Fourth Annual Research and Orientation Workshop and Conference
Global Protection of Migrants and Refugees

Kolkata, 25-29 November 2019

Field Visit


Concept Note


Calcutta (now Kolkata in its decolonized form) is a city of migrants. The urban expansion of Calcutta is inextricably linked with British commercial activities and population movements associated with them. As a hub of colonial trade and commerce, and the erstwhile capital of the British Empire, it has received waves upon waves of migration at different points of time. People from various countries and occupations, of varied descents came to the city with their specific cultures, knowledge practices and distinctive ways of life. In the process, the city has acquired a sizeable cosmopolitan migrant population including the Jews, Armenians, Parsees, Afghans and Chinese who arrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They gradually have adapted well to the city and carved out a space for themselves in physical, economic and cultural senses. The Jews and Parsees came to the port city as traders. Belilios Road, Ezra Street and Synagogue Street (with three synagogues) stand testimony to the once remarkable presence of the Jews in the city. A significant number of Armenians came as refugees on Indian shore before the arrival of the British merchants. They established themselves as a prominent business community in Calcutta that ran coal mines, indigo plantation and trade and shellac business. The Armenians built some of the city’s famous landmark buildings including Stephen Court on Park Street and the iconic Grand Hotel at Esplanade (now Dharmatala). Some Afghans or ‘Kabuliwallahs’ (literally meaning men from Kabul) came to Calcutta from Afghanistan to escape conflict in their homeland. They traditionally worked and some of them continue to work as private moneylenders. Migration of the Chinese started from the 19th century and earlier; they became synonymous with leather (tannery), ceramic, catering and personal care industries. They are mostly settled in Chinatown and Tangra in the east and Tiretta bazaar in central Calcutta. Existence of a large immigrant trading community of diverse origins in the central part of the city in the so called ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘brown’ town, located between the traditional native or ‘black’ town in the north and the European ‘white’ town towards the south have lent the urban morphology of Calcutta its distinctive demographic characteristics.


From the second half of the 19th century, with the growth of industrial units like jute and cotton, Calcutta saw its first significant labour migration to its suburbs. While some of them became ‘settled’ inhabitants of the city, others remained migrant-settlers, going back to their villages at specific times of the year and returning to their places of work afterwards. Over the years the city developed its distinct labour migrant quarters, including the coolie lines in the Calcutta dock area and migrants’ dwellings (traders and coolies from UP-Bihar areas) in the Posta Burrabazar area and in the numerous slums and informal squatter settlements spread throughout the city.


Migration to Calcutta drastically increased from the late colonial period. This was triggered by a combination of mainly three factors: onset of the Second World War, a decade long famine in the countryside and increasing communal violence between the Hindus and the Muslims. Around the time of partition of the subcontinent in 1947 migration of Hindu refugees from East Bengal reached the proportions of an influx. Post partition refugee influx, it is often said, turned Calcutta from a ‘city of migrants’ to a ‘city of refugees’. The suburbs of Calcutta in the north, south and east grew exponentially due to a heavy concentration of refugees from East Bengal/East Pakistan. Immigration to Calcutta continued in the post partition period, from across the borders as well as from the poverty stricken rural areas of Bengal. The city came under various projects of neoliberal restructuring from the late 1980s generating its own internally displaced groups (IDPs) pushed out first from their settlements and then from the city to the countryside surrounding it. The city skyline is thus constantly pushed with disastrous effects on its environment and ecology. Calcutta’s wetlands in the east have been particularly volatile as it came under processes of unequal and exclusive urban expansion. These parts have seen spates of displacement and mushroom growth of unplanned shanties and slums inhabited mostly by the IDPs.


In this background Calcutta Research Group will organise two field visits with the workshop participants to Calcutta’s different migrant settlements.


The first group will visit labour migrant quarters in Calcutta’s dockyard. It will include a tour around Suriname ghat (literally a flight of stairs leading down to a river), which was a point of departure for India’s indentured labour migrants (from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or UP and Bengal) to Suriname during late 19th and early 20th century to work as labourers in sugarcane plantations. Participants will tour around the neighbourhood of Metiabruz, created by Wajid Ali Shah in the 19th century and settled by labour migrants from Bihar and UP among others. It now has a flourishing garment industry and a tailoring community. This will be followed by a session of detailed interaction with community members to take place inside an Imambara. ... for details CLICK HERE


The second group will visit a slum in Howrah called the Priya Manna Bustee (literally a slum), which came into existence as a labour migrant quarter and supplied labour to then flourishing jute mills in the surrounding areas. Today it has around 40,000 inhabitants, mainly Urdu-speaking Muslim labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and some parts of West Bengal. Here the workshop participants will interact with the inhabitants of the bustee. ....for details CLICK HERE


The two fieldtrips will be coordinated by Mr. Sabir Ahmed and Mr. V. Ramaswamy – both senior members of Calcutta Research Group. They will brief the participants on the eve of the departure for the fieldtrip. The participants are requested to follow the coordinators and not to ask private and invasive questions to the locals and not to take photographs of the locality and its inhabitants without due permission. Both the trips will end with dinner at Chinatown in Tangra known particularly for its Chinese cuisine.