Thursday, July 06, 2006
The real Calcutta
Calcutta’s population is about 5 million, and the greater metropolitan area, with a population of 13.2 million (Census, 2001), is spread in a linear north-south alignment along the east and west banks of the Hooghly river, on the two banks of which lie the core cities of Calcutta and Howrah (pop. about 1.5 million).
About 40% of the city population, and a third of the metropolitan population, live in degraded, overcrowded slums lacking in basic civic amenities. This poses acute environmental health risks. Additionally, half a million poor people live in entirely unserviced shanty settlements, with the fear of eviction ever looming over them.
The serious geographic, social and ethnic disparities severely threaten health, the urban environment and social harmony. Muslims constitute just over a fifth of the population of Calcutta city. Over three fourths of the city's Muslim population may be living in slum neighbourhoods. There are deep-rooted and institutionalized attitudinal constraints to improvement in ethnic minority settlements. Socio-economic deprivation and disparity also breeds a criminalised polity and enhances sectarian strife. Illegal building construction, sponsored by the ruling party, dominates life in the Muslim slums.
Howrah, a historically neglected city, is among the most blighted areas. Over half the population here lives in slums, a significant proportion belonging to the minority Muslim community. Available health and infant mortality statistics indicate high morbidity and mortality on account of waterborne diseases. Infant mortality rates in slums may be more than double those in non-slum areas. This stems from the continuing reliance of millions of vulnerable people living in the slum-like bastis on contaminated water sources, in the absence of access to adequate supplies of potable water, and inadequate sanitation.
Despite being a vital and integral part of the city’s sustenance, slumdwellers in the metropolis of Calcutta have, historically, been the city’s unintended citizens, merely exploited but never considered stakeholders in the building and renewal of the city.
In recent years, notwithstanding major slum improvement programmes and investments, aided by multilateral and bilateral international agencies, city development has proceeded in parallel with relentless marginalisation of slum communities.
Outbreaks of epidemics – do not stop at the gates of today’s gated condo-communities.