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48 bigha zameen: The birth of Priya Manna Basti

In Part 1 of a series on urban poverty in a single settlement in Howrah, Amina Khatoon recounts the history of Priya Manna Basti, where she herself lives. Set up as a shantytown in the early-1900s to house migrant mill workers, little has changed a century later for the 40,000 poor Muslims who inhabit the basti

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Priya Manna Basti, Howrah, with closed factories in the background, and in the distance, across the river, the towering lights over Eden Gardens, Kolkata.

There are flames dancing in the farthest corners,
throwing their shadows on a group of mourners.
Or are they lighting up a feast of poetry and wine?
From here you cannot tell, as you cannot tell
whether the colour clinging to those distant doors and walls
is that of roses or of blood. 

--From The City from Here by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated by Agha Shahid Ali

Imran Ali is a retired primary school headmaster who lives in Priya Manna Basti in Howrah. He is one of the very few educated elders in this locality. That makes him a valuable keeper of memories, a custodian of the history of this community. He tells us that before the First World War, Priya Manna Basti, situated on the Grand Trunk Road in the Shibpur locality of Howrah, across the river from Kolkata in West Bengal, was a large vacant plot. Englishmen John and James Chew owned this 48-bigha plot. There were ponds and gardens and one or two rooms where the gardeners used to live. It was known as Chew’s Garden. In the evenings, the Chew brothers, with their family members, would ride in the garden in a horse carriage. The brothers were killed in an accident when their horse went berserk and the carriage fell into a pond and they drowned. 

Their heirs sold the land to Jitendranath Manna. Municipal engineers surveyed the land around the time of the First World War and, at the request of the owners, the name Priya Manna Basti was bestowed upon it. By then, the Howrah Mills, Bengal Jute Mill (earlier Ganges), Fort William Jute Mill, and Burn Standard Company had come up. Given the great demand for labour, dalals were sent out to the villages to recruit young men. Poor, landless farm workers arrived from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, from the districts of Chhapra, Siwan, Balia, Gorakhpur and Muzaffarpur. Some also came from districts in West Bengal; there were also some Tamilians. The mill workers were allowed to put up huts on plots of land. The rent was 1 paisa per month per kattha.  

Thus Priya Manna Basti came into existence almost a century ago; today it has around 40,000 inhabitants, mainly Urdu-speaking Muslim labourers. Other bastis in Howrah, like Chowrah Basti, Tikiapara, Kawaipukur and Kazipara came up in similar fashion when mill workers put up huts on plots rented near where they worked. 

This was the time when tram lines were being laid along the Grand Trunk Road, connecting Shibpur to Howrah station. Earlier, there were horse-drawn tram carriages.  

Howrah Jute Mills functioned from 5 am to 8 pm. The mill was closed at night. People began settling in Priya Manna Basti, and the population began to grow.  

The mill authorities soon began to observe that many of their workers were dying by the age of 40-50, while in their country workers lived till they were much older. The cause was evident. As the plot had been an open garden, the settlement came up in an unplanned fashion. Huts were scattered everywhere. There were no drains or sanitation. Drinking water was scarce. The mill had installed a water tap that provided water for only a few hours a day. People would go to a distant municipal tank in Kawaipukur. They filled water in buckets and carried them home. To bathe and wash clothes, people went to the river which was near the basti.  

The huts were built just three feet apart. There were no chimneys on them to let out smoke, and often the whole settlement was enveloped in smoke. Given the lack of drainage and accumulation of water everywhere, mosquitoes thrived and malarial was rife.  

Survey and planning 

In 1930, after several tenants of Priya Manna Basti defaulted on rent, Manna leased out the land to Howrah Mills. The lease was till 1938. This included Priya Manna Basti as well as a portion fronting GT Road. In order to improve living conditions, mill engineers surveyed the settlement. Priya Manna Basti was divided into a number of sections, along four lanes: Nos 1-21, 1st Lane, Nos 1-34, 2nd Lane, Nos 1-71, 3rd Lane, Nos 1-20, 4th Lane, and 139-160, GT Road. A playground adjoined the basti. In 1939, part of the land was taken over by Howrah Mills. Then another part was taken over in 1951. The two plots together added up to about 38.5 bighas. 

