and the subtenant, now named lessee and assignee, for the betterment of living condition for both of them. With the advent of pandemic, we are yet to see the impact of this amendment. But the apprehension is that petty promoters will take advantage of the amendment and that may lead to the end of such slums in the city of Kolkata.

The above are the event excerpts from the webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global on Slum-urbanization in South Asia: The Experience of Kolkata. The speakers were Prof Mahalaya Chatterjee, Professor, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, Calcutta University and Prof Souvnic Roy, Department of Architecture, Town and Regional Planning, IIEST, Shibpur

YouTube Video for ‘Slum-Urbanization in South Asia: The Experience of Kolkata

Read more on the event here.

Featured Image Courtesy: Indrajit Das , CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons