KOLKATA SLUMS

dimitrastasinopoulou

KOLKATA SLUMS

Hubs of Hope & Dignity

DIMITRA STASINOPOULOU


Nothing can be more heartbreaking than the

definition of slum, which according to the

census is ‘A residential area where dwellings

are unfit for human habitation by reasons of

dilapidation, overcrowding … lack of ventilation,

light or sanitation facility’. Slums are the

entry points of the poor into cities. Migration

of millions proves that villagers see slums as

being hubs of opportunity and dignity- sometimes

slums are better off than villages and

have generated thousands of small but thriving

businesses. Once they migrate to towns,

they escape the caste discrimination and

landowner-dependency of rural India. They

earn far more in towns than in villages,

and the money they send home frees their

relatives from historical dependence on village

feudatories. The poor can enter cities only

through existing or new shanty-towns. This

is illegal, yet fully accepted by politicians as a

legitimate form of entry. So, shanty-towns are

frequently regularized before election time.

Slums are classified in three categories:

notified, recognized and identified, of which

identified slums (have the largest population)

are legally not given the status of a slum.

So, basically a third of the slum population

remains unrecognized. Sharing a small house

with not one but six to seven members is a

common scene of the slums. Most of these

households have one room or are being shared

with another family. Water supply comes once

a day and only lasts for few hours. Others are

built next to train tracks, with children playing

while their parents cook and clean in makeshift

bamboo huts constructed beside the rail lines.

Despite the negativities, the slums happen

to be the hub for recycling and production

of goods.

India is a rising economic power, even as

huge portions of its economy operate in the

shadows. Its “formal” economy consists of businesses

that pay taxes, adhere to labor regulations

and burnish the country’s global image.

India’s “informal” economy is everything else:

the hundreds of millions of shopkeepers,

farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers,

street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, repairmen,

middlemen and more. Experts estimate that

the informal sector is responsible for the overwhelming

majority of India’s annual economic

growth and as much as 90 percent of all

employment. The informal economy exists

largely outside government oversight and, in

the case of slums, without government help

or encouragement.

A major characteristic of the slums is that they

resemble rural centers in an urban milieu. They

began as ‘entry points’ for immigrants to the

city, and tended to duplicate the closeness

and structuring of social life in the village, even

reflecting the earlier occupational background

of the dwellers.

Despite the insanitary conditions and

crowding, life here is generally well-organized,

relatively free of serious crime, and co-operative.

This is partly because of the essentially

rural organization of the slum’s social life, but

also because, as the urban problems of scarcity

and lack of opportunity and mobility have

developed around them, slum dwellers have

been desperate not to lose this last foothold

they have left.

There is a slum area located in Kolkata

where despite of the adverse conditions and

wretched circumstances, the slum dwellers are

facing hunger, deplorable living conditions,

illness, bone breaking work, or no work at all,

but still hold on to the belief that life is precious

and worth living. So much, that they named

their slum “Anand Nagar”, which translated into

English means “City of Joy”. They have learnt

how to live happily, supporting each other, and

seeing the bright side. Kolkata is rightly called

the “City of Joy” for the exuberance and vitality

it exudes.

With an estimated third of Kolkata’s population

living in slums, traveling around the city was

a real assault on the senses, an eye-opening,

provocative experience. The poverty in the

slums was hugely evident, but I was greeted

with smiles. It is among the poor that you often

find the greatest generosity of spirit. It is those

who have next to nothing who seem most


willing to share. I attempted to capture with

my lens, the humble breath hidden below all

that wretchedness: the human dignity of these

people, their sweetness and their optimism.

In India I saw something I would have never

thought was possible — I saw unity in poverty.

The people in the slums seem to have few

problems with each other — they face enough

problems as it is. Citizens living in the slums

demonstrated no hatred or violence towards

each other or me, a visitor within their country.

The streets were filled with people walking as

if they did not have any fear of anyone

harassing or harming them. They always keep

hope alive, no matter what problems they

face. Hope. Hope is essential in poverty, just as

much as unity.

My time in Kolkata was hugely fulfilling and

enlightening. The city streets have many tales

to tell, all of which redefine the power to live.

Kolkata breathes the genesis of strength,

courage, fortitude. A power that stirs the inner

resonances of the humble, homely and creative

legacy of a beautiful old city.

THE CITY OF KOLKATA

Former Capital of British India until 1911, the

River Port City of Kolkata in eastern India is the

State Capital of West Bengal, 175 klm upstream

from the Bay of Bengal. Some 300 years back,

Job Charnok of the British East India Trading

Company took lease of three villages on

the eastern bank of River Hoogly, namely,

Kalikotha, Govindapur and Sutanuti from the

Roychowdhuries of Sabarna and the City of

Calcutta, now Kolkata came into existence,

deriving the name from the village Kalikotha

(the abode of Goddess Kali).

One of India’s largest metropolises with around

15 million people, it is the epicenter of rich

Bengali culture and tradition and is now aptly

projected as the Gateway to the Eastern Hemisphere.

Kolkata was instrumental in India’s struggle

for independence. Visionaries like Swami Vivekanada,

Raja Rammohan Roy, Nobel Laureate

World Poet Rabindranath Tagore, a great charismatic

leader like Netaji Subhas Shandra

Bose, Scientists Jagadish Chandra Bose and

Prof. Satyen Bose and the maestro filmmaker

Satyajit Ray, all belong to the City, along with

other distinguished and eminent personalities

from different spheres of life like dancer Udayshankar

and his brother sitar maestro Ravishankar,

Nobel Laureate economist Amartya

Sen and the creator of Indrajaal, the magician

per excellence P.C. Sorcar Sr. They all

made Kolkata proud and famous. To the outer

world, Kolkata is also famous as the City where

Mother Teresa lived and died serving the poor

and the destitute.

