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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Session III. A. Tackling the Crisis

Addendum H. Calcutta’s Bustees

The Magnitude of the Problem and the Development Policy

Jean Racine

Texte intégral

1Huts with earthen walls, muddy lanes flooded even by the slightest rains, discomfort, overcrowding, public amenities reduced almost lo nothing: such was the reality of the bustees of Calcutta. The bastees were the direct result of the massive immigration which the city had experienced from the eighteenth Century to the twentieth Century. To start with, on private land, in the heart of the town, but away from European quarters, poor housing colonies were put up at the cheapest cost. Large slums emerged near the railway stations and factories, as in Beliaghat and Howrah, but also, and very often, a small-seized bustee would crop up in the midst of better looking housing units, as around Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road.

2Gradually, the kaccha became pakka or semi-pakka. The owner of the huts, paying a fixed rent to the owner of the land, improved the dwelling in order to get a better rent from it. Those who could afford paid, while others left for bustees away from the centre. To improve the houses and to change the kaccha —light and fragile— into pakka —solid and strong— meant replacing clay with bricks and thatched roofs with tiled roofings, even of low quality. Hence the typical bustee of the sixties consisted of real houses which were always poor, badly constructed, low-roofed, shared by many families, but looking definitely better than the smaller dwellings of squatters, rows of illegal but tolerated miserable huts, which are found even today at the sides of public thoroughfares, on the banks of canals and along (he railway tracks.

Fig. H.1. The bustees of Calcutta and Howrah

Manicktala bustee: a case study1

  • 1 Thanks are due to Dr. Sudhendu Mukherjee and Shri Prasanta Chatterjee whose help enabled me to con (...)

3East Calcutta. Manicktala Main Road. On the banks of the Circular Canal, huts can be found, in spite of the stink of fetid waters. Further on, skirted by Begmari Road is Manicktala bustee, a bustee like any other. A rough quadrilateral of four hectares. Two main roads: Bagmari Road —the bordering road— and Bagmari Bazar Road, and a rough criss-cross of side roads and by-lanes.

4For the most part the houses are low with brick walls and a bamboo framework bending under the tiled roof. Here and there can be found some considerably bigger houses with an inner yard, with an upper storey and balcony. And even, on the northern Street a few decent, two storeyed, cemented houses have been built like the ones found in the middle class localities. Workshops on Bagmari Road and shops on Manicktala Main Road have come up. The bustee is certainly not a shanty town. Here one does not find precarious makeshift shelters but real houses.

5Though it is a physical unit, the house is normally constituted of several dwelling units. Rooms are distributed in different patterns around an open space, a yard or a semi-yard. In each room lives a family (1979:837 families in 255 houses), which sometimes enjoys a covered projection overlooking the yard. When this type of veranda exists, it accommodates the kitchen: one or two charcoal pans. If not, meals are prepared in the common room. In the yard, there are now toilet and water points for all the dwellers. The clothes are dried there too.

6This forced co-habitation of families is bound to provoke problems, but it also ensures a strong solidarity among them. The bustee is not at all a gathering of uprooted elements (even if quite a number of slums have received refugees). It is a small world, well characterized, buzzing with life, animated with screaming children and the bustling activities of the adults. A place of residence, it is also a place of work from some. Workers live modestly there, people of limited means (servants, peons, etc., modest craftsmen, and even a very small middle class community: in this Manicktala bustee, only 20 per cent of people are illiterate; 37 per cent of workers are qualified (most of them in tailoring and hosiery).

7On the whole, in these four hectares 4,279 persons were living in 1971, that is a density of about 1,10,000 inhabitants per km2: urban crowd...

8Manicktala is a bustee like any other, like 300 others to be found in Calcutta, 300 bustees accommodating one million inhabitants. Hence, in Calcutta, one person out of three lives in a bustee: one can perhaps now understand the magnitude of the problem. Today, Manicktala, like almost all the bustees of Calcutta, has its drainage System. A number of public and private taps as well as septic tanks have been installed. The streets, if not the smallest lanes, are cleaned regularly. True, the khatals, those insanitary cattlesheds, do still exist. True streets have not been properly metalled, and today, the cement slabs of septic tanks installed a few years ago are jutting out and hamper the passage. Indeed, the bustee remains a type of second rank habitat. But at least a number of improvements there make daily life easier than before.



