The underside of a city divided


back to issue

IN Kolkata (known as Calcutta till a few years ago), things are apparently looking up after years of economic stagnation. If we go by newspaper reports, it is a hot destination for IT companies as it offers investors one of the lowest operational costs with an attrition rate that reduces expenditure on recruitment and training. A new generation of well-qualified Bengali middle class youth have found lucrative jobs in Indian business houses and multinational companies which are reinvesting in West Bengal after decades – feeling reassured that they would no longer face any trade union intransigence, since there had been no sign of it all these years despite the closure of factories and retrenchment of thousands of workers in the state.

Another class of talented young Bengalis, who have been honing their skill of vocal impersonation in the city’s theatre movement, can now train themselves in acquiring American accents, and turn from the less-paying stage to the moneymaking call-centres which are proliferating all around! They will soon join the ranks of India’s cosmopolitan ‘cyber-coolies’, whose daily soul-killing, but financially remunerative grind is being glorified by their employers and our leaders as India’s success in attracting, what is euphemistically known as ‘outsourcing’.

Keeping pace with the rising needs and new tastes of this aspiring class of Bengali consumers (including rich NRI investors), has been a huge boom in the construction of multistorey residential complexes, air-conditioned shopping malls, swank glass and chrome edifices of five-star hotels and entertainment centres in Kolkata and its outlying areas. These ancillary enterprises again are offering a variety of business opportunities to a different class of people – real estate agents, building contractors, entrepreneurs and traders, hotel and night club owners. To quote a few figures, collated at the beginning of last year – there are plans for five mega shopping malls; a real estate boom of 60 residential complexes; car ownership has zoomed 81%; the habit of eating out has leapt 548% (The Telegraph, 26 January 2005).

If we take together all these various categories of participants in Kolkata’s present economic boom, the city can indeed claim to host a new Bengali cosmopolitan elite that share the same economic goals and cultural tastes as their nouveau riche counterparts in Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, or Hyderabad. They may soon acquire the financial capacity to reach goals that have been set and achieved by their role models in London and New York. Everything is fine! Bush is in Washington and all’s well with the world!


But deep down in its core, is Kolkata really changing? Despite the new name of Kolkata by which my city was re-christened a few years ago, the old Calcutta still looms behind. It bounces up like a dark phoenix when I peer across the computerized statistics and IT complexes, beyond the awe-inspiring shopping arcades and high-rise condos, five-star eateries and night spots.

After attending a dinner party hosted by a friend in one such eating joint, I walk down the flaring Park Street where the bars and restaurants are still alive after midnight. I follow my nose through this old familiar territory, and soon sniff my way into one of the back lanes. The grocery stores and tea shops that operate here during the day have already put up their shutters. Dim street lights spread a lemon haze. I enter the cardboard city – another urban complex made up of paper and plastic, scraps and rags.

It is now the time for the other Kolkata – the old Calcutta – to come alive. Knots of five or six – families of men and women, old and young – drag out their belongings which remained hidden during the day under archways, or inside some crevice of a dilapidated building. They lay down on the pavements their beddings – plastic sheets, thrown away packing case hard boards, piles of newspapers, or even verminous rags. They then light up the brick-made ovens that they knock up at a moment’s notice and put on their aluminium pots and pans cooking rice and dal. Some who are better off have kerosene stoves, and add fish to the menu. Stretches of a public thoroughfare now become private homes.

As I pass along their street kitchens and bedrooms, I cannot but help eavesdropping – listening to their conversations, some in confidential whispers, some in affectionate tones of love and care, some breaking out in raucous shouts of abuse. These are the people who form Kolkata’s underclass – masses of heterogeneous families and individuals who remain outside, leave alone the present boom of IT centres and consumer industry, the mainstream of the general occupational system. Yet, they cannot be dismissed as a flotsam of unproductive riff-raff. Most of them serve the city’s residents as part-time domestic help, rickshaw-pullers, vegetable vendors, hawkers of bits and pieces of daily need, ‘press-wallahs’ who iron clothes. It is on these pavements that they make love and give birth to a new generation, fight among themselves and curse each other, and plan for their next move, standing on the edge of the perpetual uncertainty that drives them to and fro.


It is here also, and at this time of the night, that all the essential traffic of the underworld is carried on. If your ears are tuned in, you can make out from the voices whether a robbery is being hatched, or the disposal of stolen property is about to be arranged, or a woman is exchanging hands between gangs of inter-state traffickers. The streets are a marketplace where permissible consumables, regular pleasures and illegitimate services are made available within the same milieu. Crammed together in this cardboard space, both the labouring poor and the poor criminals look to each other for help and sustenance. The borders between crime and backbreaking toil get blurred among the city’s underclass. Crime is quite often seen as a one-shot activity to make a little money on the sly – a moonlighting of sorts.