PLACES VISITED

Flower Market: It can also be termed as

Heritage Market. Beneath the east end of

Howrah Bridge, Mullick Ghat Kolkata Flower

Market is eastern India’s largest flower market

with hundreds of stalls. Around 2,000 flower

growers from the surrounding areas come

to sell their flowers and garlands. During the

wedding and festive season this number

is doubled.

Hooghly River, the last arm of the Ganges

and Howrah Bridge: Cruising up the Hooghly

River to discover the unseen side of Kolkata

with a ring-side view of the myriad happenings

on the river’s ghats. Howrah Bridge in Kolkata

spans over river Hooghly and is considered

to be a marvelous engineering work by the

British. It was completed in 1943 and it took

nearly seven long years to construct it.

Kumartuli: This unique artisan village dates

back 400 years, one of the oldest of its kind

in the world. Around 250 artists work to

produce 40,000 idols a year, including 3500

images of Durga. With more than a thousand

workers assisting the artisans, Kumartuli is a

mini industry.

Book Market & College Street: Kolkatans are

well-known for their passion for books and

this area is a treasure for the city’s book lovers.

You can find them every day spending hours

browsing through the loads of new books

or bargaining for buying a second hand one.

Some of the Kolkata’s most renowned academic

institutions like Kolkata University, Presidency

College, Kolkata Medical College and Sanskrit

College are also located in College Street.

Indian Coffee House: Also known as “Albert

Hall”, this is the most favorite gathering place

for writers, intellectuals, artists and students

for many decades. Casual chatting for hours

about any issue is the favorite social activity of

any Bengali and here in this large historical and

legendary café.

Mother Teresa’s House and the Missionaries

of Hope: Known in the Catholic Church as Saint

Teresa of Calcutta. In 1950, Teresa founded the

Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious

congregation, which in 2012 consisted of

over 4,500 sisters and was active in 133 countries.

The Mother House of the Missionaries

of Charity, located at 54A, A.J.C. Bose Road,

Kolkata, has been home to Mother Teresa and

her sisters from February 1953 to the present

day. It is here that Mother lived, prayed,

worked, and guided her religious family of

sisters spread across the world. It is here that

her body was laid to rest.


HOWRAH BRIDGE ON HOOGHLY RIVER


MULLIK GHAT FLOWER MARKET SLUM


FLOWER MARKET


PAIKARA BASTI SLUM


KAKURQACHI SLUM


PARK CIRCUS TRAIN STATION SLUM


TOPSIA SLUM


KAMARTULI POTTERY AREA


BOOK MARKET, COLLEGE STREET


INDIAN COFFEE HOUSE


HOWRAH TRAIN STATION


MOTIJHEED SLUM


DUM DUM AREA


HOOGHLY RIVER & HOWRAH BRIDGE


NIGHT FLOWER MARKET


DHAPA AREA


RURAL KOLKATA- BAWALI VILLAGE


NODOKALI VILLAGE


Gregory David Roberts, in his book, Shantaram, in a gorgeous,

humane description of India, describes what he felt seeing

the slums where millions of economically-ravaged people try

to make a life for themselves:

“ … For the first sight of the slums, clutched at my heart with

talons of shame. The miserable shelters were patched together

from rugs, scraps of plastic and paper, reed mats, and bamboo

sticks. They slumped together, attached one to another and

with narrow lanes winding between them. Nothing in the

enormous sprawl of it rose much above the height of a man.

My first impression was that some catastrophe had taken place,

and that the slums were refugee camps for the shambling

survivors. I learned, months later, that they were survivors, of

course, those slum-dwellers: the catastrophes that had driven

them to the slums from their villages were poverty, famine and

bloodshed. And five thousand new survivors arrived in the city

every week, week after week, year after year. As the kilometers

wound past, as the hundreds of people in those slums became

thousands and tens of thousands, my spirit writhed. I felt it

at all; it is a lacerating guilt, that first confrontation with the

wretched of the earth. Then the smolders of shame and guilt

flamed into anger, became fist-tightening rage at the unfairness

of it: What kind of a government, I thought, what kind of

a system allows suffering like this? But the slums went on kilometer

after kilometer, relieved only by the awful contrast of

the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss covered apartment

buildings. A kind of wonder possessed me. I began to

look beyond the immensity of the slum societies and to see

the people who lived within them. A woman stopped to brush

forward the black stain psalm of her hair. Another bathed her

children with water from a copper dish. A man led three goats

with red ribbons tied to the collars at their throats. Another

man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played

everywhere. Men carried water in bucks. Men made repairs to

one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled

and laughed. I looked at the people then, and I saw how busy

they were-how much industry and energy described their

lives. Occasional sudden glimpses inside the huts revealed

the astonishing cleanliness of that poverty. The spotless floors

and glistening metal pots in neat, tapering towels. And then,

last, what should’ve been first, I saw how beautiful they were:

the women wrapped in crimson, blue and gold; the women

walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum

with patient, ethereal grace, the white toothed, almond eyed

handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie

of the fine limbed children, older ones playing with younger

ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on

their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I

smiled for the first time...” To my eyes, the city was beautiful. It

was wild and exciting. Buildings that were British Raj-romantic

stood side to side with modern, mirrored business towers. I

heard music from every ship and passing taxi. The colors were

vibrant. The fragrances were dizzyingly delicious. And there

were more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets than in

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

free. I saw that liberated unconstrained spirit

wherever I looked and I found myself responding to it with the

whole of my heart. Even the flare of shame I’d felt when I first

saw the slums and the street beggars dissolved in the understanding

that they were free, those men and women. No one

banished the slum-dwellers. Painful as their lives were, they

were free to live them in the same gardens and avenues as the

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

More magazines by this user