CSP’s experience and learning from the 50 years it has worked among and with the poor families of Kolkata’s slums and streets, is instructive for all who are engaged in similar work, and most of all for CSP’s own workers … today and in the future.
CSP’s work speaks as much about the resources and reflexes essential for fighting poverty, as it does about the sources, structures and trajectories of poverty in the 20th and 21st century. Above all, it shows that socio-economic poverty will not go away in the near future, if ever; and that there will continue to be times when poverty will intensify, making those who are poor poorer still, and driving more people into poverty.
CSP started working in 1969 and became a Registered Society in 1972. It started as a civil society response to the problems that beset Calcutta at the time, a Calcutta very different from the city that it has grown to be over the last 30 years. The Calcutta of 1969 was a deeply troubled city with industrial failure, growing unemployment, widespread poverty, political conflict and violence. The critical human index of this decline was the rise in infant mortality, a direct consequence of unemployment resulting in insufficient nutrition among poor families, impacting pregnant women and children in the womb. That most of these women were domestic workers with a full day’s workload was critically debilitating for both. New born children and infants were perforce left in the ‘care’ of aged and infirm relatives or older children who were out of school, creating a very adverse gap in child care for a generation of children who already suffered from serious malnutrition.
Starting work at this grim juncture, and at a time when non government initiatives to fight poverty were far from being as widespread as they are today, CSP had to find its way. It started work as a Red Cross milk distribution programme for pregnant and nursing women. As more and more women of poor and disadvantaged families accessed milk distribution, CSP became exposed to the full extent of their problems.
The women’s problems were their children’s. How to care for them, provide them nutrition, protect their health? How to educate them?
Trying to touch one problem stirred awareness of others. The growing interaction and trust between the women and CSP bore CSP’s work forward through a shared future. One by one, other initiatives followed. By the 1980’s CSP had put in place a corpus of interlinked anti-poverty services for these women from poor and disenfranchised families; addressing the three vital needs of survival security: nutrition and health, education, and income generation for women.
Through the 1980’s, social security of the city’s poor improved, mostly because of growth in Government services for the poor. The ‘trickle down’ effects of economic liberalisation from the mid 1990’s, induced a limited growth in employment for the poor. But there was no real transformation in their condition. Instead, a new syndrome set in and persisted. The poor were enabled to live with some security but the opportunity to progress beyond it remained missing. The poor were stuck where they were.
CSP was confronted by a new challenge. How to enable the children to go beyond literacy and primary education and finish schooling? How to make them skilled and employable and productive at higher levels of the economy? Two vital dimensions were opened up:
- The mainstreaming of more and more children from CSP’s schools onto secondary education, and some further into college, and
- Skills Training was widened, scaled up and given critical mass. CSP’s mission became the empowerment of the children of poor families through education, skilling, sports, creative talent and cultural participation, making them competent, competitive and employable in the higher economy.
CSP adopted a new goal, Breaking the Chain of Inherited Poverty’.
But the pendulum swung again. From the end of the first decade of this century, income inequality increased rapidly. Renewed economic dangers and social distress started making themselves felt. To them were added a new crisis, ecological degradation and climate change that had been predicted for half a century but were ignored.
It all came home to roost in 2020 as Covid-19 struck. The consequences for Kolkata’s poor were catastrophic. Across the city, daily labourers, domestic workers, semi-skilled employees of the unorganized economy, petty traders suddenly lost their incomes. CSP’s community was fundamentally threatened. CSP was back to fighting hardcore poverty. What was needed now was an urgent anti-poverty rescue mission to restore nutrition, education and employment.
CSP responded swiftly and put on stream an integrated life and livelihood saving initiative combining large scale food distribution, medical assistance, livelihood restoration, online education, financial support for children to return to secondary schools. Over two years now, CSP’s workers and the people of hard hit communities have worked shoulder to shoulder to hold the fort. As the economy returns to activity at a higher level, the crisis has reduced only marginally for the poor. Some may have returned to their jobs, but many more remain out of work, loss of livelihood persists on a large scale. It is not Kolkata’s problem alone, all across the world economies and environments remain vulnerable and threatened, disease abounds. Anti poverty work cannot and must not take its shoulder off the wheel. There is less reason to believe that the world will change for the better in the near future, and more to think it will get worse.