Kolkata, India

by Nitai Kundu


The slums of Kolkata can be divided into three groups: the older ones, up to 150 years’ old, in the heart of the city, are associated with early urbanization. The second group dates from the 1940s and 1950s and emerged as an outcome of industrialization-based rural–urban migration, locating themselves around industrial sites and near infra-structural arteries. The third group came into being after the independence of India and took vacant urban lands and areas along roads, canals and on marginal lands. In 2001, 1.5 million people, or one third of Kolkata’s population, lived in 2011 registered and 3500 unregistered slums.

The 1956 Slum Act defines slums as ‘those areas where buildings are in any respect unfit for human habitation’. The Calcutta Municipal Council Act of 1980 defines bustees as ‘an area of land not less than 700 square metres occupied by, or for the purposes of, any collection of huts or other structures used or intended to be used for human habitation’. The Central Statistics Organization defines slums as an area ‘having 25 or more katcha structures, mostly of temporary nature, or 50 or more households residing mostly in katcha structures huddled together or inhabited by persons with practically no private
latrine and inadequate public latrine and water facilities’. There is a host of different slum categories, primarily divided into two categories:

Registered slums (bustees): these slums are recognized by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) on the basis of land title; since 1980, they have been taken over by the CMC for letting/lease to slum dwellers.

Unregistered slums: this comprises slums onthe land encroaching settlements.

The bustee-type generally has some form of secure tenure or ownership rights based on land rent or lease, with structures built by the slum dwellers, or house rental/lease of structures built by third parties.

Tenure security is, in principle, not available to the unregistered land encroaching settlements on road sides (jhupri), along canals (khaldhar) or on other vacant land (udbastu).

It is envisaged that the number of urban poor will increase considerably in the near future due to natural growth and in-migration, combined with a lack of wellplanned and long-term intervention strategies.

Over 40 per cent of Kolkata’s slum residents have been slum dwellers for two generations or longer, and more than half originate from the Kolkata hinterland. With the majority engaged in the informal sector, with average monthly earnings of between 500 and 1700 rupees and a household size of five to six persons, some three-quarters of the Kolkata slum population are below the poverty line.

The standard of living of the slum dwellers caused concern even during colonial rule. For a long time, slums were treated as an eyesore and a nuisance to be dealt with for reasons of safety, security, and the health and hygiene of the urban elite. Policy interventions focused mostly on clearance and removal. The First, Second and Third Five-Year Plans laid emphasis on slum eradication and removal. Various attempts were made to address the issue in alternative ways; but all failed for different reasons.

The Environment Improvement in Urban Sector (EIUS) scheme, in operation since 1974, has been partially successful in improving the living environment of slum dwellers; but it has not helped in preventing the growth of new slums through migration or natural increase. The scheme suffers from lack of community involvement in planning, implementation and monitoring of the programme. Another initiative that has generally been effective in reducing urban poverty is the National Slum Development Programme (NSDP).

Although some considerable successes have been achieved, there is a long way to go for Kolkata in terms of addressing the issues related to urban poverty and slums. There is an urgent need to establish clear long-term strategies that address such issues as:

land titles in bustees;

unauthorized new slums around canal and roads;

greater effectiveness of urban poverty-eradication programmes;

public awareness-building programmes on slum population;

the role of each actor and stakeholder;

poverty reduction approaches to slum improvement;

inadequate municipal institutional arrangements, including coordination of the activities of various actors.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh