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India's Largest City Is Ultimate Urban Nightmare : Calcutta Hits Rock Bottom of Black Hole

March 17, 1985|VICTORIA GRAHAM | Associated Press

CALCUTTA, India — A hundred years ago, Rudyard Kipling called it the "City of Dreadful Night," and it is still the urban nightmare, the Black Hole of the 20th Century. Its name has become a synonym for urban apocalypse, a city in its death throes: Calcutta.

Home to 10 million people and India's largest city, Calcutta is the compendium of the ills of the world's cities. Once known as the city of palaces, it has become the city of problems, the textbook case of metropolitan gangrene that has defied cure.

The 200-year-old city, named after the bloodthirsty goddess Kali, once was the well-planned capital of British India until the government was moved to New Delhi in 1911. Calcutta now assaults the senses, evokes visceral reactions and conjures images, all true, of unfathomable poverty, slime and congestion.

Still it is known for the "Black Hole"--a dungeon where European prisoners suffocated from heat and jamming--and for potholes that some say are the world's largest. It is notorious for generations of "pavement dwellers" who literally are born, reproduce and die on the sidewalks, and for lepers and deliberately maimed child beggars.

It is a city of labor wrangles and political clashes, of daily power blackouts--some lasting 12 hours--of mounds of stinking garbage, torturous traffic, acute water shortages and monsoon floods.

Proud Bengalis say reports of their great city's demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite the filth, atrophy of services and trauma of daily life, they say it is a rich and dynamic center of the arts and millions of Calcuttans would live no place else.

The Metropolitan Development Authority, known as the "Digging Authority" for the torn-up streets, and citizens groups are trying to save it. There are projects for slum improvement, more water taps for sidewalk drinking and washing, power plants and a new subway.

City officials say the worst is over: The communist insurgency and industrial turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s are over, the population is stabilizing. In short, Calcutta has hit rock bottom and the only way to go is up.

But up is a long way off.

Calcutta remains the lurid case of near-total degradation of the human habitat, a failed equation between needs and resources. Simply, there are too many people and not enough food, water, latrines, houses, roads, transport, jobs, electricity and money. It is a city without open space, without room for roads, without enough pavement for sidewalk dwellers.

Better off than the street people are the rent-paying slum dwellers who live in sprawling hovels--wattle, sticks, metal sheets, mud, tiles, rags, plastic sheets--anything that can provide shelter.

The prognosis is dim since the economy of West Bengal state is stagnating, there is virtually no major new investment or growth, and many businesses and industries left over the years because of power trouble and labor unrest.

The city spends less than $7.80 per capita per year on services in the jammed central core of 3.3 million people, a pittance for what Kipling also called "a packed and pestilential town."

Among the statistics:

--More than 10 million people are squeezed into 41.6 square miles with a citywide density of more than 13,200 per square mile.

--In the heart of Calcutta, about 80,000 people are packed into one square mile of vertical slum in Burra Bazar.

--In rambling slums known as bustees, there is a single water tap for each 125 people. About 700,000 such fortunate bustee dwellers have running water--an additional 300,000 have none.

--Hundreds of thousands of people--officially up to 200,000, unofficially 500,000--sleep, work or dwell on the pavement.

--Every day 2,500 tons or 5 million pounds of garbage accumulate in the streets. The city has only 250 decrepit garbage trucks, only 100 are running each day.

These mounds of stench mean life for dogs, pigs and chickens and a livelihood for pavement dwellers who pick through the refuse for re-salable rags, scraps of paper, bits of charcoal, tin cans. In the foulest slums, cattle are kept for milk and income and cow dung is precious for fuel, shaped into pancakes and left to dry on walls throughout the city. They are marked with the handprints of children.

--Only 6% of the urban area is road space, compared to 18% to 25% in other major cities. Of 1,200 city buses, only 550 to 600 are on the road each day. About 20% of them break down daily.

--At least 600 megawatts of electricity are needed daily but only 450 to 500 generated. Less than 45% of the generating capacity is used because of old or poorly maintained equipment and bad management. The hottest-selling consumer item--fast becoming a necessity--is the generator. When the power goes off, the city stops. During one blackout an electric safety valve failed to stop a leak of poisonous chlorine gas in a remote area.

Built for Million People

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