The other nest of the underworld is to be found in Kolkata’s slums. Apart from the floating street inhabitants whom we described earlier, there are over 1.5 million people who inhabit some 4,500 slums (worse than Mumbai’s chawls), mainly concentrated in eastern Kolkata. They lead a wretched life – each family crammed into a space of 130 sq ft and twenty families sharing one privy, which is a monstrous dump of refuse, its stinking miasma overhanging the entire slum. A solitary tap in a corner of the slum, from which water can be drawn for an hour or so daily, is besieged by women and children, bearing every possible variety of vessels.

They may soon be losing even these scanty facilities that are available in their slums – threatened as they are with eviction, thanks to the new ‘development boom’ in Kolkata. Some of these slums are built on 10,000 bighas of land, spread over prime pockets in major locations of the city – some in posh areas like Judges Court Road, New Alipur and Alipur Road in the south, and dotting middle class habitations in Gariahat Road, Bhowanipur, Sealdah, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Kalighat and Khidirpur in other parts of the city.


The ‘respectable’ residents of these areas have been complaining about their ‘ugly’ lifestyle that sticks out like a sore thumb from these upper and middle class habitations. Now with the need for developing Kolkata into a mega-city, the civic authorities are putting their heads together to devise plans to free these prime pockets of the slums – so that housing estates for the upper-middle and middle class families can be built there. Lavishly endowed apartments are being planned in the southern parts of Kolkata from Ballygunge to Alipore, and near Phoolbagan and Lake Town in the north – with names like ‘Sherwood Estate’, ‘South City’, ‘Lake District’, each costing from rupees one hundred to six hundred crore, and equipped with swimming pools, jogging greens, health centres, and shopping complexes among other luxuries.

But I do not hear of any housing project – sponsored by the state or the corporate sector – to rehabilitate those who live on the pavements, or are being ousted from slums. And this, after almost three decades of uninterrupted left rule in West Bengal! Apart from poverty, persecution by the police and the municipality’s drive to demolish their slums in the name of cleansing and beautifying the city, intensify the pressures on them to resort to illegitimate means for sheer survival. They approach the local gang lord who has the right political connections, join his gang, carry out the tasks assigned to them (ranging from smuggling of illicit goods to supari-killings), and in exchange, manage to stay the demolition of their habitations for a while, as well as earn a living.


Kolkata (or Calcutta of the past) had always been a city divided. It was designed by its founders to be a split city, that bred a miasma of schizophrenia which continues to hang around it. The East India Company severed the space for habitation into the White Town and the Black Town. The former was fashioned as an enclave of broad avenues and large detached bungalows in the south-central part of the city for the European rulers, to keep them segregated from the native inhabitants. The colour Black was chosen to describe the locations of the latter in the northern part of the city – to evoke a picture of filth and crime, a no-go area of rookeries inhabited by thieves and cutthroats. Here the native citizens huddled together in closely congested houses and slums in the narrow, dirty and unpaved lanes that twisted out from the main arterial highways which ran through the city from the north to the south.


Ironically, even after more than 300 years of its establishment as a city, and now completing almost six decades of independence, Kolkata still retains the basic contours of the original topographical and social divide that was laid down by the colonial rulers. The gargantuan territory of the erstwhile Black Town, stretching from Baghbazar at the northern tip, through Shyambazar and Chitpur down to College Street and Bowbazar in the centre, remains neglected and looks almost the same today as it did in the past – with its roads fanged with murderous stones, and furrowed with potholes, its dim and sultry streets and lanes housing immense hives of middle class families in apartments piled on top of each other, and descendants of old aristocratic grandees living in once gorgeously designed mansions now crumbling into dilapidation. One such mansion still survives in its isolated glory. It is the ancestral house of Rabindranath Tagore in Jorasanko, situated in one of the lanes that curl out from Chitpur Road – an officially appointed university and tourist island in the midst of a sea of squalor.

Although the city is expanding beyond its old borders (e.g. the mini-megapolis in the north-eastern Salt Lake area, and the five-star housing estates beyond Jodhpur Park and Jadavpur in the south), it is the territory of the erstwhile White Town which still remains the cynosure of the new ruling class – with today’s business interests setting up their headquarters in the multistorey complexes, and their executives seeking relaxation in the hotels and entertainment spots that have sprung up replacing the old English-style bungalows on Park Street and its neighbourhood.

But in an ironic twist of history, the Black Town has avenged its past humiliation by invading the territory of the White Town and establishing its enclaves in the shape of slums and pavement shanties. The old White Town also has succumbed to the inept functioning of the Kolkata municipality. During the rains, carrying my old but trusting umbrella, when I trudge through the posh streets that house the shopping arcades and condos on Chowringhee, Park Street, Theatre Road, Camac Street, I look down at and leap over the muddy puddles filling up the long neglected pot-holes in the pavements. They seem to make a face at the steeples and terraces of these malls and mansions by reflecting them in twisted images. At the bottom of Kolkata’s social life too, the underclass society parodies on its rippled surface the upper class power structure in a caricature of sorts.


