Kolkata – The People We Pass By


The World Health Organisation estimate that 15.3% of the world’s population, i.e. 785 million people, deal with disability of one kind or the other, every day. India, with a population of 1.34 billion people, has about 27 million people with a disability.

India is among the countries expected to be worst affected by the impact of climate crisis, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say that even if the world succeeds in cutting carbon emissions, in limiting the predicted rise in average global temperatures, parts of India will become so hot they will test the limits of human survivability. This is especially true of disabled street people’s lives in India.

Different Lives’ looks at disabled people’s lives in different cultures. In this section the central theme of telling individual’s stories is continued in the city of Kolkata, India. This is my daughter Anna’s project – it’s her idea and she drives it forward. Like many on the autistic spectrum she views the world from the safety of a coffee shop or, as in Anna’s case, via the internet. She’d seen a TV programme on child slavery in Kolkata and then an online video of the wonderful work of The Hope Foundation and announced, “I want to help disabled street people in Kolkata”. When someone on the autistic spectrum develops a special interest, you follow it and nurture its growth. Anna helps people live their ‘different lives’ and they in turn help Anna live her ‘different life’.

The focus is on The People We Pass By’ by which we mean we the tourists, and we the ordinary people of India, who habitually pass by street people with disabilities. They may be disabled people we don’t see every day because they aren’t found at tourist sites, or they don’t move out of their homes or out of the institutions in which they live. Maybe we don’t take notice of them because they are untouchables who live on the very fringe of a society. They are not seen and not heard because they have no ‘voice’. Often, they don’t even have official names, have a birth certificate or a death certificate – it’s as though they never existed.

Anna is in awe of people who are willing to support her project by their donations in terms of money, clothes, toys and encouragement.

Young untouchable man with a Mentally Disability, Kolkata 2017
Young untouchable man with a Mentally Disability, Kolkata 2017

India has an amazing richness and variety of culture, expressed through its art, music and food, but above all its vibrant and exciting people. The best and worst of what it means to be human is represented in Kolkata. It’s a city of extremes. The noise, crowding, grinding poverty and makeshift housing, make everyday existence hard but much harder for the disabled of the lower castes. All strive to carve out a marginal existence which is only possible with the support of family, neighbours or strangers.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to ‘the people we pass by’; Kaushik of Kolkata Walking Tours (http://walkingtoursofkolkata.in/home/); and The Hope Foundation (http://www.thehopefoundation.org.uk/); for their support.