Monday, September 11, 2006

Towards renewal of Calcutta

The Beliaghata canal-side area in Calcutta is today one of the most blighted, decrepit and foul environments. Large numbers of squatters lived beside the canal, on its sides and over its bed. There are large congested, low-rise basti or slum pockets. A quiet process of illegal conversion goes on. There are closed, sick or obsolescent factories. Large tracts of vacant land. And a canal, that was once navigable is now dead, and a foul open sewer.

Flooding occurs because of the siltation of the canal and building upon the east Calcutta wetlands. In 1999 October, flooding reached peak levels and underscored the crucial importance of de-silting the Bidyadhari river. That work was taken up. The squatters were evicted. But there will continue to be a problem. The basic social problem – of squatter resettlement - remains. Experience has shown that they simply return after some time. Squatters were recently evicted from along the rail-tracks adjacent to Lake Gardens. They are to be resettled in Nonadanga in east Calcutta. While the state govt’s acceptance of their resettlement is a major advance, what is being done is very far from the resettlement norms of international development agencies, like the World Bank or Asian Development Bank.

In 1995, an independent civic effort was initiated by Unnayan, to develop a viable plan for the proper rehabilitation of the canal-side squatters. Eventually, this led to a blueprint for highly remunerative area renewal, involving revitalisation of the canal and navigation, and large-scale residential, commercial and institutional developments – which would also satisfactorily provide for squatter resettlement.

The proposal also enabled a bold new vision of Calcutta’s future as a bio-technic city, a powerful organism for the sustainable and bio-regionally appropriate development of city and hinterland in the riverine, deltaic southern Bengal.

The canal nework of Calcutta stretches into the city’s hinterland, the lush green deltaic ecology of South Bengal, which includes Sundarbans. A canal city was conceived of for a culturally vibrant populous lively city, a green tropical city with water, reflecting the articulate nature of its presently distressed people.

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