1. Typical dwellings. Low houses, brick walls and tiled roofs. The rooms(one family to a room is standard) usually open on a small common courtyard.

2. Sanitary improvements made by the CMDA: drains, septic tanks and standpipes.

Table H.1: A Calcutta slum in figures: Manicktala bustee from a survey conducted in 1979-80

Table H.1: A Calcutta slum in figures: Manicktala bustee from a survey conducted in 1979-80

Source: "Socio-economic Survey in bustees of Calcutta" Project Report No 111, CMDA 1981.

Fig.H.2. Manicktala bustee: the dwellings

9It took time, a long time, for the concerned authorities to elaborate a policy' which could effect such improvements.

The development policies

  • 2 A.K. Basu (Commissioner of Calcutta Corporation), "Slum improvement programme in Calcutta: Problem (...)

10The first municipal attempt to improve the conditions of the slum-dwellers was made in the Calcutta Municipal Act, 1951. The Act clearly defined a bustee as "an area containing land occupied by or for the purposes of any collection of huts standing on a plot of land not less than seven hundred square meters in area," a hut being any building, no substantial part of which excluding the wall upto a height of fifty centimetres above the floor or floor level, is constructed of masonry, reinforced concrete, Steel, iron or other metal. The Act also gave the Corporation of Calcutta the right to carry out some improvement works in the bustees, provided that the cost of the works could be recovered from the bustee-owners2."

11Such a policy was bound to fail because of the structure of property and tenancy in Calcutta bustees. The slums of Calcutta are not squatter settlements on government or private lands, but result normally from a perfectly legal three-tier arrangement. A landlord owns the land, and rents it to a middleman, the thika tenant, who up to 1982, had rights on the dwellings built on the land, and received the rent paid by the dweller. As the land has usually been rented to the thika tenant on long lease, the landlord gets a regular remuneration not linked with the actual rent paid by the dweller. Thereafter, the owners of bustee lands were never ready to pay to improve the living conditions in the slums.

12A second attempt to solve the bustee problem envisaged a gradual resettlement of the dwellers after clearance of the slums. That policy, enunciated in the Calcutta Slum Clearance and Rehabilitation of Slum Dwellers Act, 1958 was also unrealistic, for two reasons.

13On the one hand, the bustee dwellers were never prepared to move out. As a CMDA leaflet rightly put it: "Slums are nothing new in Calcutta. They grew with the growth of the city and its ports and industries. They represent the last ditch battle being fought by the poorer sections of the people who would otherwise be compelled to live outside the city since in all likelihood they would be priced out. To the poorer sections of the people, shelter is least important, more important is food. That perhaps explains why many among the slum-dwellers who can afford better housing are reluctant to move out. What they save in housing, they would like to spend on food, clothing and children's education. At the same time there are advantages of proximity to places of work (which results in saving on transport) and a known neighbourhood." (Calcutta Slums, CMDA, 1981).

14On the other hand, clearance of slums, considering their number, and the population concerned, is simply too costly to be practicable: how could one expect to resettle —either on the spot or elsewhere— one-fourth of the population of a metropolis of nearly ten million inhabitants? A case-study of Chetla bustee, conducted by the CMDA, will explain this.

