Version classiqueVersion mobile

Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Session 2. A. A Metropolis in Crisis

Addendum F. The Urban Poor

An Outlook of Calcutta's Pavement-Dwellers

Sudhendu Mukherjee et Jean Racine

Texte intégral

1Camac Street and Park Street. At the Crossing of these prestigious roads, a park has been recently renovated by the Rotary Club. On its railings are spread some rags and sacks. Against the low walls which support the railings, a few bricks hold the earthern pots in which rice is cooked by women. Four families live there, who came from the district of 24 Parganas: men, women, children and babies —more than twenty persons in all.

2If we go by the 1971 Census, there were then about 50,000 of them in Calcutta city and four times as many in the whole of the urban agglomeration: the homeless, the pavement dwellers, single men or entire families. Some are really without any shelter. With nothing above them, or just the shade of a colonnade or a pier. Others, on the contrary, have settled down as much as possible: they have built up permanent shelters against the wall of public buildings, with whatever they could get free: old jute bags, chests, plastic sheets. However precarious their lives may be, their groups form the nuclei of dwellings or rather of tents or of tiny huts, where two, sometimes three persons can sit or lie. For years together such a group lived against the walls of the large cemetery of the Lower Circular Road: about twenty permanent shelters, including a make-shift school and a small illicit pavement market where women used to sell rice. Life came there of its own accord and with it collective organization and integration in the urban surroundings, until one day in 1982 when the police demolished all that: illegal business, constructions encroaching upon the public land.... The community have sought shelter on another pavement, but are likely to return to this one, before long, if it proves to be better....

3The world of the homeless is more complex than it appears. All are poor, but in varying degrees. From the rickshawallah who chooses to sleep on the pavement in Order to save money and send more to his kin, to those who are really sinking, alone or with their family, there are many degrees and differences. Some could strike a frail balance between their village and the city. Others have lost everything.

  • 1 Sudhendu Mukherjee, Under the Shadow of the Metropolis: They are Citizens too. A Report on the sur (...)

4A survey made by Sudhendu Mukherjee in 1975 of 10,000 pavement dwellers in Calcutta throws light in a precise manner on the fate of these cast-offs1.

Pavement-dwellers of Calcutta: a few significant figures from Sudhendu Mukherjee's report (1975)

Estimated distribution of pavement-dwellers by place of origin: People surveyed: 33,743

24 Parganas district


Howrah district


Hooghly district


Midnapore district


Nadia District


Others W.B. districts


Total West Bengal




Andhra Pradesh


Uttar Pradesh


Other States from India




Occupation of the pavement-dwellers at the time of migration: People surveyed: 9,926



Agricultural labour


Household work




Present occupation of earners amongst pavement-dwellers: People surveyed: 10,841



Casual-day labour


Thelawallah, coolie








Regular-day labour


Vegetable seller


Maid servant




Duration of stay in Calcutta (in years)

1 year


















Whole life


5Ninety eight per cent of them are immigrants of which two-thirds are from West Bengal and most of them from the district of 24 Parganas alone. Only a few hundred were born in Calcutta. About 20 per cent come from Bihar and 7 per cent from the former East Pakistan. Henee the pavement dwellers are not essentially refugees; most of them are villagers from the hinterland. For nearly 90 per cent of them —the irretrievably ruined—, the city has appeared as the last resort. Land disposed of, indebtedness, flood, unemployment beyond remedy: the economic motivation is the most decisive one. For a minority however, domestic tensions played a key role. Quarrels between husband and wife, deaths, diseases, desertions: one breaks the ties and leaves for Calcutta.

6Faithful to the Indian tradition, one can of course find among the pavement dwellers, a few itinerants: astrologers, fortune-tellers, faith-healers, snake-charmers, exhibitors of performing beasts —this is a small minority. One fourth (24 per cent) of the pavement dwellers are seasonal workers, agricultural labourers who come to town off-season, vegetable sellers, beggars, while the bulk of them (two-thirds, or almost 64 per cent) are permanent settlers who have usually arrived with their families. Some have been there for five, ten or fifteen years. How do they manage to live? They are coolies, rickshawallahs, Street vendors, maid servants and sometimes prostitutes. One-fourth of them have no fixed job, and whenever possible work on a day-to-day basis. One-fifth, especially women and children, beg— begging children, ragpicking children, children working 12 to 15 hours a day for a paltry salary...

Fig. F.1. Calcutta pavement dwellers, wardwise distribution, 1971

7From the survey made by Sudhendu Mukherjee we have retained a few figures, illustrating what we have just said. Five of the one hundred and one biographies presented in this survey have also been retained. The lives of five pavement dwellers, single or with their kin, five distressing or even tragic lives, represent the poor among the poor who are the pavement dwellers of Calcutta (J.R.).


Bishu D.

