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<strong>KOLKATA</strong> <strong>SLUMS</strong><br />

Hubs of Hope & Dignity<br />


Nothing can be more heartbreaking than the<br />

definition of slum, which according to the<br />

census is ‘A residential area where dwellings<br />

are unfit for human habitation by reasons of<br />

dilapidation, overcrowding … lack of ventilation,<br />

light or sanitation facility’. Slums are the<br />

entry points of the poor into cities. Migration<br />

of millions proves that villagers see slums as<br />

being hubs of opportunity and dignity- sometimes<br />

slums are better off than villages and<br />

have generated thousands of small but thriving<br />

businesses. Once they migrate to towns,<br />

they escape the caste discrimination and<br />

landowner-dependency of rural India. They<br />

earn far more in towns than in villages,<br />

and the money they send home frees their<br />

relatives from historical dependence on village<br />

feudatories. The poor can enter cities only<br />

through existing or new shanty-towns. This<br />

is illegal, yet fully accepted by politicians as a<br />

legitimate form of entry. So, shanty-towns are<br />

frequently regularized before election time.<br />

Slums are classified in three categories:<br />

notified, recognized and identified, of which<br />

identified slums (have the largest population)<br />

are legally not given the status of a slum.<br />

So, basically a third of the slum population<br />

remains unrecognized. Sharing a small house<br />

with not one but six to seven members is a<br />

common scene of the slums. Most of these<br />

households have one room or are being shared<br />

with another family. Water supply comes once<br />

a day and only lasts for few hours. Others are<br />

built next to train tracks, with children playing<br />

while their parents cook and clean in makeshift<br />

bamboo huts constructed beside the rail lines.<br />

Despite the negativities, the slums happen<br />

to be the hub for recycling and production<br />

of goods.<br />

India is a rising economic power, even as<br />

huge portions of its economy operate in the<br />

shadows. Its “formal” economy consists of businesses<br />

that pay taxes, adhere to labor regulations<br />

and burnish the country’s global image.<br />

India’s “informal” economy is everything else:<br />

the hundreds of millions of shopkeepers,<br />

farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers,<br />

street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, repairmen,<br />

middlemen and more. Experts estimate that<br />

the informal sector is responsible for the overwhelming<br />

majority of India’s annual economic<br />

growth and as much as 90 percent of all<br />

employment. The informal economy exists<br />

largely outside government oversight and, in<br />

the case of slums, without government help<br />

or encouragement.<br />

A major characteristic of the slums is that they<br />

resemble rural centers in an urban milieu. They<br />

began as ‘entry points’ for immigrants to the<br />

city, and tended to duplicate the closeness<br />

and structuring of social life in the village, even<br />

reflecting the earlier occupational background<br />

of the dwellers.<br />

Despite the insanitary conditions and<br />

crowding, life here is generally well-organized,<br />

relatively free of serious crime, and co-operative.<br />

This is partly because of the essentially<br />

rural organization of the slum’s social life, but<br />

also because, as the urban problems of scarcity<br />

and lack of opportunity and mobility have<br />

developed around them, slum dwellers have<br />

been desperate not to lose this last foothold<br />

they have left.<br />

There is a slum area located in Kolkata<br />

where despite of the adverse conditions and<br />

wretched circumstances, the slum dwellers are<br />

facing hunger, deplorable living conditions,<br />

illness, bone breaking work, or no work at all,<br />

but still hold on to the belief that life is precious<br />

and worth living. So much, that they named<br />

their slum “Anand Nagar”, which translated into<br />

English means “City of Joy”. They have learnt<br />

how to live happily, supporting each other, and<br />

seeing the bright side. Kolkata is rightly called<br />

the “City of Joy” for the exuberance and vitality<br />

it exudes.<br />

With an estimated third of Kolkata’s population<br />

living in slums, traveling around the city was<br />

a real assault on the senses, an eye-opening,<br />

provocative experience. The poverty in the<br />

slums was hugely evident, but I was greeted<br />

with smiles. It is among the poor that you often<br />

find the greatest generosity of spirit. It is those<br />

who have next to nothing who seem most

willing to share. I attempted to capture with<br />

my lens, the humble breath hidden below all<br />

