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In our metropolis

It is estimated that at least a third of Delhi’s 14 million people reside in slums and live in deplorable conditions, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2008 21:32 IST

For the past several years, a thousand persons are added each day to the burgeoning population of Delhi. Last week, the Washington DC-based Population Reference Bureau stated that Delhi has overtaken Mumbai as the most populous city in India. Out of the many impoverished men and women entering Delhi every day, often with children in tow, are those who escape unhappy conditions of hunger, unemployment and caste oppression in the villages of their birth. In the city, they toil on construction sites and in people’s homes, lift loads, pull rickshaws, recycle waste, work in factories and eateries and vend on streets, earning often just enough for survival. But as the report convened a few months ago by the professional support group and resource centre, Hazards Centre, ‘The Eviction and Resettlement Process in Delhi’ ironically notes, the new “world class” metropolis of Delhi is “being developed as a site of elite consumption for those who can afford it, and purged of those who build and service it”.

Along with Amita Baviskar, Bela Bhatia, Vrinda Grover and Kamal Chenoy, I was part of this fact-finding panel. Together we had walked over the mountains of rubble of the then recently demolished 7,000 slum tenements at Yamuna Pushta, where many residents had lived for more then 25 years. The report testifies to “brightly coloured clothes of children, kitchen utensils, and idols of gods” strewn amid this “unkempt graveyard of homes”. It was obvious that people had been evicted in great haste. All those evicted whom we could find in the resettlement colonies confirmed this. Their homes were set on fire, and two days later bulldozers and police appeared, beating those who desperately tried to salvage their few belongings before their homes were razed.

In the landmark Olga Tellis case in 1985, the Supreme Court affirmed that the right to livelihoods was inherent in the right to life, and that if the State chooses to evict pavement and slum-dwellers, it must do so only in conformity with procedures established by law, including sufficient notice and rehabilitation. But these obligations have been gravely diluted by recent judgments that are increasingly hostile to the urban working poor. The Delhi High Court held in the Okhla Factory Owners Association case in 2003 that displaced families are not entitled to any resettlement, as this would burden the state exchequer. The SC went further in the Almitra Patel case in blaming — even stigmatising — the victim by declaring that “rewarding an encroacher on public land with an alternative free site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket”.

There is little official data of the numbers of persons in slums or haphazardly settled informal, usually unauthorised tenements in Delhi. But it is estimated that at least a third of Delhi’s 14 million people reside in slums. These squatter settlements are encroachments on unoccupied land belonging to the government, arising because of the failure of the State to provide legal low-cost housing to its poorest urban residents. For instance, Hazards Centre estimates that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) built only 34 per cent of the houses that it had targeted in the last 20 years. Even these were mostly to meet middle-class housing needs. There is, therefore, no recourse of survival left to the working poor except to buy or rent plots in illegalised slums.

The report notes that the Pushta residents were evicted as they were seen by officials to pollute the Yamuna, ignoring the fact that they contributed to less than one per cent of the pollution, whereas 19 big drains spew sewerage from middle-class colonies into the river. Compared with 100 hectares of the riverbed and banks under slums, 30 hectares are with Akshardham Temple alone, apart from thermal power stations and their ash ponds, the Asian Games structures and offices.

Housing is precarious in slum tenements, with six to eight persons cramped in single rooms of 2 by 3 metres built with mud or bricks under roofs of plastic sheets or corrugated iron. One study estimates that the density of these slums is a stunning 300,000 persons per square kilometre against Delhi’s overall density of 9,294 persons. Every square inch of space is utilised, causing enormous physical and psychological stresses, and public services are minimal. An official National Sample Survey Organisation study, for instance, found that none of the non-notified slums in Delhi had underground drainage, only 3 per cent had underground sewerage, less than half had any latrines, 72 per cent are waterlogged in the monsoons, and a third had no primary schools within one kilometre. Another study finds that where latrines exist, one services 27 households, under-5 mortality is 149 per live births, and 40 per cent children are severely malnourished.

Contrary to popular beliefs of the higher courts and large segments of the middle classes, resettlement of families forcibly evicted from slums does not involve distributing free-developed plots. On the contrary, the team in Bawana found displaced slum-dwellers had to pay Rs 7,000 as advance for an 18 sq m plot, and Rs 5,000 for 12 sq m. No credit was offered and families had to fall back on private moneylenders. The plots were not developed. Instead, they were low-lying, below even the side drains that overflowed into them with wastewater during the rains. There was no work at the colonies. So most people travel hours daily back to the old city for their old work — which itself is casual and not assured — spending Rs 35 each day.

We have encountered large numbers of men and women who have been reduced to sleeping on pavements because they cannot afford this daily travel. There are paid toilets that are dirty and overflowing and no systems for drainage and waste management. Drinking water is of poor quality and there are no health facilities. The Pushta demolitions were undertaken when most children were due to take their final exams. Many lost a year as a result, while others have dropped out because of poverty and distance of schools.

Life is more treacherous for the unfortunate displaced persons who could not access even this elementary ‘rehabilitation’. It is estimated that for 6,000 families that were resettled, 20,000 were not. Some did not qualify because of arbitrary cut-off dates; others because they could not produce documentary proof such as ration cards and voter IDs. There were many others who were officially ‘eligible’, but could not afford the down payments.

The report tries to track some of those who were not resettled after the Pushta evictions. It found that very few returned to the dead-end of their original villages. I encounter large numbers of evicted single women and infirm among the growing mass of destitute homeless people who sleep under the open sky in the walled city. Others bought or rented plots in other slums near their old homes in Pushta.

The majority lie low for a while, somehow subsisting. A few bribe the police to retrieve some of their building materials as they begin the journey once again of building another ‘illegalised’ slum that will be demolished again one day. But until then, the resilient working poor continue to survive, and somehow even to hope and celebrate life.

Harsh Mander is convener of Aman Biradari.