8Bishu, D., 45 years old, came from Sutrapur village, in Dhaka (Bangladesh) district, and is now staying in a small shack in Canal East Road, with his wife, a son, a daughter and a grandson. He was a potter in his village. He left during the riots in 1947 and for the last 26 years he and his kin have been living in Ultadanga area. Bishu D. carried on his profession of a potter in Calcutta. He is now suffering from asthma and like his wife, is totally bedridden. Their only son is insane. Quite often he becomes erratic and is "tamed" by their neighbours. Their only daughter was married and after the birth of her first child her husband died. The widowed daughter now works as a maid servant in two houses. She gets only Rs. 25 per month. How can this family survive with only Rs. 25? They often get some help from neighbours. The grandson was working in a tea-shop but he lost his job because he was absent for a few days due to fever.

Kalipada M.

9He came from Canning area about seven years ago in search of a job. He was a landless labourer in his village. But he was not able to get work all the year round and used to come to Calcutta quite often in the hope of finding a part-time job. He used to work as a porter at Sealdah station, and with the little earning managed to maintain his family. But it was extremely troublesome for him to live on the station platform with his wife and young children. Hence, he shifted from the station, and finally settled in Hazra Park area. Now he is a professional beggar. His wife gave birth to a daughter only two months ago, right on the pavement of Hazra Road.



1. Against a wall. New C.I.T. Road, in a locality where new buildings are always under construction.

2. On vacant ground. On Shyam Prasad Mukherjee Road, near a working site of the Metro Project.


10Debala is a young girl of only 10. She has lost an eye and is now a beggar at Jadavpur station platform. She has no idea as to where she comes from. She only remembers that her mother left her alone on this very platform, a few years ago. The whole day long she goes on begging, and in the night, stays with an old pavement dweller.

Harimati D.

11She came from Banaras when she was a young widow of 15. She sought shelter in a dharamsala at Kali Temple Road and started working as a maid servant in a family. Losing touch with her relatives, she gradually came into contact with the prostitutes of Kalighat area but did not give up her job of maid servant. Today, at the age of 60, she is physically disabled because of leprosy. Now she leads another life: she is the keeper of five young boys aged between 5 and 8, who collect waste paper, metal scraps, burnt coal and also indulge in selling cinema tickets in the black-market. They often work as scavengers on Corporation trucks. These boys are the children of prostitutes living in Kali Temple Road area. Their mothers often come to see them, but Harimati is their guardian.

Mangal A.

12He lives on a pavement on Hazra Road with his family of five: his wife, two sons and a daughter. He was a landless labourer in Balorampur village, in the district of Birbhum. But for half the year he had virtually no regular job and hence no income. He came to Calcutta with his family in search of a job about a year ago and started working as a porter in a daily market. After about five months, he got a fairly regular job in a coal shop as a push-cart driver. He can now maintain his family, which means rice or chapati twice a day. But he goes back to his native village during the agricultural season. He works as a day-labourer for the same farmer as before, and after the harvest, he returns to push a hand-cart in the same coal shop in the city.

Notes de fin

1 Sudhendu Mukherjee, Under the Shadow of the Metropolis: They are Citizens too. A Report on the survey of 10,000 pavements dwellers in Calcutta. CMDA Publication, cyclostyled, 210 p. 1975. On the same problem, see also Bidyut Kumar Das: "A Socio-economic Study of Pavement Dwellers in Calcutta" Journal of the Anthropological Society, Calcutta 13, pp. 1-10.1978, and S.K. Pal Choudhury: "Pavement dweller's Rehabilitation and Night Shelter Programme at Ultadanga Complex. Case study of a LWS (I) Project.” National Seminar on Alternative Approaches to Shelter the Poor, Jadavpur University. Calcutta, 1981 (J.R.).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. F.1. Calcutta pavement dwellers, wardwise distribution, 1971
Fichier image/jpeg, 277k
Légende 1. Against a wall. New C.I.T. Road, in a locality where new buildings are always under construction.
Fichier image/jpeg, 248k
Légende 2. On vacant ground. On Shyam Prasad Mukherjee Road, near a working site of the Metro Project.
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k


Born in 1946 in Northern France, carne in India for the first time in 1968. He spent most of the last fifteen years in India and stayed long in the South and in Calcutta, where he headed the French Cultural Centre from 1977 to 1982.
Since 1982, he is Fellow in Geography, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at the Centre for Studies in Tropical Geography, Bordeaux. Currently, he is with French Institute of Pondicherry.
A Ph.D from the Sorbonne University, he published his first book Tradition and Modernity in South India: Two Rural Studies in Tamil Nadu (in French) in 1976. He is presently carrying on a long-term research on "Territory, Civilization and Development in South India", focussed on a Tamil district, and heads an Indo-French research project entitled "To Migrate or to Stay? A Study in Rural Change, Mobility and Retention of Village Population in India. The case of South Karnataka".

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search