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Housing mobilization in Calcutta: empowerment for the masses or awareness for the few?

[No longer available online: published in Environment and Urbanization, 1 April 2004, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 129-137(9)]

This paper describes the evolution of the Calcutta NGO Unnayan
and the two related movements which it initiated and supported, Chhinnamul and the National Campaign for Housing Rights (NCHR). Unnayan was concerned with the situation of the poor in Calcutta, and was very active in housing issues.

Chhinnamul Sramajibi Adhikar Samity (Chhinnamul for short) was a local movement intended to mobilize the squatter population and involve them directly in political activism. NCHR was a nationwide campaign that sought to link housing activists throughout India and lobby for the legal housing rights of the poor.

The paper describes Unnayan’s successes, both in stimulating a national debate on housing issues and in creating a platform for popular protest. It also explains the organizational challenges faced by this small NGO, and the conflicts which led to its funding being cut after 20 years. In particular, it highlights the frustrations of poor citizens, whose immediate material needs loomed larger than the longer-term gains envisioned by the organization. [author]