San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
Calcutta stretches about sixty miles along the Hooghly River. The bridges across the Hooghly constitute severe bottlenecks on traffic flow. As severe as the traffic congestion problems are they pale in comparison to Calcutta's other problems.
Calcutta's sewage system was created under the British around the turn of the century to serve a city of 600,000. The system has had little added to it and the original structure has significantly deteriorated yet it is supposed to serve a city of now about 14 millions and growing.
Garbage collection and disposal is inadequate and it accumulates on the streets. In past when the garbage became piled so high it was difficult for people to traverse the streets the state government drafted the state army units to clean it up on an emergency basis.
The water system is so antiquated that few get any water through it and the rest rely upon polluted sources. There are frequent breakdowns that last for a day or two. Salt water seeps into the water lines.
Peter Wilsher and Rosemary Righter in their book Exploding Cities quote a response of the Calcutta Corporation to request that they clean the gully pits. The Corporations replied that they could not clean the gully pits because the manholes were choked and the manholes could not be cleared because the sewers were choked and the sewers could not be cleared because the pumping stations were weak. Even if the pumping stations were working the sewers cannot be cleared because the outfall canals are silted up. Frequently the pumps are not working because of the overloading of the electrical power system.
The Calcutta Corporation, despite its massive failures, is relatively efficient compared to the other cities which have grown up in the Calcutta metropolitan area, such as Howrah, Barrackpore and North Dum-Dum which have little or no water and sanitation at all.
Housing is inadequate and the residents of the miserable slums, called bustees, are relatively lucky compared to the million or so who sleep on the streets. And it must be remembered that the city is growing because people are coming to Calcutta to find something that is an improvement over what they are leaving.
Although the physical conditions of Calcutta are appalling, culturally and intellectually it is a quite vibrant place. It is hard for outsiders to see how this could be, but it is a fact. However, among Anglo-Saxons there seems to be a tradition of articulating the hopelessness of Calcutta. An example of this tradition is Rudyard Kipling's poem:
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Where the sober-colored cultivator smiles
on his byles;
Where the cholera, the cyclone, and the crow
Come and go;
Where the merchant deals in indigo and tea,
Hides and ghi;
Where the Babu drops inflammatory hints
In his prints;
Stands a City--Charnock chose it--packed away
Near a Bay--
By the sewage rendered fetid, by the sewer
By the Sunderbunds unwholesome, by the swamp
Moist and damp;
And the City and Viceroy, as we see,
Once, two hundred years ago, the trader came
Meek and tame.
Where his timid foot first halted, there he stayed,
Till mere trade
Grew to Empire, and he sent his armies forth
South and North
Till the country from Peshawur to Ceylon
Was his own.
Thus the midday halt of Charnock--more's the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread--
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt--
Palace, byre, hovel--poverty and pride--
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.
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