Document: The impossible resettlement policy. A case-study of Chetla bustee

Source: Calcutta slums: The problem and effort, CMDA, 1981

15Since some of the slums are located in areas where property and land values are high, it is theoretically possible to attempt rehousing keeping in view the possibilities of generating some surplus land which could be sold in the open market and the money utilized for subsidising the modernization programme. In Chetla, for example, an area of about ten acres has been chosen. It was hoped to put up ten blocks of multistoried buildings to accommodate about 1,200 families in a six acre area. The other four acres could be sold in the market at a very high price. Even then it is found that the amount which is realized by such sale of land cannot entirely cover the cost of rehabilitation. The per capita cost of such a modernization is generally above Rs. 10,000. The amount realized from the sale of land can at best bring it down to Rs. 7,500. Even then the cost is prohibitive, and such experiment on a big scale virtually impossible. The other alternative of slum improvement at a per capita cost of Rs. 350 is more manageable, more effective and less time consuming. For example, in the one Chetla scheme referred to above, the CMDA had to clear over 40 court cases before it could restart its work. In the 1,700 slum improvement work completed so far, we have faced hardly any court case. Though instances of slum clearance in Bombay, Delhi and Madras are sometimes cited, there is a basic difference between the Calcutta slums and those in other cities. Most of the land on which slums have appeared (in Delhi and Madras) are government/corporation land on which the government has control. In Bombay, experiment has been conducted on both slum improvement and slum rehousing. It is not for us to suggest that the Calcutta experiment is the ideal one but undoubtedly it is sensible in the Calcutta context.

16The question also arises whether a different mind of skeleton house could be constructed to reduce the cost of rehousing. Even then it is estimated that the expenditure per capita will range between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 5,000. According to another estimate, in order to rehouse four lakh bustee families in the Calcutta Metropolitan area we would require roughly an investment of 250 crore (2.500 million). Even if through the sale of surplus land it is possible to reduce the expenditure, about Rs. 200 crore (2.000 million) would be required. We require 70 crore to acquire the bustee land even at the rate fixed by the government under the Slum Clearance Act. Since its inception 10 years ago, the CMDA has spent roughly Rs. 22 crore for slum improvement and in that context the figure of Rs. 200 or Rs. 250 crore sounds high.

17One understands then why the concept of "slum eradication" finally give way to the more realistic concept of "slum improvement".

Table H.2: The improvement of a slum: a few figures on Chetla bustee (4, 6, 8 and 10, Govinda Addy Road, Calcutta)



Number of hutments:


Area in acres:


Year of completion of improvements:


Total cost of completion:

Rs. 3,61,239.00

Per capita cost of Improvements:

Rs. 195.00

Description of item

Existing facilities before improvement

Facilities provided after improvement

Road and pavement

3750 sft.

10,236 sft.

Sanitary latrine



Service latrine



Sewer line

234 rft.

4688 rft.

Water line

360 rft.

9017 rft.

Water point






Bathing platform






Surface drain


477 rft.

Yard gully



N.B. rft.: running feet.
Source: Calcutta Slums, the Problem and effort, CMDA, 1981.

Fig.H.3. Manicktala bustee. Physical improvements: water supply and lighting

Fig.H.4. Manicktala bustee. Physical improvements: sewerage and drain System

The improvement policy

18Considering the work carried on by the CMDA under this bustee improvement programme, one is convinced that this policy was not a bad one. An improved Calcutta bustee is less than a shanty town, and is considerable better than, say, a Rio de Janeiro favella. Helped by the flat topography of the city, the CMDA could progress quickly with its programme. With paved streets, drains, sanitary public privies and sewers, water taps and Street electricity, the improved slums in 1981 sheltered 1.7 million people out of the 3 million living in the CMD bustee and refugees colonies. The programme started from the core of Howrah, and is now dealing with east Calcutta, a zone subject to severe flooding and requiring a special focus on drainage facilities, and coordination with the municipalities of the east and west banks. Much still remain to be done, but it is expected that the entire bustee population of the Metropolitan District will have benefited from the scheme by 1987.

The Thika Tenancy (Acquisition and Regulation) Act, 1981

Source: Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority, 1983

  • 3 According to a CMDA survey, the rent levied by thika-tenants on slum dwellers increased, between 1 (...)

19In the wake of industrialization and expansion of commercial activities during the British rule in the then city of Calcutta, a large number of people from neighbouring States and areas had come and settled in and around Calcutta. So, the pressure on housing stock was serious. Landlords had taken advantage of the situation and leased out large chunks of lands to a class of middlemen, called thika tenants, who, in tum, created low-rise, high density housing stock on such lands and let out to different occupiers. In course of time such housing stock has come to be known as bustees and the same come under the limits of corporations or municipalities. Now, the landlords seem to have lost interest in development of properties because of unfavourable terms of long-term lease they have had with the thika tenants. The thika tenants are concerned with the rental revenues only, which have been increasing under the impact of the Bustee Improvement Programme (BIP) of the CMDA while the ability of payment of taxes rests with the landlords, who have been found to be defaulters because of obvious reasons, the thika tenants manage to appropriate the benefits of the BIP in terms of increased rentals3.