The street shanties and slums have their own CEOs – sardars and dadas – to run the day-to-day administration, like the allotment of space to families, governing the entry of new arrivals, adjudicating in disputes, distribution of assignments to the inhabitants, and so on. They also have a parallel cultural lifestyle that vies with that of their upper class neighbours. Take for instance the once-prestigious Saturday Club situated in Wood Street, and its present day relationship with its neighbouring shanties that spring up to life only at night, bang opposite on the pavements of Theatre Road. Set up by the British settlers in the early 19th century, the Saturday Club has now been taken over by the Indian parvenus of contractors and businessmen. They let out the club premises for wedding ceremonies, when a stereo blares out Bollywood film songs all through the night – a far cry from the soft chamber music that once played there. Since noise has become the main means of announcing power, the shanty dwellers of Theatre Road also compete with Saturday Club on equal terms during religious ceremonies like Durga Puja or Deepavali, when the cacophony of drum beats and fire crackers keep the residents awake throughout the night.


The only point of convergence for these two parts of the divided city is Kolkata’s underworld, where sections of the upper class and underclass collaborate in mutual need. A new type of Bengali upper class has emerged over the last few decades, comprised of businessmen, building contractors, land mafia, politicians and bureaucrats. Their easy access to, and exploitation of, financial, administrative and political power has to a large extent determined the growth of organized crime in Kolkata society today. The excess of resources and opportunities – rather than the lack of both as in the case of the city’s poor – has led some among them to seek new ambits of business ventures which are usually bereft of legal rules, and thus favour the proliferation of new forms of crime by the rich. Defrauding of investors or defaulting on bank loan payments by the business elite, siphoning-off of official funds for personal gain by senior bureaucrats, land grabbing by developers in prime locations, or the winning of elections through muscle-power by political leaders, have all become a part of metropolitan life. The police are a major arm of this nexus of unscrupulous powerbrokers.

Thus, Kolkata offers an interesting example of causality of contraries. The causes of crime in one situation may find their contrary in another environment. On the one hand we find that despite signs of urban prosperity, the lack of legitimate means for earning enough to lead a decent life continues to drive the poor citizens to the conventional forms of petty crime. On the other hand, the abundance of wealth in the hands of a section of the rich is inducing them to invest it in newer and newer illegitimate avenues to accumulate more wealth that is displayed in conspicuous consumption. The disparity reflects the asymmetric distribution of socio-economic freedom and opportunities in today’s Kolkata. The high degree of freedom enjoyed by the criminals among the nouveau riche – in the shape of availability of financial resources and access to political mediators who ensure their immunity against legal prosecution – stands out in sharp contrast with the limited options available in a constricted space that is the lot of the underclass criminals of the traditional type like thieves or pickpockets.


But a new generation of criminals has emerged from among this under-class, who have learnt to make use of a political system that has to depend on crime and corruption for its maintenance. They have found opportunities in the vast network of hidden, parallel, and semi-legal economies that had sprung up as appendages to political skullduggery, corporate crime, and administrative corruption of the upper echelons of Bengali society which we described earlier. Unlike the conventional gangs of house-breakers or purse snatchers of the traditional Kolkata underworld, these new gangs have found different occupations by establishing links with the political machinery that engineers the present ‘economic boom’ in Kolkata.

During elections for instance, they lend themselves for hiring by political parties to capture booths and prevent voters from casting votes for the candidates of opposition parties. Once they get the electoral verdict delivered in favour of their patrons, they rest assured that they will be protected by their political bosses, and then move into other areas of operations. If for instance, anyone wants to buy or sell a house in any of the constituencies controlled by them, they extort a certain amount of commission from both – and then, keeping their own share, deliver a percentage to the fund of the party of their political patrons. If a promoter wants to clear a prime area of slums to construct a housing estate, the gang lord is available for rendering the necessary service. Well-trained in the techniques to spread fear, they soon become kings of protection rackets in Kolkata’s middle class neighbourhoods and bazaars, where they collect money from shopkeepers and households by threats of violence. They can get away with anything with total impunity, thanks to the patronage that they receive from their political bosses. One of the city’s notorious gangsters, known as haat kata Dilip, or one-armed Dilip, is a protégé of an important minister of the state. A police officer who dared to arrest him sometime ago earned the ire of the minister who had him shunted out to a low-profile job.


These gangsters of Kolkata today straddle both the underworld of the criminals and the world of the respectable gentry – forging a kinship of intrigue that has become very much a part of the city’s socio-political milieu. The borders between the new upper crust and the new underworld are fast getting blurred. Crime has finally come out of the sewers to gain acceptance in Kolkata’s bhadralok society, and bring together the two divisions once known as the White and Black Towns.