No Space for Delhi's Poor
New Delhi: There's something grimly unique about impoverished third
world societies. Events of magnitude - that affects tens of thousands
of people - sometimes occur creating barely a ripple outside of those
One such has been unfolding in Delhi over the last four months. About
27,000 jhuggis (slum houses or shacks) have been destroyed since late
February this year in the Yamuna Pushta, a stretch of land along the
river Yamuna that trickles through Delhi. Nearly 100,000 people have
been rendered homeless, violently. A majority of them have left for
their villages, or dispersed in the city.
These evictions have been presented by officialdom as a "voluntary
relocation", with people shifting to plots they got elsewhere. But
nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, less than 20
percent of the Pushta's residents received alternative plots.
These plots are in Bawana and Holambi Kalan, two of eleven current
relocation sites on the outskirts of the city. The plots are tiny.
According to the Delhi Government's current relocation policy, those
residing in relocated slums before 1990 are entitled to plots of 18
square meters. Those after 1990 and before 1998 get a tiny 12.5 square
meters. Those who have come after 1998, or, as is common in the Pushta
and elsewhere, those who can't prove they were there before 1998,
get nothing. No one is paying heed to Delhi's Master Plan 2001 which
states that anyone getting displaced should get at least 25 square
Those who did receive plots got only a license to them and that too
for just 5-10 years. What rights they will have to those tiny plots
of land after this period has remained unstated. And despite the occasional
court directive that relocation sites ought to have the necessary
infrastructure and living facilities in place before shifting
people, these relocation sites are barely habitable. They have no
electricity, no or inadequate drinking water, few toilets, no grocery
shops under the public distribution scheme, and no clinics. The plots
are on marshy land, and, as one woman who was shunted out of Yamuna
Pushta put it, "We have no water but lots of mosquitoes."
What's more, their livelihoods have been badly hit. A Delhi Government
study in early 2003 of relocated families in three other relocation
sites in the city revealed that the average income of a family after
relocation goes down by 50 percent (Hindustan Times, 29 March 2003).
For those with already low incomes, this is nothing less than a crisis.
Despite the findings of its own survey, the Delhi Government carried
on blithely with the evictions in the Pushta. Most of its residents
work as cycle-rickshaw pullers, plying people around on their three-wheeled
cycles, waste-pickers, hawkers, sweepers, domestic workers, drivers,
and construction workers.
The relocation sites, for those who have got homes, are between 18-35
kilometers away from the Pushta. A rickshaw union - representing over
10,000 rickshaw-wallahs who lived in the Pushta slums - has filed
a petition in the Delhi High Court arguing that cycle rickshaws are
not allowed to operate in Bawana where some of their members have
got plots. For others, moving miles away from their earlier homes
and workplaces means spending much more time and money on transport
getting there. But since most cannot afford the bus fare, it has already
translated into a severe loss of income for many people. Many women,
who used to work as domestic workers, have now stopped working. Those
selling goods on handcarts have been hit by a loss of daily earnings.
Cycle-rickshaw pullers are choosing to visit their now far-off relocated
homes only once a week. The other six nights are spent sleeping on
footpaths in town or in their rickshaws. For these untold thousands
of urban working poor, the fabric of an already frayed life has just
been torn some more.
That only one in five people from the Yamuna Pushta got alternative
plots itself suggests that this was not a voluntary relocation but
nothing less than a forcible eviction. In response, the Pushta's residents,
supported by a few groups and activists in the city, attempted to
organize, held dharnas (sit-ins), met representatives of major political
parties, petitioned local authorities such as the DDA, MCD, and Delhi's
Lieutenant Governor, and appealed to statutory bodies such as the
National Human Rights Commission. This resistance to the evictions
Wielding the Rod
Much of the visible resistance to the snatching of homes and livelihoods
was undermined by the police, which played a violently active role,
much more than they usually do during evictions. Police from local
stations went from jhuggi to jhuggi threatening people with dire consequences
if they did not dismantle their own homes. They regularly resorted
to beatings and the use of tear gas. Those in the forefront of the
resistance have been arrested, and a fair number are still in jail
on trumped-up charges, over three months after they were picked up.
Others were taken, kept overnight in a lock-up and beaten, while the
police taunted them, "You are trying to become a leader, are you?"
The police harassment had a distinctly communal tinge. A section of
this massive slum cluster was predominantly Muslim and the forces
deployed included the notoriously communal Provincial Armed Constabulary
(PAC). There were instances of Muslim men, while resisting the demolition
of their jhuggis, being pulled away by their beards by police. Others
were abused and told to leave the Pushta and "go to Pakistan".
This hostility that has percolated widely through many state institutions
and personnel only reflects the communal antagonism towards Muslims
in society at large, for which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), until
recently ruling at the Center; and its various loutish "sister" organizations
like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal are directly
responsible. Jagmohan, the former Union Minister for Tourism and Culture
- a prime mover behind evictions in Delhi ever since the Emergency
- was the BJP's incumbent candidate during the recent general elections
2004 from the very constituency under which the Pushta falls. He lost.