20In order to eliminate the above anomaly, the Thika Tenancy (Acquisition and Regulation) Act, 1981 has been devised. The Act has come into force from 18 January, 1982, whereby all lands comprised in thika tenancies in Calcutta and Howrah Municipality areas, with rights, titles and interest thereof, have been vested with the Government of West Bengal. Thika tenants now come directly under the state and are Hable for payment of rent to newly appointed thika Controllers. Now thika tenants may make alteration and/or improvement in their existing structures with the prior approval of the prescribed authority and local body.

21The Act opens up opportunities to provide security to tenure to occupier by eliminating the middlemen, known as thika tenants, who were able to appropriate the benefits of improvement to infrastructure and environment provided to the bustees of Calcutta and Howrah under the Bustee Improvement Programme of the CMDA.

From physical improvements to socio-economic programmes

22By passing the recent Thika Tenancy Act, 1981, the West Bengal Assembly took an important decision, creating a drastic change in the structure of property in the slums. With the middlemen under control, one may expect, there will be less exploitation of the slum-dwellers. But what about employment, technical training, financial aid to the informal sector which is the main source of jobs in the slum?

23Just as the CMDA reluctantly looks after the maintenance of improved bustees —which was not its original duty— because no one else is doing it, the CMDA carne to be involved, moderately for the time being, in socio-economic programmes in the bustees. In a way it seems that the noted impetus of the CMDA, which is much more dynamic than other bodies in charge of the city brings to the Authority extra duties. An unwanted price of success... But how far can and must a single body expand its activities from one front to all the fronts? To what extent can the CMDA take over programmes which are supposed to depend upon other agencies, bodies or government departments? The dynamism of the CMDA is not the answer to the moderate or poor involvement of the other public and semi-public institutions in charge of the development of the city.

Notes de fin

1 Thanks are due to Dr. Sudhendu Mukherjee and Shri Prasanta Chatterjee whose help enabled me to conduct a fruitful visit of Manicktala bustee in 1983. Data on the bustee are quoted from a CMDA report: Project Report No. III on socio economic survey and development of small enterprises in two bustees in group III, CMDA, Calcutta, 1980, 65 p., 24 tables and maps (J.R.).

2 A.K. Basu (Commissioner of Calcutta Corporation), "Slum improvement programme in Calcutta: Problems and Prospects", The Calcutta Municipal Gazette, 24 July 1982 (J.R.).

3 According to a CMDA survey, the rent levied by thika-tenants on slum dwellers increased, between 1974-75 and 1979-80, by 16 per cent in the unimproved bustees and by 43 per cent in improved bustees. Such a rise, in a number of cases, compelled the poorest to leave their improved bustee for an unimproved one (see: Bustee Improvement Programme of CMDA: An Evaluative Study, Report 132, CMDA, 1981) (J.R.).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. H.1. The bustees of Calcutta and Howrah
Fichier image/jpeg, 359k
Légende 1. Typical dwellings. Low houses, brick walls and tiled roofs. The rooms(one family to a room is standard) usually open on a small common courtyard.
Fichier image/jpeg, 229k
Légende 2. Sanitary improvements made by the CMDA: drains, septic tanks and standpipes.
Fichier image/jpeg, 242k
Titre Table H.1: A Calcutta slum in figures: Manicktala bustee from a survey conducted in 1979-80
Légende Source: "Socio-economic Survey in bustees of Calcutta" Project Report No 111, CMDA 1981.
Fichier image/jpeg, 389k
Légende Fig.H.2. Manicktala bustee: the dwellings
Fichier image/jpeg, 378k
Légende Fig.H.3. Manicktala bustee. Physical improvements: water supply and lighting
Fichier image/jpeg, 361k
Légende Fig.H.4. Manicktala bustee. Physical improvements: sewerage and drain System
Fichier image/jpeg, 350k


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

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