Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The changing face of crime in the city of Calcutta

“The streets are a marketplace where permissible consumables, regular pleasures and illegitimate services are made available within the same milieu. Crammed together in this cardboard space, both the labouring poor and the poor criminals look to each other for help and sustenance. The borders between crime and backbreaking toil get blurred among the city’s underclass. Crime is quite often seen as a one-shot activity to make a little money on the sly – a moonlighting of sorts.”

“The street shanties and slums have their own CEOs – sardars and dadas – to run the day-to-day administration, like the allotment of space to families, governing the entry of new arrivals, adjudicating in disputes, distribution of assignments to the inhabitants, and so on. They also have a parallel cultural lifestyle that vies with that of their upper class neighbours.”

"The only point of convergence for these two parts of the divided city is Kolkata’s underworld, where sections of the upper class and underclass collaborate in mutual need. A new type of Bengali upper class has emerged over the last few decades, comprised of businessmen, building contractors, land mafia, politicians and bureaucrats. Their easy access to, and exploitation of, financial, administrative and political power has to a large extent determined the growth of organized crime in Kolkata society today. The excess of resources and opportunities – rather than the lack of both as in the case of the city’s poor – has led some among them to seek new ambits of business ventures which are usually bereft of legal rules, and thus favour the proliferation of new forms of crime by the rich."

“Thus, Kolkata offers an interesting example of causality of contraries. The causes of crime in one situation may find their contrary in another environment. On the one hand we find that despite signs of urban prosperity, the lack of legitimate means for earning enough to lead a decent life continues to drive the poor citizens to the conventional forms of petty crime. On the other hand, the abundance of wealth in the hands of a section of the rich is inducing them to invest it in newer and newer illegitimate avenues to accumulate more wealth that is displayed in conspicuous consumption. The disparity reflects the asymmetric distribution of socio-economic freedom and opportunities in today’s Kolkata. The high degree of freedom enjoyed by the criminals among the nouveau riche – in the shape of availability of financial resources and access to political mediators who ensure their immunity against legal prosecution – stands out in sharp contrast with the limited options available in a constricted space that is the lot of the underclass criminals of the traditional type like thieves or pickpockets.”

"But a new generation of criminals has emerged from among this under-class, who have learnt to make use of a political system that has to depend on crime and corruption for its maintenance. They have found opportunities in the vast network of hidden, parallel, and semi-legal economies that had sprung up as appendages to political skullduggery, corporate crime, and administrative corruption of the upper echelons of Bengali society... Unlike the conventional gangs of house-breakers or purse snatchers of the traditional Kolkata underworld, these new gangs have found different occupations by establishing links with the political machinery that engineers the present ‘economic boom’ in Kolkata.

During elections for instance, they lend themselves for hiring by political parties to capture booths and prevent voters from casting votes for the candidates of opposition parties. Once they get the electoral verdict delivered in favour of their patrons, they rest assured that they will be protected by their political bosses, and then move into other areas of operations. If for instance, anyone wants to buy or sell a house in any of the constituencies controlled by them, they extort a certain amount of commission from both – and then, keeping their own share, deliver a percentage to the fund of the party of their political patrons. If a promoter wants to clear a prime area of slums to construct a housing estate, the gang lord is available for rendering the necessary service. Well-trained in the techniques to spread fear, they soon become kings of protection rackets in Kolkata’s middle class neighbourhoods and bazaars, where they collect money from shopkeepers and households by threats of violence. They can get away with anything with total impunity, thanks to the patronage that they receive from their political bosses. One of the city’s notorious gangsters, known as haat kata Dilip, or one-armed Dilip, is a protégé of an important minister of the state. A police officer who dared to arrest him sometime ago earned the ire of the minister who had him shunted out to a low-profile job.

These gangsters of Kolkata today straddle both the underworld of the criminals and the world of the respectable gentry – forging a kinship of intrigue that has become very much a part of the city’s socio-political milieu. The borders between the new upper crust and the new underworld are fast getting blurred. Crime has finally come out of the sewers to gain acceptance in Kolkata’s bhadralok society, and bring together the two divisions once known as the White and Black Towns."

Extracted from: "The underside of a city divided", by Sumanta Banerjee, Seminar, No 559, March 2006, SOUL CITY: a symposium on the many facets of Calcutta.


Bonita said...

This post really makes me want to evaluate the basic nature of man. Is he inclined toward goodness or evil. What is human nature, and how do we promote the betterment of the human race are key questions. But, basic needs must be met, before these questions are considered. A hungry man doesn't ask questions.

Anonymous said...

Political partonage of criminals is nothing new to either Kolkata or India, though the author does establish very clearly the changing power equations; the types of crime mentioned are disappointing as they do not go beyond extorsion and "dada giri" which have existed for may years!

rama said...

Thanks for your visit and comment Anonymous. I suppose you read the full article of Sumanta Banerjee that was linked. To get a feel of what exists here - one should be here. Yes, one can describe all of it in words, but that would be a lengthy boring account! Suffice it to say that extortion percolates and penetrates almost into everyone's everyday lives, directly or indirectly. For instance, if you want to build a house, with your lifetime's savings, on a small plot that you bought long ago, you cannot do that without appeasing local dadas. They might take on supply of all the materials for your construction. The rate you will pay will be higher than the market rate. The quality of the materials will be poor. They will remove a part of the quantity, to sell elsewhere. And there is no certainty about timely delivery. So you end up suffering a hefty financial loss. But of course, they are not criminals. They are simply youth trying to earn a livelihood through this enterprise of materials supply. There is only so much the party can do for its loyal cadre, e.g. through jobs etc. For the rest, being allowed to carry on such extorion, is the reimbursement for service to the party. Of course, a rich developer constructing a condo complex - will also be approached by these pesky elements, but his sweet relations with political higher-ups and the police ensures that he isn't troubled. At the grassroot level, again, one has to be there to know the kind of environment people live within, and the range of criminal activities. Currently, trafficking in women and young girls, making pornographic CDs are some of the new activities being undertaken in slums.

Anonymous said...

liked your post very much mr rama.
i am myself a police officer in kolkata and i really understand the problems faced by the general people.if i apprehend shuntedness(being a govt servant) as i raise my baton against corrupt politicians,can't the common people come forward together and raise their voice against these politicians.i dont find any collective voice on the streets and people prefer to discuss this within the comfort of their drawing rooms and in the presence of close people only.
on theother hand people are more interrested to discuss regarding corruption by the police,irrespective of the place and company.
its time for people to go to the root of the problem.the country is administrated by elected politicians.who orders the police.
the greatest hero for a child is his father.

rama said...

Hullo Policeman, I'm very happy that you visited this blog and read the piece reproduced here. I was very moved to read your response. Yes, its a shame that the citizens have chosen to disregard the whole issue of the dignity of the police force, a force without which the city cannot function even for a minute. Yes, I wish there was a movement to restore the dignity of the police force - which would come primarily though making the police free of political interference, and allow the police to undertake intelligence on political-criminals and take appropriate action against these enemies of society. I was really moved when you said: "the greatest hero for a child is his father." Of course! And its a tragic shame that many heroes of children's eyes have to hang their heads because of political distortion of police work.

Thank you for your comment, which has advanced my thinking in new directions.

Best, rama