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In the Shadows of Kolkata

KOLKATA, India — Within the shadows of Kolkata’s peripheries vast shanty towns sprawl outwards: a myriad of empty terraces and distorted angles. Bright tin houses with rickety, corrugated roofs collapse onto each other; makeshift stairs and ladders connect windows to doors to balconies; and high above, black crows jettison through the clear sky disappearing into the matrix of a resurging city. Over 4 million souls fight here, day and night, to survive, work and develop. Like so many other infamous slums across India, Kolkata’s Panditya basti or Sonagachi are a cliché of Indian misery, a churning beehive of families involved in manufacturing, recycling and market industries with an annual output estimated to be $100 - 200 million. They are a parallel economy in an old city that had largely been forgotten till recently - a metaphor for the strength within the shadows of India’s rising economy.

Kolkata is to follow suit next.

Since 2009 Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s controversial Chief Minister, has initiated a campaign to increase industrial output by developing special economic zones to lure major manufacturers. In the pursuit of cultivating an internationally appealing image many urban planners countrywide have popularised the idea of complete slum redevelopment as an instrument to spur economic growth, quell crime and tackle the social problems that are rife therein. 

Over the next few years several large slums in Kolkata are set to be destroyed. Over 3 million are set to be displaced, and everything within these long-standing, iconic branches of the city - both the good and the bad – are set to be lost. Planning permission and construction of commercial high-rises, company offices, and new residential blocks began in 2011 and the redevelopment process will continue till 2015.

This series looks specifically at two slums the Panditya/Gorcha Bastis and Sonagachi. The former is the largest slum of the city, and the latter a notorious red-light district. Drawn from a larger body of work, this project that aims to document community life within Kolkata’s slum as a record of their complex reality, undervalued importance, culture and contribution to the character of the city: the project will continue till 2016.

An overview of Gorcha & Punditya Basti in south Kolkata from a new high-rise building in progress. Over the next two years most of the slum will be destroyed due to redevelopment initiatives.
Akash, 8, exits his alleyway in Punditya Basti. Over 140 people live within this 10m long stretch.

Vishnu (8) & Dipan (5), play in their one room house in Gorcha Basti on New Years Eve. Both brothers have dropped out of education since their local school was demolished when the leased property was bought over by commercial redevelopers. They now spend most of their time at home building toys (seen here).

Samita, 32, and her family sit by their settlement under the Gariahat bridge. They were forced to leave the slums due to overcrowding and the increasing cost of living. Her daughter, Rupali, 17, is seen breast feeding her 1 year-old child. The family now works along with the army of ragpickers notorious in the area.

Purnima in her house in Panditya Basti. Much of the slum lost electric coverage due to severe weather damage in the 2012 monsoon season. Council authorities have delayed repairs repeatedly, being accused of misusing tax money, given the area’s imminent destruction.

Akash, 9, (as seen in photograph #2) works as a ragpicker on most days, organising waste into recyclable plastics, glass and paper. Here he takes a break to play ‘karam’ on the main high-street of Panditya Basti.

A family of 6 gather in their one-bedroom living space while the eldest Monisha cooks dinner.

Muslims take part in noon prayer on the main market street outside a local Musjid in Panditya Basti. It is estimated that over 45% of the Panditya & Gorcha Bastis are Muslim, making the area an Islamic stronghold in an historically and controversially Hindu city.

Priya sits alone in her one bedroom home in Gorcha Basti waiting for her children to return home from school. Her husband left her three months ago due to anger issues and an alcohol abuse problem.

Children play in the alleyways of Panditya Basti. Soon almost everything in the slum, both the good and bad, will be destroyed.

Two boys from Panditya basti use magnets to fish for coins in the Hoogley river next to Howrah bridge. On an average day this earns them less than £0.50.

The Banerjee family on an alleyway in Gorcha Basti. Father, brother and son work together to repair chicken cages for the next morning’s market rush.

A group of elder working women in the ‘line’ on the main Shobha Bazaar hightstreet facing Sonagachi. Though the majority of women working in the slum area are victims of trafficking, the area (being the most frequented red-light zone of the city) attracts night-workers of all backgrounds and kinds. Common stories qualify the decision as a last resort due to economic hardship and to aid solely supporting children.

Lalka, 25, in her room with a client in Sonagachi. More experienced workers who have earned their ‘independence’ can chose to hire their own room in more popular brothels. Having been trafficked at the age of 16, Lalka, then suffered a violent marriage and separation, eventually taking custody her three children. She then returned to Sonagachi as a last resort, now working daily to support them, all of whom she has sent away from the area to board in the Vivekananda charity-school in the outskirts of the city.

Paroti, a trafficking victim, at a brothel in Sonagachi holding her grandson who she is seeing for the first time. A local NGO, Apne Aap, brought her daughter and grandson to an intervention hoping rescue her.

Paramita, 18, was sold by her husband to a brothel owner in Sonagachi three weeks after their marriage in rural West Bengal. She was convinced she had found the love of her life, yet having now worked in the area for over 9 months she is convinced that this is all her future will entail. Being one of the most popular women for clients coming to this brothel she is guarded and kept strictly house-bound at all times.

A young girl in Sonagachi.

Sweta, 10, the niece of a 19 year-old prostituted woman in Sonagachi. She currently lives in a brothel here with her aunt, after her single mother’s recent death. Beenita, her aunt, fears that she might be dragged into this trade if she stays for too long.

Ramesh, 6, the son of an 18-year-old prostituted woman in Sonagachi stands outside the brothel where the female members of his family have worked for three generations.

Souvid Datta

Souvid was born in 1990, Mumbai, and moved to London aged 10. Since winning his first DSLR in 2012, he has completed commissioned and personal projects across the UK, Italy, Spain, Egypt, India and China, working for clients including The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Independent & VICE. This year, he was named The Guardian’s Student Photographer of the year.