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No Space for Delhi's Poor

By Nagraj Adve
India Resource Center
July 13, 2004

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 immediately affected.

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 meters.

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.

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?

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 yielded little.

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.

Masterly Unplanned

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.

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.

Sajha Manch,
c/o Hazards Centre,
92-H, 3rd Floor, Pratap Market, Munirka,
New Delhi 110 067, India
Tel: +91-11-26187806, +91-11-26714244
Email: haz_cen@vsnl.net

Nagraj Adve is a New Delhi based activist.




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