India is one of the world’s fastest growing economy. Surely this growing economy will help India become a ‘developed state’ from a ‘developing one’ in the future, but this development will come at some cost! Today’s biggest challenge for India is to cope with the wave of urbanisation in this economically liberalised world.
Urbanised cities in the country nowadays have ill equipped and informal housing commonly termed as “slums”. These slums have expanded in an exponential manner in the previous decades. Without having proper access to basic health and civic amenities like sanitation, education and health-care, these slums are slowly turning into a hindrance for the future of this developing nation.
Kolkata erstwhile Calcutta is the kind of a unique / freak Indian city which is nowhere in historical past until the English East India Company came to the country and then suddenly within few years, it became one of the most important cities of India and then within a very short span of time, the second most significant city of the transcontinental British Empire.
The city is one of the fast growing metropolis in the country. The population of Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) was projected at 17 million in the 2011 census, and is projected to be about 20 million by 2021 and 21.1 million by the year 2025.
As per the 2011 census, the slum population of the Indian cities is estimated to be 61.8 million, which is roughly 14.12 per cent of the urban population. A significant proportion of this slum population is without access to even the most basic services. Kolkata is no exception to this phenomenon. The socio-economic profile of the households in KMA undertaken in 2004 by Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) revealed that about 45 per cent of the households lived in slum like environment.
During the winter break from college, I happened to visit ‘Basanti Slums’ in South 24 Parganas district of Kolkata. It was an eye opener to me in many ways as I happened to see the state of the slums which had been ravaged by the recent cyclone to hit the state of West Bengal and Orrisa. I met the people from the slums and learned about the state of affairs of this side of our country.
Narrow roads with filth on either side, criss-cross of electric wires running from everywhere to nowhere. Dimly lit lanes with smoke billowing from the traditional ‘chulhas’. Large hoardings of political leaders who had apparently promised to improve the conditions of the slums if they win the upcoming elections dotted the gateway to one of the city’s most populated slums.
I was led to this place by a local who happens to drive the car of one of my relatives. He is well acquainted with the surrounding and manages to cross the slushy open manholes with ease. I on the other hand, have one of my hands covering my nose with my handkerchief and the other one holding my branded jeans so that it doesn’t get soiled with dirt.
The living condition of the inhabitants in these houses in dismal. Pieces of scrap lumber, cardboards and vinyl sheets make their houses. Clothing and foods are made from the reuse of others. Health care is almost negligent and life expectancy is short. The education is usually done in homes or in the nearby Primary School run by the corporation. The childhood is short as children have to earn money to sustain livelihood at a very young age. Some are orphaned even before they learn to speak. Some have parents but are either too old or too ill to work. Each day is a new struggle for people living here. Apart from needs, nothing carries over to the next day here.
Shamsuddin Qureshi is a butcher living in Narkelbagan lane in the locality. He hails from Amarpur village in Rafigang district of Bihar. Being a butcher by caste, he was expected to carry on the mantle from his father and uncles who have been in the same business for the past thirty-five years.
Shamsuddin has blood smeared all over his undershirt after the early morning business. He says, “Since it is winters, business is good. The festival is coming up so people are buying meat more often.” Shamsuddin has a family of six to take care of, they live in a one room shanty just beside the canal which carries the waste of the entire neighbourhood. The rent of the shanty is Rs. 500 per month and it goes to the landlord who also happens to be the local political leader.
Shamsuddin describes the living condition of his family with great difficulty. He has two daughters and one son, the daughters aged 11 and 9 respectively go the primary school where they happen to get at least one full meal per day because of the mid-day meal scheme of the government.
The son is a toddler who stays with Shamsuddin’s wife who washes chores and does cleaning in the nearby apartments to sustain the livelihood of the family.
Shamsuddin earns approximately 2000 per week which is relatively good for people staying in these slums, says Qamar Maqdoomi, who also works as a butcher and is friends with Shamsuddin.
The family eats the left-over meat from the shop, usually in a porridge stir which according to Shamsuddin is filling and tasty.
The working hours of the family is from 8 in the morning till about 7 in the evening. Shamsuddin’s wife then again goes to clean the chores after dinner and returns late around 11. The day is complete, they sleep on the ‘charpoy’ which has their kitchen in one corner. The next day is a new start for the family with fresh hopes but usually the hopes again carries on to the next day.
Shamsuddin is like the many hundreds who live in the slum, where the situation is quite grim. The people are famished, have limited to no job and are usually troubled by the civic authorities of the area to clean their surroundings.
The sanitation in the area is the worst affected, there is one common toilet which serves to more than 15 families. There is a queue outside it every morning, when the corporation’s water supply comes for 2 hours in the morning and evening.
False promises of building new toilets are made before every elections and the grievances are unheard of after the results of the polls. The children usually wait and use the toilets in their schools.
Safi Ahmed lives in a slum called Parsibagan. He works in factory which laminates papers. His mother tongue is Urdu but he can speak Bengali fluently because he was born in Kolkata. He earlier used to live in a slum in Park Circus with his parents but after his marriage, he moved with his family to Parsibagan in Narkeldanga.
Having been in this occupation for nine years now, he is aware of the health hazards inhalation of plastics causes to him at his workplace. He suffers from tuberculosis and often coughs blood. The local doctor has advised him best rest for three months but Safi has a family of seven members to take care of. Being the sole bread earner of his family, his daily earning is Rs. 300 only and his working period is from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening.
He has to pay a rent of Rs. 300 each month for the 9’ x 9’ room he and his family stays in. His perception about the condition of the slum is that they are bad from the environmental point of view but comfortable in the context of social relations. Regarding poverty he says that it is the gift of God and hence its eradication lies with God only. Of course the government may help to minimise the misery.
Malabika Balmiki is a child who is only seven years old. She works in folding paper factory, colloquially known as ‘Bhajai’. She has been doing this work since she was even smaller and was doing it like an expert sitting by the side of the narrow lane at the entrance of the slum in which her family lived in a room.
In fact this is very common in this place and all children of the family did this work along with the women of the family whenever they got time. The small girl even went to a primary school and studied in Class I. Malabika was very shy and did kept doing her work in a mechanical way.
The slum that she belonged to was primarily a Bengali speaking slum and has been there for many decades and fell with the Thika Tenancy Act. The slum has a number of mosquitos breeding because of an open pond in the vicinity. This has caused various diseases like Malaria and Cholera to the residents of the slum.
Malabika’s perception about the slum where she lives is comfortable since she was born and brought up here and is accustomed to this environment. Regarding poverty she has the opinion that the government should create employment opportunities so that they can improve their living environment.
It’s not hard to figure out the reason as to why slums are still persistent in the country and continues to expand each day. The failure to address fundamental issues of economic opportunity across the country, the population growth, education and urban and rural development is causing deterrent to the growth of the nation and slums are still existing in the society.
In order to reach middle income levels, India needs to create opportunity for the population to be gainfully employed. If these issues are answered there will be a positive impact on the success of India’s growth.
Solving this issue will be no doubt difficult, but would have massive benefits for the nation as a whole and would be a true indicator that India is ready to take on the world at a global stage.