Demolishing Lives and Livelihoods in Delhi


Even as India goes to the polls, over 50,000 people have been effectively disenfranchised in the heart of the nation’s capital, Delhi. This has happened following the destruction of over 15,000 jhuggis (slum dwellings) since mid-February. Demolitions have happened in other parts of the city as well, but they have been concentrated on the banks of the river Yamuna in an area called Yamuna Pushta. Over fifty thousand of its residents have simply been thrown on the streets. Five residents have died during the demolitions; two others committed suicide. The ongoing demolitions – they carry on even as we speak – have been unusually brutal, evoking memories of demolitions in Delhi during India¹s Emergency of the mid-1970s.

Less than one in five families are getting alternative plots, tiny plots of 12.5 square metres in places on the city¹s outskirts, 25-35 kilometres away.


A recent survey of these relocation sites has confirmed they have no electricity, schools, or health centres. Provisions for toilets and drinking water are deeply inadequate. But the vast majority have received nothing, no land, no compensation, and have been left to fend for themselves. The place looks like a post-riot situation: rubble of broken bricks, people in shock, left to cope with the lack of food and shortage of water. It¹s not just the destruction of their homes, for many, it also places leaves their livelihoods and meagre daily earmings in jeopardy. They are left in the open in Delhi¹s unforgiving summer heat. A few huddle under plastic sheets placed on four sticks. Even those flimsy structures are being taken down by the police.

This huge slum cluster on both banks of the Yamuna has 75,000 jhuggis, housing 300,000 people. A tragedy of huge proportions is unfolding before our very eyes, but it has evoked little response from all political parties, including, alas, parties of the mainstream Left and various Marxist-Leninist parties of the far Left. A collective called Visthapan Virodhi Abhiyan (Campaign Against Demolitions) has been formed recently. It supports those resisting from within the slum cluster and has attempted to mobilize public opinion, of which so far there is little.

This round of demolitions is being carried out following a Delhi Court order of 3 March 2003, which directed “authorities concerned”  to remove all unauthorized structures, and jhuggis in the Yamuna bed and its embankment within two months.”  The demolitions began this February, but have received shockingly little attention given its magnitude. That’s partly because there¹s been little honest coverage in the media, which for the most part puts out the official view, one of ‘voluntary relocation’ of ‘encroachers’.


That less than one in five of the 65,000 people so far affected have got alternative plots itself suggests that this is not a ‘relocation’ but a destruction of people¹s homes and livelihoods. And is scarcely ‘voluntary’.


The overwhelming and daily reality is that these houses have been taken down under heavy police harassment.

All destruction of homes of the urban poor over the last 25 years in this city has been facilitated by heavy police intervention. It is usually bulldozers of the municipal authorities that do the dirty work. The police are usually are a brooding presence, used when resistance gets too hot. This time around Рto an unusual degree Рthe police have played an active part in getting people to leave. They have picked up people, taken them to the nearest police station and threatened them to leave. They have been going around house to house, and their usual direction to those living there is: you better take down your house tomorrow by 9 a.m., because by 10 the bulldozers will be here. All this to present a fa̤ade of people having left voluntarily.

This is besides the police¹s customary role of violently subduing resistance. When a protest rally was planned by the slum residents in early April, the most active among them were picked up by the police. Falsely charged with minor offences, they are still in jail, over three weeks later.


Others since have had false cases and charges slapped against them; about a dozen people are in custody. Young men have been picked up and randomly beaten overnight in the police station. Resistance persists, but police humiliation has certainly undermined the resolve of a number of people to resist.

The Larger Reality Behind These Demolitions:


These demolitions have happened on the grounds that these are “encroachers”
on public land who “pollute” the river Yamuna. For years both these terms have been part of the ideological weaponry aimed at ridding the city of a part of its working poor.

That the poor pollute is a motivated lie. There is an obvious relation between one’s access to resources and the capacity to pollute. A recently published study on Yamuna pollution and the Pushta reveals that a minute fraction of the 3,600 million litres wastewater generated in Delhi each day derives from those living on Yamuna¹s banks. Government norms for supplying water to jhuggis is 40 litres per person a day. Slum dwellers actually receive much less, in many areas between 16-18 litres (2 buckets) daily per person. The middle class and the rich consume far more (450 litres per person in some posh areas). The poor don¹t pollute to the degree claimed simply because they can¹t.

