Born at Santiniketan in Bengal in 1933, Sen was a boy of nine when India’s worst famine of the 20th century broke out in his home state. It is seared on his memory. Estimates of fatalities are in the range of 2-3 million. Although many people died from malnutrition, the causes of death included malaria and other diseases as a consequence of population displacement, lack of sanitation and inadequate healthcare. In his account of the Bengal Famine (Poverty and Famines, an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation) published in 1981, Sen concludes the famine was not caused by shortages of food but instead by “a very unequal distribution of purchasing power that left a large group of people unable to get enough food” (2).
Although we should be careful not to assume that history can repeat itself, it is difficult to watch the consequences of the Indian government’s 21 day lockdown policy – enacted on 24 March with only four hours notice – and not be affected by a sense of déjà vu. A week later the Man Booker Prize winning writer Arundhati Roy observed the impending crisis: “As the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies… megacities began to extrude their… migrant workers like so much unwanted accruals” (3).
The focus of Roy’s concern is the plight of at least 80 per cent of India’s working population: day labourers, many of whom exist below the official poverty line of $2 per day, and whose livelihoods have evaporated overnight. Trapped in slum housing in city centres – where entire families are crammed into one-room dwellings – their status is often very unclear. In Kolkata (Calcutta) – India’s third largest city – the central core contains one of the highest population densities in the world at around 95,000 per sq km.
Born as a trading port in the 17th century, Kolkata can claim to be the first globalised city in Asia. By the time it became the administrative centre of the British East India Company, its population included Swedes, Dutch, Danes, Portuguese, and French settlers each occupying distinctive settlements with their own churches and burial grounds. By the early 19th century the city’s population of Scots was fast becoming the most prominent. They built their own church, St Andrews, in 1818, and two years later opened their own burial ground. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Scottish Cemetery which since 2009 has benefitted from a far-reaching restoration programme operated by the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust.
Run with parallel conservation and urban regeneration objectives, the Scottish Cemetery Project touches the lives of over 3,000 people who occupy a densely populated precinct surrounding the perimeter wall. Almost all drawn from migrant families – some leaving the neighbouring state of Bihar for Kolkata three generations ago – this community is now one of the best documented in the city. Having commissioned consecutive social surveys, the Trust’s outreach workers are familiar and welcome faces. In recent years they have initiated several life-enhancing activities including a school for 70 children, training courses for mothers setting up their own enterprises, and also a five-a-side football league played in the narrow streets that surround the cemetery.
At the heart of this mainly Muslim community sits a colonial-era Christian burial ground where 4,000 Scots were interred, their brick and stone monuments shaded by date palms and swathed in bougainvillea. Although the lockdown rules have forced the closure of the cemetery restoration programme, the Trust has retained its masonry and horticulture contractors, furloughed its day-labourers and is now providing weekly food parcels and necessities for a further 40 families.
Despite the sense of sadness that gripped the 30-strong conservation team when the heavy iron gates were locked for 21 days, the project swiftly has been repurposed to care for the most vulnerable. Regular reports from the social work team indicate how they are feeding the needy while ensuring the children continue their studies by WhatsApp. In his recent article, Amartya Sen wrote that “history shows some crises lead to improved equality and access to food and healthcare. A better society can emerge from the lockdowns”(1). For India’s sake, let’s hope he is right.
Charles Bruce is Chairman of the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust. He is also a board member of Asia Scotland Institute.
The Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust’s work can be followed on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kolscotheritage/
1. Amartya Sen, A better society can emerge from the lockdowns, Financial Times 15 April 2020
2. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, an Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, OUP 1981
3. Arundhati Roy, The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times 3 April 2020