that wretchedness: the human dignity of these<br />

people, their sweetness and their optimism.<br />

In India I saw something I would have never<br />

thought was possible — I saw unity in poverty.<br />

The people in the slums seem to have few<br />

problems with each other — they face enough<br />

problems as it is. Citizens living in the slums<br />

demonstrated no hatred or violence towards<br />

each other or me, a visitor within their country.<br />

The streets were filled with people walking as<br />

if they did not have any fear of anyone<br />

harassing or harming them. They always keep<br />

hope alive, no matter what problems they<br />

face. Hope. Hope is essential in poverty, just as<br />

much as unity.<br />

My time in Kolkata was hugely fulfilling and<br />

enlightening. The city streets have many tales<br />

to tell, all of which redefine the power to live.<br />

Kolkata breathes the genesis of strength,<br />

courage, fortitude. A power that stirs the inner<br />

resonances of the humble, homely and creative<br />

legacy of a beautiful old city.<br />

THE CITY OF <strong>KOLKATA</strong><br />

Former Capital of British India until 1911, the<br />

River Port City of Kolkata in eastern India is the<br />

State Capital of West Bengal, 175 klm upstream<br />

from the Bay of Bengal. Some 300 years back,<br />

Job Charnok of the British East India Trading<br />

Company took lease of three villages on<br />

the eastern bank of River Hoogly, namely,<br />

Kalikotha, Govindapur and Sutanuti from the<br />

Roychowdhuries of Sabarna and the City of<br />

Calcutta, now Kolkata came into existence,<br />

deriving the name from the village Kalikotha<br />

(the abode of Goddess Kali).<br />

One of India’s largest metropolises with around<br />

15 million people, it is the epicenter of rich<br />

Bengali culture and tradition and is now aptly<br />

projected as the Gateway to the Eastern Hemisphere.<br />

Kolkata was instrumental in India’s struggle<br />

for independence. Visionaries like Swami Vivekanada,<br />

Raja Rammohan Roy, Nobel Laureate<br />

World Poet Rabindranath Tagore, a great charismatic<br />

leader like Netaji Subhas Shandra<br />

Bose, Scientists Jagadish Chandra Bose and<br />

Prof. Satyen Bose and the maestro filmmaker<br />

Satyajit Ray, all belong to the City, along with<br />

other distinguished and eminent personalities<br />

from different spheres of life like dancer Udayshankar<br />

and his brother sitar maestro Ravishankar,<br />

Nobel Laureate economist Amartya<br />

Sen and the creator of Indrajaal, the magician<br />

per excellence P.C. Sorcar Sr. They all<br />

made Kolkata proud and famous. To the outer<br />

world, Kolkata is also famous as the City where<br />

Mother Teresa lived and died serving the poor<br />

and the destitute.<br />


Flower Market: It can also be termed as<br />

Heritage Market. Beneath the east end of<br />

Howrah Bridge, Mullick Ghat Kolkata Flower<br />

Market is eastern India’s largest flower market<br />

with hundreds of stalls. Around 2,000 flower<br />

growers from the surrounding areas come<br />

to sell their flowers and garlands. During the<br />

wedding and festive season this number<br />

is doubled.<br />

Hooghly River, the last arm of the Ganges<br />

and Howrah Bridge: Cruising up the Hooghly<br />

River to discover the unseen side of Kolkata<br />

with a ring-side view of the myriad happenings<br />

on the river’s ghats. Howrah Bridge in Kolkata<br />

spans over river Hooghly and is considered<br />

to be a marvelous engineering work by the<br />

British. It was completed in 1943 and it took<br />

nearly seven long years to construct it.<br />

Kumartuli: This unique artisan village dates<br />

back 400 years, one of the oldest of its kind<br />

in the world. Around 250 artists work to<br />

produce 40,000 idols a year, including 3500<br />

images of Durga. With more than a thousand<br />

workers assisting the artisans, Kumartuli is a<br />

mini industry.<br />

Book Market & College Street: Kolkatans are<br />

well-known for their passion for books and<br />

this area is a treasure for the city’s book lovers.<br />

You can find them every day spending hours<br />

browsing through the loads of new books<br />

or bargaining for buying a second hand one.<br />

Some of the Kolkata’s most renowned academic<br />

institutions like Kolkata University, Presidency<br />

College, Kolkata Medical College and Sanskrit<br />

College are also located in College Street.<br />

Indian Coffee House: Also known as “Albert<br />

Hall”, this is the most favorite gathering place<br />

for writers, intellectuals, artists and students<br />

for many decades. Casual chatting for hours<br />

about any issue is the favorite social activity of<br />

any Bengali and here in this large historical and<br />

legendary café.<br />

Mother Teresa’s House and the Missionaries<br />