There was an urgency with which those from the Pushta voted, to make
sure he lost. This reflected not so much support for the Congress
but a vote against Jagmohan, and against all the right-wing
politics and arrogant authoritarianism the BJP represents.
Encroachers and Polluters, or Backbone of Delhi?
The large-scale demolition of people's homes followed a Delhi
High Court order of March 2003 in which it directed authorities
concerned … "to remove all unauthorized structures, and jhuggis
in the Yamuna bed and its embankment within two months." They
have been termed by authorities as "encroachers" who "pollute"
the Yamuna and the city in general. For long, these two terms
have been used to target the working poor of this city and hence
bear examination in some detail.
If they are considered 'encroachers' on public land, that is
technically based on the Delhi Master Plan 2001. But then the
Master Plan is scarcely a static document. It has been amended
over 65 times over the last decade, so there's no reason for
it to be viewed as a copy of the Ten Commandments.
Also, going by the very Master Plan, many other encroachments
have taken place on the Pushta, such as Rajiv Gandhi Smriti
Van, Delhi's new Secretariat building, and Majnu ka Tila gurudwara.
Others are taking place or are planned, such as the Akshardham
temple, Delhi Police Training Camp, the Delhi Stock Exchange,
and the Commonwealth Games Village. But the government has been
selective in its implementation of the High Court order. Only
the jhuggis got dismantled. That's hardly surprising though;
it only reflects the state's class bias.
More than anything, we need to question the ideological mindset
under which the urban poor are considered 'encroachers'. The
majority of the Pushta's over 100,000 residents service this
city through their labor. This huge slum cluster had over 10,000
rickshaw pullers, waste-pickers, domestic help who work in middle
class homes around, and construction workers. Some sell goods
on handcarts. Others work as casual labor. Some of these people
have lived in the Pushta for three generations. Why is their
right to stay in this city less than anyone else's?
The people of the Pushta managed to vote Jagmohan out, but no amount
of resistance could halt their houses being taken down. The place
currently resembles an urban war zone. Or a post-riot scenario, with
long stretches of rubble reaching the edge of the river. About a quarter
of the 100,000 residents have returned to their villages. The better-off
have taken up a room on rent elsewhere in the city, a rent they can
ill-afford. But thousands don't have the resources for that. They
move here and there in the city, setting up temporary shelter where
they can. Or are just out in the open in the unforgiving heat of Delhi's
summer. Their fate, once the monsoon rains hit the city, can only
be imagined. By late June, about 700 families had returned to the
Pushta, having nowhere else to go, but how long they will be allowed
to stay is anybody's guess.
Putting the Squeeze on the Urban Poor
The demolition in the Pushta is one of series of demolitions of the
last few years, a manifestation of the continued but unstated policy
of throwing a section of the working poor out of this city. About
25,000 jhuggis were dismantled in Delhi between 1990-99. This has
turned into a frenzy in more recent years, during which as many as
50,000 jhuggi homes have been dismantled.
But we ought not to view demolitions in isolation. The large-scale
closure of industries after the mid-1990s, and the limiting of manufacturing
activity in the city is the other side of the coin of throwing the
poor out. But this process is blind to the reasons why they come to
this city in the first place. Workers in Delhi are mostly rural migrants
looking for work. It is not a coincidence that the largest chunk of
Delhi's migrants is from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two most underdeveloped
states in the region. With cuts in public spending due to World Bank
pressure, rural development expenditure was slashed, from 14.5 percent
of GDP in the five years before reforms began in 1991 to about 5-6
percent at present. This, combined with declining bank credit for
the poor, falling prices of agricultural commodities, and import of
food products - all part of neo-liberal economic policies - has hit
livelihoods badly in a country where the vast majority still depend
on agriculture. Their plight is most starkly confirmed in a recent
piece by the eminent economist Utsa Patnaik. She says that an average
person in India consumed 20 kilos less food grain a year in 2003 than
barely five years earlier, when the effects of economic reforms first
began to be felt on the ground (Utsa Patnaik, 'Rural India in Ruins',
Frontline, 12 March 2004). Food intake for 40 percent of India's rural
poor is as low as sub-Saharan Africa. Which is why more and more people
still migrate to Delhi and other urban centers looking for any work
they can get. Their numbers have grown each year, from 178,000 in
1991 to 259,000 in 1999. This figure of migrants coming to Delhi annually
has never fallen below 200,000 since 1994 Which is why the number
of jhuggi dwellers has grown so sharply - they were 1.29 million in
1991, and have more than doubled, to 3.5 million presently.
In the past, they used to get poorly paid, unorganized factory work.
Now even that is getting more and more difficult to procure, thanks
to the closure of industries on a large scale and the freeze in government
employment. And the powers-that-be are making it more difficult for
them to stay. The authorities have their visions of 'shining' metropolises,
full of skyscrapers, flyovers, movie multiplexes, and chrome-and-glass
offices catered to by fast-food joints. The upper middle class and
elites who have flourished since the mid-1990s are totally complicit
in this transformation. In this vision the working poor have no right
and little space.
