Slowly, I realised something about the squatters. Unlike the millions who lived in slums, these were people who had not been organised by any political party. No one had arranged their birth certificates or ration cards. No one had got them voter cards. The census-takers did not come to their door. Along the canal, on the Maniktala side, the squatters were Hindu. On the Rajabazar side they were Muslim. But otherwise they were precariously the same. No one knew how many people were going to be evicted because no one had bothered to count how many people lived there in the first place. They were people unaccounted for, people who were not people at all.
The settlements along the canal stretched several miles. Taken together, they were as many as 50,000 people. If they had lived in one dense patch and formed a great slum, some leader would surely have come along and got them fake birth certificates and arranged their voter cards, turned them into a constituency and championed their cause. But they were stretched thin across several city wards, and so they did not count as a voting bloc, and hence did not count at all.
All the politicians I called, the ministers, municipality officials and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), said something had to be done, of course. A local MLA met me at Flury’s, the gaudy bakery on Park Street, to discuss his grand vision for the canal. Over pastries and tea, he showed me plans that looked like a fantasy from a children’s colouring book. In his plan, an elevated highway would rise above what was now a row of toilets upon a river of shit. In the drawings, there were of course no shacks nor workshops, and no plans for the people who lived and worked there. They had been wiped out of the picture.
What I saw was this: a democratically elected Communist government was following a colonial law that denied its people a basic foothold in the city. The Communists had even stopped working with the World Bank, because it had a policy of providing resettlement to all affected squatters on its projects while the government did not. In my Princeton days, I had supported the anti-globalisation protests, which targeted the World Bank as the very symbol of capitalist exploitation in the Third World. Now ‘capitalism’ and ‘Communism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ all seemed like terms whose meanings had been unmoored from their original forms. They were just empty words used by politicians with which we filled the pages of our newspapers and stuffed our brains.
What mattered was power, the power of having bodies you could put in the street to block traffic and votes you could stuff in a ballot box. Who got what was determined by who could make the most noise, who could block the most roads, who could show the most power. Each would be compensated according to their nuisance value. The meek would lose their hearths.
04 March 2019
What to Do about Squatters in Calcutta
From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2595-2615: