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Calcutta 1981

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Jean Racine

Session 2. A. A Metropolis in Crisis

Addendum B. The Housing Problem

A Few Remarks

Jean Racine

Texte intégral

1It is in Ward 56 in Taltala, in the very heart of the city. In one of the streets off Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road which end in a criss-cross of densely populated lanes, where many lower middle-class Muslim families have settled.

2In the small courtyard, a few columns testify to the financial ability of the first landlord to imitate in his own way what was fashionable some eighty years ago. That's precisely Calcutta's flavour: that omnipresent mixture of pseudo-colonial heritage and present dilapidation. More recent buildings with absolutely no aesthetic value have been built up in the yard, and today the columns and the first-floor verandah open on to a blind wall. Since 1959, Mr. V.M. is tenant of two large, rather high-ceiling rooms in that old dilapidated house. The rent is extremely low for the floor area and the location: Rs. 80 a month. But, owing to a lack of maintenance, the cracked ceiling might fall down any day.

3The landlord, who used to have three tenants, wants to raze the house, and to erect on the same plot a multi-storied building, which would give much better return every month. Two of his tenants accepted the lumpsum of Rs. 3,000 as compensation and vacated their flat more than a year ago. But Mr. V.M. is not ready to leave. Settled here, he can walk and reach his place of work within fifteen minutes, avoiding the throng at buses and trams at rush hours. All market and Service facilities are available at a stone's throw, and the children go to a nearby school.

4It is not that Mr. V.M. would not like to live in better flat. But how to pay for it? The landlord is willing to give not Rs. 3,000 but Rs. 5,000 for getting him out. But how could Mr. V.M. resettle after vacating his present residence? With a monthly salary of Rs. 800, he might be able to pay a higher rent, but certainly not the expected salami, that lumpsum amount paid under the counter to a new landlord. If Mr. V.M. wishes to stay in the same locality he may find a flat for Rs. 150 a month, but the salami would be Rs. 8,000, if not Rs. 10,000. If for the same flat he could pay a rent of Rs. 300 a month —but he cannot afford it— the salami would be only Rs. 3,000.

5Hence the present status quo. For months Mr. V.M.'s landlord has not come, as he used to, to collect the monthly rent. One day a lawyer's letter arrived stating that the rent had not been paid for months, and that the present condition of the building was so bad that repairs were not practicable. Basically, if the tenant wished to make the much needed repairs, it would be at his own cost, and also at his own risk. The landlord is simply trying to put pressure on his tenant, but knows very well that a case in the court may bring an uncertain result, as the West Bengal code largely protects the tenants' rights.

  • 1 On the squatters' hovels, sec Plate 13. An assessment of a resettlement project of Calcutta squatt (...)

6The story of Mr. V.M. is just one case amongst many, but it is particularly significant. Mr. V.M. is not one poor man amongst the poor, and his fate has nothing in common with that of the squatters living in unauthorized hutments, on public lands, to say nothing of the pavement dwellers. He is also better than the slum-dwellers. But one of the biggest challenges of Calcutta housing crisis is that the problems of the poor are not unique, as the lower middle-class is also, even if differently, affected. The shacks on the pavements, where 50,000 to 1,00,000 people live, the huts along canal banks and railway lines, where many more people find an insalubrious haven; the bustees where one third of Calcutta's population and one-fourth of the Metropolitan District population live: all ask for action1 while the general dilapidation of most of the old residential buildings has also to be stopped if Calcutta wishes to survive as a balanced city.

  • 2 See Chapter 6 by Sukumar Sinha, which gives also much information about the overpopulation in the (...)

7The acuteness of the housing shortage is such that no solution is reasonably expected in the near future. An estimation for 1971 gave a figure of a cumulative shortage of 3,00,000 housing units for the Calcutta Metropolitan District. To that impressive figure, an additional 80,000 units a year would be required to face the necessary renewing of decrepit buildings2.

  • 3 Chakrabarti, S., Housing Commissioner: "The West Bengal Housing Board Achievements, problems and p (...)

8Many reasons account for the present chaos. First of all, a long tradition of laissez-faire paved the way for speculative action, and authorized high profits on low or very low quality housing: the bustees are one of the most striking examples. For too long, the various authorities simply enforced minimal regulations, eventually violated, without acting themselves as builders or planners. Just as the C.M.D.A., which was set up in 1971, the West Bengal Housing Board is a late-comer. Created in 1972, it focussed its activities mainly on the Metropolitan District Area, but for lack of funds, built up in ten years less than 13,000 houses. Moreover, being compelled to follow the ceiling costs prescribed by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation which advances important loans, the Board, faced with increasing land material costs sees only one (inadequate) solution: "to have a lower level of development of the infrastructure as well as reduction of floor area and adoption of lower specification"3: something like one-room houses of 14 sq. metres on a plot of roughly 30 sq. metres for the Settlement, in the suburbs, of families of the "economically weaker sections" which are able to pay a little less than Rs.8,000 for a minuscule home in what is bound to be promptly transformed into a modern slum.

  • 4 See, for example, the advertisements for new housing estates in and around Calcutta, Plate 17 (J.R (...)

9Private money, on its own, is attracted by more remunerative investment. As always, the crisis feeds the crisis, and what is rare is costly. The upper middle-class and the well-to-do try to get their share of the good standard urban development taking place in the heart of Calcutta. But prices are very high even from the inception of projects: Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1,00,000 for flats of average floor areas, according to their location4. Moreover, once the houses or the flats are built up, their market value goes up very quickly, because of speculation. Prices in Salt Lake and Lake Town, two areas which were supposed to provide housing to Calcutta middle classes, have been multiplied by five times or more in a decade.

  • 5 For an all-India appraisal of this speculation on urban property, see "The Big Squeeze”, in India (...)

10The problem is not specific to Calcutta. In 1980-81, large Indian metropolises, particularly Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore, were faced with a spurt of mad speculation. In one year, property prices and market rents soared by 30,40 or 50 per cent In Calcutta, where a salary of Rs. 2,000 a month is a privilege, the price of one square metre of centrally located residental land rose from Rs. 2,600 to Rs. 4,500 between 1978 and 1981. Prices for commercial spaces rose, in the same period, from Rs. 4,800 to Rs. 6,000 a square metre5.

11Naturally, the Companies involved in this lucrative business tended to make more money out of it: slowing down the building activity (cement shortage is always a good pretext, and often a reality: black market is a rampant practice) did not prevent the urban property sharks from cashing in on the advances of individual patrons seeking profitable investment for themselves: amongst many other ways, some so-called housing cooperatives are a good way of whitening black money.

  • 6 See for instance: R.M. Kapoor: "Land Uses in Calcutta, Some Past Incongruities and Future Possibil (...)

12The shortage of land in the core city is also a major factor responsible for high price. As always, the existence of fixed rent in many old buildings has resulted in the extreme dilapidation of a large part of central Calcutta. Landlords receiving the same rent in 1980 as they did in 1960 are not supposed to maintain to their property, and the eviction of tenants is always difficult. That puts a large part of the land area and floor area out of the market, and thereby increases the value of whatever area comes for sale. The "incongruities" of Calcutta land uses add to the penury as many areas, including plots of prime location, are underutilized by public undertakings and government institutions, as Kapoor has rightly underlined in several very well-documented studies6. On the other hand, some private surplus land could be better used. The Urban Land Ceiling and Regulations Act of 1976 fixed 500 sq. metre as the maximum area that could be privately held in Calcutta, thus rendering 2,000 hectares theoretically in surplus. But the Government failed to take advantage of it. Thus in the property market where speculation is common, the lower middle class, which is the backbone of the city, is bound to loose ground. The high speculation naturally favours the Companies, which are now transforming the area south of Park Street into the new posh district, with multi-storeyed buildings, both for residence and office accommodation. In his quest for a centrally located flat, the private tenant cannot outbid corporate institutions which give the landlord the guarantee of company lease, and pay a large part of the full amount of the exhorbitant rent: a way to reduce taxation as the rent is not a part of the salary.

13Except those like Mr. V.M. who prefer to live in decrepit residences for a paltry rent fixed decades ago, members of the lower and medium middle class are thus slowly pushed out of the city, just as the poorest of Calcutta slumdwellers preferred to leave for suburb slums radier than pay higher rent in improved bastees.

  • 7 Vital statistics are quoted from the Corporation of Calcutta Year Book, 1979-1980, 1980-1981, p. 3 (...)

14In 1970-71, the natural demographic growth rate in Calcutta city was 12.6%, in 1977-78 it was 10.3%7. Let us admit that for the decade 1971-1981 the average natural growth rate will be roughly 11%. The actual growth rate, for the city, was only 4.5%, while for the same decade, the growth rate was 30.3% for the whole of the Calcutta urban agglomeration.

15Clearly enough, the unsound property market in Calcutta city has now attained a point which could be fatal to the traditional class structure: bustees and expensive multi-storyed buildings are now the two complementary faces of an acute housing crisis, while the inherited residential structures of Calcutta's golden age, which still give the city its original hallmark, come more and more, year after year, to the brink of ruin.

Notes de fin

1 On the squatters' hovels, sec Plate 13. An assessment of a resettlement project of Calcutta squatters in small suburb houses has been made by R.K. Biswas: "Case Study of a Lutherian World Service Project on Resettlement of Embankment Dwellers in Sector IV of the Salt Lake City, Calcutta”, Cyclostyled. Seminar on Alternative Approach to Shelter the Poor, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, January 1981.
On the pavement dwellers, sec Addendum F. For another example of the work done by social workers on that field sec S.K. Pal Choudhury: "Pavement active dwellers'rehabilitation and night shelter programme at Ultadanga complex. Case Study of a L.W.S. (I) project". Cyclostyled. Seminar on Alternative Approach to Shelter the Poor, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, January 1981.
On the bustees, and the active improvement policy of the C.M.D.A., see addendum H (J.R.).

2 See Chapter 6 by Sukumar Sinha, which gives also much information about the overpopulation in the Calcutta fíats (J.R.).

3 Chakrabarti, S., Housing Commissioner: "The West Bengal Housing Board Achievements, problems and prospects: An introductory paper" prepared for the National Seminar on Alternative Approaches to Shelter The poor. Jadavpur University, Calcutta, 1981. Cyclostyled paper, p. 10 (J.R.).

4 See, for example, the advertisements for new housing estates in and around Calcutta, Plate 17 (J.R.).

5 For an all-India appraisal of this speculation on urban property, see "The Big Squeeze”, in India Today, July 1-15, 1981., p. 34-41 (J.R.).

6 See for instance: R.M. Kapoor: "Land Uses in Calcutta, Some Past Incongruities and Future Possibilities" Land in Metropolitan Development. Seminar papiers. Cyclostyled. April 1982. The Times Research Foundation, Calcutta (J.R.).

7 Vital statistics are quoted from the Corporation of Calcutta Year Book, 1979-1980, 1980-1981, p. 375 (J.R.).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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