Motion versus Obstruction in Calcutta’s Streets and Fields

Hans Schenk

The book of Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay on the streets and outlying fields and marshes of Calcutta (now Kolkata) can be read as just a historical study of socio-spatial changes during (roughly) the 20th century in this city because of a wide range of societal processes. The streets of the city, and its outlying fields and marshes – their shapes and their functions – play of course easily a prominent role in these socio-spatial changes. Calcutta’s streets and fields are in motion then, as Bandyopadhyay stresses even in the title of his book. This motion is not a random process, but a deliberate one, steering shapes and functions of streets and fields. They become “an apparatus of city-making,” as the author explicitly states (p. 5). Hence, he cannot but conclude (and reaffirm) in the Epilogue of the book, some 250 pages further, that streets are a product of politics, and politics are a product of streets. Or, to say it succinctly, the street is not a mere engineering object; rather, “the street is politics" (p. 254, italics in original). This statement is not beyond the beaten tracks of many studies of urban development in Calcutta, India and elsewhere. It easily paves, however,  the way to a next step which forms actually the common thread throughout the book.

The next step colours these omni-present politics. Streets and fields in motion have become a metaphor of an urban society in motion. And, in the context of Calcutta, this urban society functions – in the words of Bandyopadhyay – within a capitalist mode of production. Under such conditions, he adds that “motion attains a hegemonic form – a norm to follow and a metaphor for progress and development” (Note 34, p. 17). It is a self evident and natural phenomenon. In the Marxist terminology that the author uses, motion is a self-propelled movement of capital. Movement generates accumulation of capital, brought nearer under conditions of 20th-century Calcutta through destruction and rebuilding of existing inner-city real estate, or creating new avenues of capital formation by bringing peripheral and marginal land (marshes, traditional commons) to the market. This accumulation plays a decisive role in urban society and its streets and fields in motion.[i] Motion is, however, not a ceaseless and smooth phenomenon, despite the thesis of a self-evident and natural phenomenon. It meets opposition, as Bandyopadhyay shows in a section of his introductory chapter under the title “The Urban Dialectics of Motion and Obstruction.” Despite this terminology, the author does not propose to use a full antithesis of – say – ‘immobility’ against the thesis of the streets and fields in motion. Neither is a Hegelian or Marxist ‘synthesis’ somewhere in sight. He uses the term ‘obstruction’ rather to describe the encounter of the fetish of the universality of motion with the ‘real’ world of particular historical conditions. Obstruction may then interrupt or adjust the course of motion and make motion meaningful: a brake or a steering wheel or perhaps just a horn. It may even initiate motion, as Bandyopadhyay shows: squatting on peripheral land, without offering appropriated land to the market or sidewalk hawking, are such examples of motion, but then without capital formation.


Motion and construction in real streets and fields

Bandyopadhyay approaches 20th-century Calcutta armed with this toolkit of motion and obstruction. He focuses on two spatial settings: the city’s central streets (in Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 5) and the peripheral areas to the urban South and East (Chapter 4). Following Haussmann’s 19th-century demolition drives in the inner city of Paris and post-rebellion demolitions after 1857 in British Indian cities, urban powerholders such as those in Calcutta, from the late 19th century onwards, increasingly started to improve streets in order, or – in the words of Bandyopadhyay – to “improve the city at large, assuring a healthy and productive urban society” (p. 9). This process is discussed in detail in the Chapters 1 and 2. Automobile-friendly aligned streets should literally allow for motion, and should also prevent those who promoted political unrest and riots to hide in the innumerable lanes and alleyways of Calcutta’s centre.[ii] Hence: newly aligned and widened streets were cut through areas of hutments and other buildings. Real estate was destroyed and replaced by more costly residential and commercial buildings. The resulting cordons sanitaires certainly helped to contain epidemic outbreaks of contagious diseases. And last but not least such newly aligned streets promoted trade and commerce and a smoother climate for the accumulation of capital. Indeed: the new fancy and broad sidewalks that were introduced alongside the widened streets (and perhaps on top of the debris of destroyed huts) were “designed to give the commercial establishments a window-shopping public” (p. 50).[iii] However, original inhabitants of the areas of the widened new streets had to find their ways. Hutment dwellers had to find shelter elsewhere and were often physical separated from their workplaces. Landowners were expropriated and were supposed to re-settle in the urban periphery. The new streets in motion at their turn promoted ethnic, religious, and class segregation, as well as marginalisation of some minority communities (Chapter 3).