One of the major reasons for the recent demolitions is the huge tracts
of land on which the jhuggis were located. There are plans to set
up on this land a tourism complex, clubs, convention centers 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 could generate. The Pushta itself extends over
100 acres. The Master Plan and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA)
have grander ideas: the Master Plan talks of "channelization of the
river Yamuna" towards "development of the riverfront" (MPD 2001).
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(US$18) per
square meter, and its sale price at Rs 2,660 (US$ 59) per square meter,
going up to Rs 15,960 (US$355) per square meter for commercial property.
Will the recent elections change things? Well, the upper middle class
and elites are very much part of the Congress middle rungs. The land
mafia is well entrenched in both parties. The Congress government
itself has been in power in Delhi for some years now while demolitions
intensified. So would a newly elected Congress government at the center
make a difference regarding housing for Delhi's poor? Very little,
important as it is, but very little. But that is conjecture as yet.
What is certainly not speculation is that capitalism thrives on pushing
and keeping people on the margins, metaphorically and literally. Hence
the widespread destruction of jhuggis in the city, of which the Pushta
demolitions is only one grim tale.
For more information and to get involved, contact Sajha Manch, a forum of mass organisations, NGOs and individuals campaigning on issues related to housing for the urban poor.
There has been a near complete absence of planned housing for
the city's poor. Even the little provided in the Master Plans
remains unimplemented. The first Plan of 1962 had 5 percent
area for low income housing but that remained on paper. Under
Master Plan of Delhi, 2001, the government was supposed to build
1.62 million houses (Master Plan of Delhi 2001), but built only
little over half a million units, most for the better-off residents
(Hazards Centre, Delhi Kiski Hai?, 2003, p. 89). And of the
5,007 hectares Delhi Development Authority (DDA) acquired between
1990 and 1998 as part of the extension of Delhi's urban areas,
over 93 percent was in Dwarka and Rohini and not meant for the
poor. The cheapest houses being built by the authorities cost
a quarter of a million rupees (about US$ 5,500), way beyond
the scope of the vast majority of Delhi's urban dwellers. There's
only been some space created in a few relocation sites, but
this is deeply inadequate. In short, Delhi's urban planning
is consciously keeping out the poor.
What is needed is a policy of equitable land distribution. What
we have is the absence of housing for the poor. And given the
average Delhi wage of Rs 2,000 a month (about US$ 44), the urban
poor have been priced out of the housing market, and are forced
to live in abysmal conditions. Three-and-a-half million people
- a quarter of Delhi's total population of 14.3 million - crammed
in over 600,000 slum dwellings in a fraction of Delhi's urban
space, always considered 'encroachers' by the authorities and
the middle class. Condemned to impermanence even when they have
lived there for decades, as with people in the Pushta.
Do the Poor Pollute? And by what logic are people in the Pushta
considered "polluters"? A recently published study on Yamuna
pollution and the Pushta reveals that a tiny fraction of the
3,600 million liters wastewater generated in Delhi each day
derives from those living on Yamuna's banks. The government
norm for supplying water to jhuggis is 40 liters per person
a day (Hazards Centre, A Report on Pollution of the Yamuna at
the Pushta in Delhi, 2004). Slum dwellers actually receive much
less, in many areas between 16-18 liters (2 buckets) daily per
person. The middle class and the rich consume much more, in
some posh areas as much as 450 liters per person. There is an
obvious relation between one's access to resources and the capacity
to pollute. The poor don't pollute to the degree claimed simply
because they cannot.
This is not the first time that 'pollution' has been mentioned
in court orders, whose consequences, intended or otherwise,
have been harmful for the working poor. In 1996 and 2001, hundreds
of small industrial units were shut down in Delhi following
court orders on the grounds that they pollute. Its immediate
consequence was that tens of thousands of workers lost their
jobs, getting neither advance notice nor compensation. These
were the very people most affected by industrial pollution,
working in places with fumes so strong that, they told us then,
they were barely able to breathe (Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch,
How Many Errors Does Time Have Patience For? 2001). Besides
those working in dingy industrial units, those most affected
by pollution are workers and their families who, given the absence
of housing alternatives, often tend to live in the vicinity
of industrial areas.
The parallel with the Pushta is not exact. In the industrial
closures, the courts remained silent regarding those most affected
by pollution in the first place. In the current case of the
Pushta demolitions, the court has held the jhuggi dwellers directly
responsible. But the point is how pollution becomes a handle
to beat them with. How a limited or inaccurate perspective of
pollution - environmental concerns delinked from class and economy
- has class consequences. That the poor pollute is a motivated
lie. The real reasons for the Pushta demolitions lie elsewhere.
c/o Hazards Centre,
92-H, 3rd Floor, Pratap Market, Munirka,
New Delhi 110 067, India
Tel: +91-11-26187806, +91-11-26714244
Nagraj Adve is a New Delhi based activist.
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