Mohammad Mainuddin is an elderly man living in Priya Manna Basti. He was born in 1938, in 35, Priya Manna Basti, 3rd Lane. His grandfather, who was from Arrah district in Bihar, came to the city to work in the jute mill. After getting the job he got his wife to join him. Mainuddin’s father too worked for the British mill managers at wages of Rs 15 a week.  

During the Second World War, Howrah Mills made tent material. This was sent to Russia, where apparently the tents created quite an impression. When Khrushchev came to Kolkata in the mid-1950s, he visited Howrah Mills. Two people met Khrushchev, the then manager of the mill and the head sardar, Sheikh Mohammad Ismail. He was from Balia, in eastern Uttar Pradesh.  

Ismail Sardar’s influence in bringing people to the city from Balia is evident. There were many people from Bihar. There was also a small community of Chinese jute factory workers living in the neighbourhood. They were mostly skilled workers -- carpenters, electricians and tool makers.  

Partition, communal riots and the growth of Priya Manna Basti 

During the pre-Independence period, people in Priya Manna Basti were supporters of both the Congress and the Muslim League. The Congress leader then was Noor Mohammad Ansari. In 1946, Ansari invited M A Jinnah to address a public meeting in Howrah. For the meeting, sackcloth to seat people in Howrah Maidan was obtained from Howrah Mills and provided by workers from the basti. Shortly after that, Mahatma Gandhi addressed a meeting here. 

About a fourth of the households in Priya Manna Basti left for Pakistan in 1947, mainly West Pakistan. Gufran Ali was among them. He eventually became a superintendent in the Pakistan railways. Mohammad Usman and Mohammad Umar, who also left Priya Manna Basti for West Pakistan, rose to become bank managers there.  

Around the time of Partition, communal riots were frequent and people were afraid to step out of their homes. When they did, they worried about whether they would return alive. During the 1950 riots in Howrah, Muslims living in localities adjoining Priya Manna Basti, like Kawaipukur, Olasthan, Maila Depot and Bania Para, moved into Priya Manna Basti and the nearby Chowrah Basti. This increased the population in the basti. The newcomers were Urdu speakers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.  

People went out to work together, and they returned together. Then one day in 1948, while a group of around 30 people were on their way to work and passing through a Hindu locality, they were surrounded and beaten up. Six people died on the spot; others were injured and taken to Howrah General Hospital. 

Qurban Ali was one of those who came to the basti at that time. He has lived in Priya Manna Basti since 1949, when he was around 12. His father was from Balia, in Uttar Pradesh. He recalls that people went to work at Howrah Jute Mills at 6 am. The shifts ran from 6-11 am, and then from 1.30-5 pm. Saturday was a half-day and Sunday a holiday. After the men went to work, the women did not move out. There were long lines at the handpump from 4 am. When it rained, water stood around for a week. 

Qurban Ali used to study at Howrah Mills’ Muslim Free Primary School, where he completed Class 4. In 1951, he joined Howrah Mills as a helper. He would get Rs 7 for seven days of work. In 1952, he joined Fort William Jute Mill where he got Rs 11.25 for seven days work. He got married in 1953.  

Qurban Ali remembers that Kazi Habibullah was the person who used to look after matters in Priya Manna Basti on behalf of Howrah Jute Mills. Daya Miya represented the basti-dwellers.   

There were no lights inside the basti except at four points where the municipality had provided kerosene lamps. Before 1960, Bari Masjid, Ismail Sardar’s house and Abdul Manager’s house had electricity, courtesy the mill. Choti Masjid had electricity courtesy the Bengal Jute Mill. Mohammad Mainuddin enjoyed electricity for the first time in 1962, when, as a tenant, he got an electric connection from his landlord. His house rent was Rs 1.50 per month and for electricity he paid Rs 0.50 per month, for one light point.  

During the India-Pakistan war of 1965, when some Muslims in India were rounded up under a special ordinance, people from Priya Manna Basti were also taken into custody. This created a strong sense of insecurity. But being a jute workers’ basti, jute mill union affairs dominated the consciousness of the inhabitants. CITU was a major force here.  

The first proper building to come up was at 25, Priya Manna Basti, 3rd Lane. It belonged to Samsuddin and was completed in 1972. Samsuddin ran the ration shop in the area.  

(Amina Khatoon lives in Priya Manna Basti and works here as a community worker. She was awarded the Infochange Media Fellowship 2008 to research and write this series, a close-up view of urban poverty)  

InfoChange News & Features, June 2008