Bandyopadhyay introduces certainly the encounter with the real world of the fetish of the universality of motion. The new streets and other spaces that were created for motion, provided as well new opportunities for obstruction to motion: “mass gatherings, agitation, communal warfare and organized encroachments of sidewalks” took place, and Bandyopadhyay explicitly adds that were was “nothing clandestine about these” (p. 12). The broad sidewalks proved, ironically enough, convenient spaces for hawkers, as the author shows at length in Chapter 5 on the history of footpath hawking after India’s independence. A triumph of obstruction, of urbanization without capital formation, was heralded when hawkers “made sidewalks the focus of a collective existence.” These organized hawkers “never fought for a right to private property on the sidewalks. They fought for a collective right to live” (p 245). Calcutta’s new epoch of neoliberal globalisation of the 1990s, however, proved to be at odds with the idea of sidewalks for other than (window-shopping) pedestrians. ‘Operation Sunshine,’ baptised and operated by a left-wing government, tried to set the streets and their sidewalks in motion again, but by and large failed to conquer the organized resistance of hawkers. A Street Vendors Act of 2014 brought a solution: the entire city was divided into vending and non-vending zones. Is this after all some sort of synthesis of the thesis of motion and the near antithesis of obstruction? The detailed account by Bandyopadhyay of the history of hawking on Calcutta’s sidewalks forms a climax of the many detailed ‘stories’ around motion and obstruction in this book.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the urban fringes of the city (mostly wetlands) represented  “lawlessness and chaos that needed to be counteracted to transform them into suburbs” (p. 158). Or rather, and using even more dramatical words, “taming the frontiers” was at stake (p. 159). Moreover, this taming was seen as a profitable means of urban expansion. The Calcutta Improvement Trust acquired, developed, and sold erstwhile wasteland to settlers’ colonies and built infrastructure; hence, they created motion. This meant, too, as Bandyopadhyay states, that erstwhile shared commons, sustaining “lower caste marginal population, servicing nearby urban areas” (p. 172), were developed and eventually sold to private parties, resulting in an actual enclosure of the commons. However, these activities were for all practical purposes overruled by mass encroachments from the 1950s onwards of migrants, from the overpopulated rural areas around the city, and refugees from East Pakistan following the partition of British India and India (known as jabardakhal). This large-scale encroachment of wastelands was characterized by Bandyopadhyay as a mass action to develop land and infrastructure collectively by migrants, while potential real estate was withdrawn from the land market. Hence: obstruction, urbanization without accumulation. This withdrawal lasted for not less that four decades. It ended when in the 1990s refugees got land titles, whereupon and also ironical enough: “Many refugee families capitalized their holdings, sold surplus land, developed apartment houses, or rented out their house to college students” (pp. 182-3). Did motion after all once more reach the suburbs of Calcutta?


Too much and too little

The author writes the idea and the realities of the streets in motion within the city’s history in much detail, tapping a wide range of sources, including hitherto unexplored urban archives.[iv] In much detail indeed, as several pages are, for example, devoted to the advantages and disadvantages of types of road surfacing (pp. 34-46), ending with a discussion of the usage of bitumen containing asphalt, that had initially to be collected in Bahrain (pp. 46-50). Similarly, in a first appendix to Chapter 4 are three pages devoted to a list of the established rice mills, including their names, owners, etc. A second appendix in Chapter 4 contains six pages of particulars of contractors involved in sewerage and other work at specified places. Such information is hard to digest for non-locals, the more so because the author does not give useful maps showing where all these activities happen in their proper contexts. The maps here and there in the book are unfortunately hardly accessible. The abundance of some presented material contrasts moreover with lacks elsewhere. The reader can in general mourn about the absence of useful maps displaying the effects of inner-city streets in motion. This is the more regrettable since these maps exist. Nirmal Kumar Bose’s book ‘Calcutta: A Social Survey (Lalvani Publishing House, Bombay, 1968) contains maps of all 75 urban wards, showing the widened and new streets and plot by plot changes in land use between 1911 and 1961. Excellent material and a missed opportunity to clarify in a quite simple but effective manner what ‘streets in motion’ actually means.

However, Bandyopadhyay’s book is challenging and raises an important topic of urbanization in Calcutta and far beyond.


[i] Bandyopadhyay formulates this clearly but unfortunately does not mention earlier rather similar formulations of the relation between space and capital. Murari Ghosh for example wrote already in 1983, on the first page of his book, that “the spread effects of the deployment of capital not only augment the system of production but also improve and extend the built environment of the city.”  In Metropolitan Calcutta. economics of growth, O.P.S. Publishers, Calcutta, 1983, p. ix.

[ii] Of course, this was an illusion. There were enough lanes left.

[iii] For the record: Bandyopadhyay quotes minutes of a meeting of the Calcutta Improvement Trust, the main organizer and implementing semi-public agency in charge of the street transformations in Calcutta during the inter-war decades, in which the famous sociologist Patrick Geddes gave advise about the city’s sidewalks. Geddes brought to the fore that “caste tradition keeps the Indian crowd a divergent one – and the close packed European pavement is here impossible” (p. 53). Untouchability had to become institutionalised! 

[iv] It is outright surprising that the archives of the Calcutta Improvement Trust, once more, the spider in the web of Calcutta’s motion during most of the first halve of the 20th century, have not been used earlier by the numerous historians and social scientists who have dealt with aspects of Calcutta’s history of the 19th and 20th centuries, as Bandyopadhyay claims.