The real reason for these demolitions is what they will leave behind: large tracts of land, on which.there are plans to set up clubs, a tourism complex, convention centres and a financial district. Delhi’s powerful land mafia and property dealers, who are entrenched in both Delhi’s main political parties the Congress and the BJP, are salivating at the potential profits this land in the centre of the city contains. The Pushta itself extends over 100 acres. The Delhi Master Plan 2001 and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) have grander ideas: the Master Plan talks of “channelization of the river to help improvement of the riverfront”. In 1998, the DDA submitted a plan to develop 24,250 acres of the river-bed. The cost of developing this land has been put at Rs 800 per square metre, and its sale price at Rs 2,660 per square metre, going up to 15,960 per square metre for commercial property.

The large-scale destruction of people’s houses is usually legitimized by presenting them as encroachers on public land. Such as a Supreme Court order of 16 February 2000, which famously said: “Rewarding an encroacher on public land with a free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket.”  This jaundiced view of the judiciary reflects the hostility of the Indian middle class and elites towards slum-dwellers.

This begs the question: who is the ‘public’, and by what logic are urban poor considered encroachers? The majority of the Pushta¹s 3,00,000 residents service this city through their labour. This huge slum cluster has over 10,000 unionized rickshaw pullers, who ply their rickshaws taking people around. It has an even larger number of wastepickers, who process some of the city¹s waste. Many women from here work as domestic help in middle class homes around. Some sell goods on handcarts. Others work as casual labour. Yet others do construction labour. Some of these people have lived in the Pushta for three generations. We’ve met women who told us how their children were born there, and now they have married and have children.


Why is their right to stay in this city any less than mine or anyone else’s? I


t is because, in the absence of any worthwhile planned housing for the poor, they have been priced out of the housing market, and are forced to live in abysmal conditions Delhi has three and a half million people crammed in slums in a fraction of its urban space; the average Delhi wage of Rs 2,000 (US$ 45) a month means they can¹t afford any better. And hence condemned to impermanence even when they have lived there for decades, as with people in the Pushta.

The ongoing demolitions are scarcely new. About 25,000 jhuggis were destroyed in Delhi between 1990-99. About 15,000 slum houses were dismantled in 2000-01, the last year for which figures are available. If anything, it has intensified since then. But these are not isolated happenings. They are very much linked to a wider process of throwing manufacturing and the working poor out of cities. By the mid-1990s, Delhi had become a major destination for those in search for work. These rural migrants came desperate for work as the government¹s neoliberal economic policies adversely affected employment in agriculture and rural life in general.


Declining investment in irrigation, declining bank credit, and falling employment has hit livelihoods badly in a country where 700 million people depend on agriculture. Their plight is most starkly confirmed in a recent study by one of India’s pre-eminent economists, Utsa Patnaik. She that an average family in India eats 93 kilos less foodgrain a year nowadays than they did five years ago, when the economic reforms really began to be felt on the ground. When one considers that this figure includes urban food consumption, where it is increasing and diversifying, one can imagine the state of the rural poor. Currently, food absorption for 40 per cent of India¹s rural poor is as low as sub-Saharan Africa.

Which is why more and more people are forced to leave their families behind and come to Delhi, Mumbai and other urban centres. In the past, many of them did get work, low-paid, casual, unorganized, but still work. That process has consciously been rolled back in Delhi over the last 6-7 years. It first began with large-scale factory closures after 1997, on the grounds that these factories pollute Delhi; over 1,00,000 workers lost their jobs. With the accompanying freeze in government employment to cut public spending, it is much more difficult to find regular work nowadays. That is reflected in the dry official figures of the National Sample Survey Organization: in 1999, Delhi¹s unemployed was 5.69 lakh, little over half a million. In less than five years, this figure has doubled, to 1.1 million. Of these, it says, 42 per cent are migrants from other states.

People are still coming to Delhi, but the government is making sure it is more difficult for them to stay. Hence the destruction of homes of the working poor, the other side of the coin. This is also linked to neoliberal visions of restructuring the city. The ambitions of these reformers, city planners and politicians alike is one of turning Delhi into a centre for corporate offices, of information technology, a service hub, of creating another Singapore, of making the Yamuna banks another Thames riverside.


These visions have no place or planned space for those who contribute to a city¹s development through their daily labour; they are condemned to remain forever on its margins in a state of impermanence. It ought to be a truism that any notion of development, of a city or a nation, becomes meaningful only when its starting point is ordinary people. As India goes to the polls, the government¹s main slogan is ‘India Shining’. It certainly isn¹t for those who make the bulbs.

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