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Calcutta is a city shared by dirt-poor rural migrants and a rich minority living a life of luxury. But as the city grows, there is no escaping the polluted groundwater and air, whichever group you belong to.
Cycling into the city centre of Calcutta we stop at a busy cross-section when a small child tugs at my elbow. He seems to have appeared out of no-where, but taking a closer look I notice an entire family camping on the isle separating the dual carriageway in two, in the middle of a river of traffic. Here they eat, sleep and beg for money from the passangers of cars stopping at the lights. The traffic-isle people are part of the growing tribe of urban poor, for which Calcutta is one of the global hot-spots.
Many of Calcutta’s beggars and pavement-dwellers are migrants from the countryside. Since 1970 Calcutta’s population has grown from just under 7 million to 15 million, but housing and infrastructure have not kept up. All over the city there are people camping out on pavements, sleeping on roofs and in gutters. When it comes to toilets, canalisation and waste collection most of Calcutta has stayed somewhere in the 19th century.
Urbanisation, migration and urban poverty are not new to India. Mark Twain saw "hundreds and hundreds" of people sleeping in the streets of Bombay back in 1896 (as described in "Following the Equator"). But the scale of urbanisation today is different. It has brought environmental issues closer to home for everyone living in megacities like Calcutta and Bombay, not just for the poor. It changes the meaning of the phrase "environmental issues" altogether - from a theoretical matter to be debated as it is in the West to a dominating feature of everyday life.
Calcutta’s poverty is not limited to sectioned-off areas, as is the case in Western cities - there is too much poverty here, and too many people. The result is that there is no escape from the sights, smells and pollution caused by poverty and overcrowding.
Sudder Street, the tourist area in the heart of the city, borders on an encampment of migrant workers and is patrolled by beggars and balding stray dogs. Past the rows of hotels and facing a luxury japanese restaurant, there are whole families of migrants living in makeshift tarpaulin tents. They are working for the city council - digging an enormous ditch to uncover underground sewage pipes which are to be repaired. The pipes look like no-one has touched them since Victorian times. The families of workers wash themselves with water from buckets in front of their improvised tents on the pavement, in full view of passers-by.
This much we saw just cycling to our hotel. Two "excursions" further into Calcutta - one to a slum, one to a multiplex cinema in a shopping mall - showed us the good, the bad and the ugly of life in the city in more detail.
A few days after arriving in Kolkata we visited the BD Colony slum on the outskirts of Calcutta, inhabited by a community of refugees from Bangladesh. We were driven there together with a medical team from the Cathedral Relief Services (CRS), a Calcutta NGO which built this housing colony back in 1975 and which still provides it with healthcare and schooling. Although this is a "priviledged slum," looked after by the CRS, people are still living 5 or 6 to a room - one for each family. The medical team’s visit atttracted an average turnout of patients (around 80) with the usual range of complaints - respiratory problems, skin ailments, digestive diseases, diarrhoea.
Despite efforts to educate the inhabitants of BD colony about disease prevention, overcrowding, pollution and unsafe water take their toll, explained Dr Chowdhuri, one of two CRS doctors taking care of the slum populations. A new water pump only provides clean water for 6 months or so - underground water is badly polluted. After meeting the schoolteachers, the pupils, and the women’s empowerment group who were learning sewing skills, we left the BD colony impressed and inspired by the work of CRS - but frustrated at its obvious difficulties. CRS serves around 3000 people in the BD colony, and this is only one of 16 slum areas the NGO works in. It has 7 health workers and 2 doctors.
A second, contrasting excursion took us to the Inox multiplex cinema, located in the Forum shopping mall in the middle of a well-to-do area. Walking down the street, we could see some signs of the area’s prosperity – such as street signs, which we hadn’t seen since... China? The pavements were still broken, with rubbish filling the deep holes. But the Forum Shopping Mall itself was an island of luxury. Floor after floor of expensive Western perfumes, creams and clothes, extortionately priced fast-food restaurants, and crowned by a multiplex cinema serving a selection of Bollywood films accompanied by American-sized boxes of toffee popcorn. The cinema was filled to the brim with Indians, many of them also American-sized, and rich enough to afford the 250 rupee ($6) tickets. We saw a Bollywood film (Aaja Nachile) obviously designed to let the viewers escape from the reality of India - if only for three hours (Bollywood films are long). An entire small town seemed to have been cleaned and painted to serve as the set for the film, including the houses, the streets and the people. No rubbish, no sewage flowing down the steet, not a single stray dog.
As soon as we stepped out of the cinema, out of the safety of Forum Mall, and out into the Calcutta streets, reality came flooding back. We took the metro back to the hotel, but even the rich Indians stepping straight from the mall into their brand new 4x4s can’t escape Calcutta’s smog. You can get very good at ignoring the traffic-isle beggars and the roadside campers. But as the city continues to grow in numbers and density, there is no escaping the polluted air and groundwater, or the spread of disease.
Population growth is not the only problem - the rigid divides that segragate Indian society into castes, that isolate the Inox cinema-going crowd from the beggars and the road workers in Sudder Street, are making it worse for everyone. In India, dealing with waste is designated as a job for the lowest caste of untouchables. Anyone from a higher caste wouldn’t dream of feeling responsible for their own waste. Maybe it’s time they started to.
For more informations, see http://cathedralreliefservice.net/.