Sunday, July 16, 2006

The city in crisis

I had posted a piece a few days ago called "Who owns the city". Some of the questions raised there were from an essay I wrote in 2000, after attending a meeting of evironmentalists concerned about the impact of the Metro rail extension work on the Tolly's Nullah (canal) in Calcutta. I reproduce that essay here. This may help people to start viewing the city differently, understanding it better and becoming conscious of their own engagement with their city.


The Metro Rail authorities have clarified that the proposed track extension from Tollygunge to Garia would be over the Tolly’s Nullah, with twin sets of concrete posts being erected over the canal. Environmental activists had expressed serious concern over this matter, as this would mean the dying of the water channel that is believed to be the Adi Ganga. Besides its spiritual and cultural connotations, there is the vital matter of drainage. The Tolly’s Nullah is the principal surface water drainage channel for a large part of southern Calcutta and the suburbs. If it dries up, the city would face severe flooding. The possibility of re-introducing navigation on this canal, as part of a city-wide water-based transportation system, would also forever be ruled out.

The Metro authorities have said that they have obtained all the requisite clearances for this and are about to begin the work on the ground. The extension project has received a handsome budgetary allocation, thanks to the city-based Railway Minister, who has asked for the work to be completed very fast. However, the National Rivers Authority under the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi, has now woken up to the matter. There is also a legal case in process, in the Calcutta High Court, seeking re-excavation of the city canals. The court had ordered for the work to be taken up and funds were made available by the central government for this. But the progress of the work is very slow. A major factor impeding the de-silting work is the presence of dwellings beside the canals. The question of rehabilitation of these dwellers has not yet been substantively addressed.

The stage seems to be set for a confrontation. Not simply between the Metro Rail and environmentalists, but between the different vital aspects of city development. While everyone strongly supports the Metro extension, the severe environmental consequences of the current plan make it non-negotiable. That this is unfortunately labelled as being ‘anti-development’ is only on account of the ‘development’ plan having been entirely inappropriate in the first place.

To be fair to the Metro authorities, once the extension project had been cleared they had approached the state government for land. With the state government having indicated its inability in this respect, the canal itself was chosen to erect the elevated track upon. To the extent possible, the Metro had sought to take other measures, for instance through design parameters of the posts, widening of the canal etc. Regarding the latter, the state government declined to accept the funds offered by the Railways for canal widening, asking for the Metro work to be completed first and saying that they would take up the widening at a later stage.

But the common observer and by-stander to the controversy, the citizen of Calcutta, will only be left more cynical, more bewildered, and feeling more helpless. At root is the whole question of land in Calcutta. This is caught up in a time warp that completely undermines any prospect of wholesome renewal, to become a healthy and thriving metropolis in the twenty-first century world.

If the Metro extension has to now wait for land to be acquired, compensation to be paid, likely litigation to be completed and so on, that would drag on for years. The Lake Gardens fly-over had been held up like this. Completion of the Circular Rail is also held up because of this. So one can understand the pragmatic attitude of the Railways. The land question seems to make the present plan for Metro extension irrefutable. And there lies the rub. This is not something that will be solved with the Metro extension. It is something that is going to haunt and hurt the city increasingly in the coming days.

A huge amount of land in the city is under inappropriate use. About 50 % of the city’s population resides in bastis. These are dense, low-rise settlements, poorly serviced, with people living in cramped shelters. They are spread all over the city. There are closed factories and warehouses in different areas. There are sick and polluting units, over large tracts of land, which are subsidised by the low land rent and wages they pay. There are refugee colonies along infrastructure routes such as highways, canals, rail-tracks. And there are squatters along canals and rail-tracks, whose numbers have only grown over the years. They themselves represent the non-existence of a land and shelter policy; the marginalised poor having no access to legal shelter in the city where they work, squat along canals. But there is also the business of land grabbing, occupation, rental and even sale, by various individuals and groups. While squatters were summarily evicted through the 1980s, now the issue of resettlement is being raised by the authorities. Land-grabbers also often have political backing.

Unless the city’s canals are de-silted, the city will face severe flooding, in its own sewage. The canals cannot be dredged as long as the dwellers are there. There is no land within the city where they can be resettled. Land could be provided outside the city, but at present there is no capability within the city to take up the work of community rehabilitation. The canals have to be constantly maintained. Hence, it would not do for squatters to return once one round of de-silting is completed. But where would the tens of thousands of labouring people, who service the city in various ways, live? Where under present circumstances would the growing numbers in the city’s bastis go?

For any kind of development in the city land is needed. And in the absence of large tracts of vacant land in the city, and the undesirability of city sprawl and appropriation of green land – it is current land use in the city that has to be transformed. Given the large amount of land under bastis and blighted industry, Calcutta has a self-renewal potential that few other cities anywhere in the world have. But let alone the large range of institutional capabilities this entails, there is no basic vision yet in any official quarter of the city’s future. In the meanwhile, illegal constructions come up on basti plots, worsening living conditions there, and eliminating the potential of wholesome renewal.

A vision of the future would also serve to indicate the requisite capabilities for realising the vision. That is not something that can simply be assumed. It is something that has to be built up first. For instance, planned re-use of basti land requires social rehabilitation and community development of a scale and capability that is presently completely non-existent in the city system, within government and within NGOs. That has to be brought into existence first.

Operation Sunshine (to remove hawkers, in 1996) and its aftermath affords a study in the city’s dilemma. It is the lower middle class of the city that needs the hawkers, to buy things at affordable prices. The consequences of congestion, traffic, pollution and so on do not directly enter this citizen’s consciousness. A car-using citizen would have another perspective. But he or she may also be patronising hawkers.

Municipal finance is another matter that nobody pays much attention to, as everyone is involved in protecting their personal interests. Properties are undervalued. It is in the interests of the property owner to keep this low. Due property taxes are not paid. When the amounts in question are large, arrears only benefit the property owner. It may be recalled that a posh city club had its large Corporation tax arrears forcibly recovered. The club’s management committee must surely have included several otherwise upright citizens, corporate and professional leaders. Whither civic sense?

The Corporation is financially crippled. It spends more than it earns. It does not get, from property taxes, what it should. It does not recover costs or charge for its services like water supply or sewage and garbage disposal. It employs a large number of people, engineers, officers, clerical staff and workmen. For all of them, the Corporation is a stable employer. With productivity and probity in question, their personal interests and that of the city system are at loggerheads. Employees are unionised and have in place a means to pursue their sectional interest.

When the question of user charges is raised, the citizen immediately thinks of his pocket and instinctively seeks to resist this. Politicians seek to resist this, distanced as they are from the citizenry, and with no confidence in explaining civic matters to people, collecting user charges and thereafter guaranteeing proper services. Hence, services suffer. And typically, those with least clout in the city, suffer the most. Public health, quality of life, is the casualty.

The city system is linked to ‘politics’. Elite citizens see political parties as catering to their vote banks, who comprise of large numbers of poor and ignorant people, including those involved in criminal activities. They see this as appropriating increasing space in everyday life. A mentality of antagonism, hostility and conflict exists. But the same political machine, cannot be entirely insensitive to the interests of the affluent and business classes either. Thus, when it comes to the crunch, civic amenities in the better-off parts of the city would be sustained at the cost of services to the poorer sections. For the poor and lower-income groups, the city seems to be polarised, with everything stacked against them. Denied rights as citizens, they are compelled to seek ‘political’ strategies to obtain their basic needs. The ‘political’ sphere has to mediate between conflicting interests and is increasingly unable to cope. The reality of the system, akin to a civil war, is becoming exposed.

A number of major city improvement projects are in line. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have given large loans for infrastructure improvement, and assistance has been provided by the French and British. The opportunity has therefore arisen of a concerted drive for city improvement. But in the context of all the fault lines running through the city system one may be very skeptical about the outcome. The loans from the World Bank and the ADB come with stringent conditionalities, relating to reform of the Corporation, introduction of user charges, increasing the tax base etc. These go entirely against the city ethos and one may wonder about what will eventually happen. In the context of the overall economic decline in the city, these project funds will ensure that some sustenance continues for some people for some time.

So with all the protection of self-interest, who cares about the city? Who represents the city, in its plurality? Little wonder then, that there seems to be a complete absence of any positive vision, since polarisation has come to be in the nature of things.

The city can be renewed. It can break from its colonial legacy and build itself anew, and become a means for the development of the bio-region around it. The current problems – whether of slums, or of choked canals – could become the key means for renewal. But for any of that to be realised, the question of civic ownership has to be confronted. Who owns the city? Is there a critical mass of people, rooted in the city, aware of its wealth and poverty, who are competent, diligent and honest, who can act, with a sense of urgency and mission, to further the public interest, whose personal interest is this public interest? Who can understand and communicate, in substance, with diverse interests? Who can do justice to all, and be equally fair and stringent to diverse sections? Who have a clear vision of the future that is not a gimmicky formula, but is something that challenges the whole system to rise to it? It is upon the answer to such questions that the future of Calcutta rests.

“The day is short, the work abundant, the labourers inactive, the reward great, and the master of the house urges on”: a Hebrew saying.

Photo: Achinto

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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