Slice of the Kolkata city

Kolkata provides succour for a host of migrants from across the
country who have discovered a dignity in labour by catering to the
needs of a bigger world that passes them by ~ something they never
enjoyed ‘at home’. sun narin reports
ASK any Kolkatan who might have boasted about the serenity of his city
back in the 1960s and he’d tell you that it’s now nothing short of
bursting at the seams, not to forget the lack of pedestrian walkways,
basic amenities — despite the highrise boom and the resultant
denudation of spacious avenues. On the flip side, though, Kolkata
provides succour for a host of migrants from across the country —
Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand in particular — who have
discovered a dignity in labour by catering to the needs of a bigger
world that passes them by, something they never enjoyed “at home”.

Nearly 10 years ago, Ramkumar Shaw moved to Kolkata from his native
Bihar with his two sons and a daughter. He and his wife had been
peasants. He sells South Indian food from a small establishment in
bustling Lenin Sarani and admits he has a clientele that keeps him
busy. “I am happy here,” says the 45-year-old. “The work is good for
me and Kolkata is good for my children’s study and future.” He earns
around Rs 2,000 a day, which results in a profit of between Rs 350-500
after overheads are taken care of.

Since his children are in school, he can least afford to count his blessings. He pays Rs 1,200 a month
as rent for an accommodation near New Market, where he stays with his
family and two workers.
“Sometimes I have problems because business isn’t good when I have to
close shop on bandh days, but I cannot complain.” He had no plans to
return to Bihar. “Why I should go back? I have the facilities here. I
do not know what I would do over there. How would my children go to
study at a good school?”
Kolkata in recent years has grown to acquire a population of some 15
million because of the mass migration from other states and remote
villages in West Bengal. The reasons for this migration, as per the
Census, have been classified into seven broad groups —
work/employment, business, education, marriage, runaways, family
groups, etc. Most migrants in the city work in the unorganised sector
in unskilled or low-paid jobs — food vendors, hawkers, waiters,
taxi-drivers, construction workers, rickshaw-drivers, nursemaids,
housemaids, cooks in restaurants, even streetside barbers.
Occupying a one square-metre of pavement space on bustling AJC Bose
Road is Ram Bharosa Thakur, now 65 years old. He has been cutting hair
here for nearly 45 years since he moved from Bihar. 

“I live here alone, without any support. I am here to earn money for my family back
home,” he said. But, no, he does not face any difficulties. “I am
happy to live here and earn money to send to my family.” He manages
between Rs 3,000-4,000 a month, keeps a portion for his own needs and
sends his family the rest. “I try to save money. I spend only Rs 20-30
each day for my food.”
Shaquat Ali is from Jharkhand and works as a waiter in a restaurant.
He’s been in the city for about four months now and says, “I earn more
than Rs 4,000 a month. I send most of the money to my wife and family
in Jharkhand.

I am always saving. I like living here. I feel free. I
am happy and earn more money. I wouldn’t know what to do in
Jharkhand,” said the 24-year-old.
The restaurant’s proprietor, Bashir Mohamman, said he employed 10
waiters who were all migrants from Bihar, Jharkand and North Bengal,
places where there is a lack of employment opportunities. “Everything
in Kolkata is cheap so most (people from there) want to live and work
here,” he said.
He did admit, though, that employment in Kolkata was “limited” for
migrants. “They are all happy because they can earn money and send
something to their families. But after only a couple months they stop
working and go back.”
According to a study by the Confederation of Indian Industries and
Ernst and Young, titled “Roadmap for Successful Public-Private
Partnership in Infrastructure”, one of the greatest threats to
industrialisation in Bengal is the largescale migration of its
workforce to other states because of a lack of opportunity. The study
said Kolkata did not draw in people from rural areas by offering them
a better quality of life. As in any other Indian city, migrants found
poverty in Kolkata as severe and dehumanising as in the villages, but
were offered a relatively quick opportunity of earning through
placement in the urban economy. But these migrants would finally move
on to other states with a higher per capita income, better wages and
more opportunities.

At the same time, rickshaw-pullers, construction workers and those
engaged in other “hard-living jobs” live from hand to mouth. They
don’t have shelters, sleep on pavements. Researcher M Christiensen,
writing on Kolkata in the Encyclopaedia of Homelessness (Vol 1, 2004)
said there were five million people living on the streets or in
cardboard/bamboo makeshift shelters who had not been counted. “And up
to a half of all Kolkatan families live in just one room (some live
four families to a room, each family having just a chowki or cot to

Pintu Maity of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Kolkata, whose
work concerns sex workers, said, “Most of the sex workers are migrants
from districts in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.”
And all of them were highly susceptible to disease, given the poverty
and hard times, he added.

Largescale migration to Kolkata in search of work had a negative
impact, said Sourav Sannigrahi, secretary, Affection Society for Human
Advancement. The consequences were an overcrowded city, a deficiency
in the labour in neighbouring states, traffic jams, new slum areas,
unemployment, no tracking between source and destination, disorder,
chaos and many other social ills. “They have no choice but to come to
Kolkata to search for jobs and a livelihood. Poverty and poor
infrastructural facilities at the source locations are the major
reasons for migration,” he said.
Asha wants the government to create a better environment, promote an
urban-rural link and increase job opportunities for migrants. At the
same time, it should also adopt proper measures to curb migration to
To look on the bright side, Kolkata has come a long, if hard, way from
Rudyard Kipling’s description of a “City of Dreadful Night”. There
have been remarkable expansion in certain areas, including real
estate, information technology and retail trade.

Recently, PrimeMinister Manmohan Singh said the time had come to build on this great civilisational heritage and “pool all our wisdom, knowledge and
experience to revitalise West Bengal’s economy, polity and society so
as to scale new heights of human endeavour and achievement in the
service of the people of West Bengal and India as a whole. I sincerely
believe a new sun is rising on our East, and Kolkata can once again
regain its glory as India’s window to Asia”.