of Hope: Known in the Catholic Church as Saint<br />

Teresa of Calcutta. In 1950, Teresa founded the<br />

Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious<br />

congregation, which in 2012 consisted of<br />

over 4,500 sisters and was active in 133 countries.<br />

The Mother House of the Missionaries<br />

of Charity, located at 54A, A.J.C. Bose Road,<br />

Kolkata, has been home to Mother Teresa and<br />

her sisters from February 1953 to the present<br />

day. It is here that Mother lived, prayed,<br />

worked, and guided her religious family of<br />

sisters spread across the world. It is here that<br />

her body was laid to rest.



















Gregory David Roberts, in his book, Shantaram, in a gorgeous,<br />

humane description of India, describes what he felt seeing<br />

the slums where millions of economically-ravaged people try<br />

to make a life for themselves:<br />

“ … For the first sight of the slums, clutched at my heart with<br />

talons of shame. The miserable shelters were patched together<br />

from rugs, scraps of plastic and paper, reed mats, and bamboo<br />

sticks. They slumped together, attached one to another and<br />

with narrow lanes winding between them. Nothing in the<br />

enormous sprawl of it rose much above the height of a man.<br />

My first impression was that some catastrophe had taken place,<br />

and that the slums were refugee camps for the shambling<br />

survivors. I learned, months later, that they were survivors, of<br />

course, those slum-dwellers: the catastrophes that had driven<br />

them to the slums from their villages were poverty, famine and<br />

bloodshed. And five thousand new survivors arrived in the city<br />

every week, week after week, year after year. As the kilometers<br />

wound past, as the hundreds of people in those slums became<br />

thousands and tens of thousands, my spirit writhed. I felt it<br />

at all; it is a lacerating guilt, that first confrontation with the<br />

wretched of the earth. Then the smolders of shame and guilt<br />

flamed into anger, became fist-tightening rage at the unfairness<br />

of it: What kind of a government, I thought, what kind of<br />

a system allows suffering like this? But the slums went on kilometer<br />

after kilometer, relieved only by the awful contrast of<br />

the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss covered apartment<br />

buildings. A kind of wonder possessed me. I began to<br />

look beyond the immensity of the slum societies and to see<br />

the people who lived within them. A woman stopped to brush<br />

forward the black stain psalm of her hair. Another bathed her<br />

children with water from a copper dish. A man led three goats<br />

with red ribbons tied to the collars at their throats. Another<br />

man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played<br />

everywhere. Men carried water in bucks. Men made repairs to<br />

one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled<br />

and laughed. I looked at the people then, and I saw how busy<br />

they were-how much industry and energy described their<br />

lives. Occasional sudden glimpses inside the huts revealed<br />

the astonishing cleanliness of that poverty. The spotless floors<br />

and glistening metal pots in neat, tapering towels. And then,<br />

last, what should’ve been first, I saw how beautiful they were:<br />

the women wrapped in crimson, blue and gold; the women<br />

walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum<br />

with patient, ethereal grace, the white toothed, almond eyed<br />

handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie<br />

of the fine limbed children, older ones playing with younger<br />

ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on<br />

their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I<br />

smiled for the first time...” To my eyes, the city was beautiful. It<br />

was wild and exciting. Buildings that were British Raj-romantic<br />

stood side to side with modern, mirrored business towers. I<br />

heard music from every ship and passing taxi. The colors were<br />

vibrant. The fragrances were dizzyingly delicious. And there<br />

were more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets than in<br />

any other place I’d ever known. Above all else, Bombay is freeexhilaratingly<br />

free. I saw that liberated unconstrained spirit<br />

wherever I looked and I found myself responding to it with the<br />

whole of my heart. Even the flare of shame I’d felt when I first<br />

saw the slums and the street beggars dissolved in the understanding<br />

that they were free, those men and women. No one<br />

banished the slum-dwellers. Painful as their lives were, they<br />

were free to live them in the same gardens and avenues as the<br />

rich and powerful. The city was free. I loved it.”

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