The Indian city is in the throes of change. It is being re-imagined, with ambitions of becoming a Shanghai, a Singapore, or, more generally, a 'world city'. Naturally, there is no longer any space in it for the poor and their squalid settlements.
Characterizing the slum dweller as an 'encroacher', and as being in 'illegal occupation [of] government land', has lent language and an assumed legitimacy to the epidemic of demolitions that have been unleashed on the urban poor. In constructing a simile where providing an alternative site to an evicted slum dweller is likened to "giving a reward to a pickpocket" - which is what the Supreme Court did in Almitra Patil's case in 2000 - the imagery has taken the slum dweller past illegality to criminality.
In November 2002, the perception of the slum dweller as a usurper of public land led the Delhi High Court to strike down the policy of resettlement. In March 2003, the Supreme Court, in an interim order, permitted allotments under the resettlement policy to be made "subject to the result of the petitions". But the Delhi High Court has continued to adopt the Almitra reasoning and has ordered demolitions on pain of punishment for contempt of court while rejecting the policy of relocation. The Supreme Court has, thereafter, allowed this position to persist.
This perception of the slum dweller as wrongdoer - and demolition as punishment for such wrongdoing - has deflected attention from where the fault lies, even as it continues to destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people.
As the courts have seen it, slum dwellings suffer from the vice of illegality. This is because slums have developed on public land, which were acquired under the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) Act 1957 to facilitate the planned development of the city. None of these lands were intended to house slums. The question then is: Where in the city is it legal for the poor to reside? The answer is found in what a planner calls the 'implementation backlog'.
The Report of the Committee on Problems of Slums in Delhi, constituted by the Planning Commission, records in June 2002 that the DDA is stated to own 25,377.2 hectares (62,707 acres) of land - 17 per cent of the land in the state. A report that the committee relies on has found that "DDA claims that 20 per cent of the residential area is earmarked for Economically Weaker Sections/squatter populations under the integrated development project. DDA has not allotted any land to Slum and Jhuggi Jhopri Department during 1992-97. In 1997-98, DDA allocated 32 acres of land in Tehkand village...during 1998-99, about 27.4 acres of land was allocated..." This is in a city where over 30 per cent of the population live in slum colonies!
In an admission of the inequitable failure of State agencies, the 10th Plan Document reads: "Urban housing shortage at the beginning of the 10th Plan has been assessed to be 8.89 million units. As much as 90 per cent of the shortfall pertains to the urban poor, and is attributable (among other reasons) to...[non-]provision of housing to slum dwellers."
The cause of the 'illegal' occupation of public lands, then, is found in the non-performance of the State. This has meant that the urban poor have created their own housing stock, with no assistance from the State. It is this housing stock that is filling the 'implementation gaps' of the State - and is now being demolished in this drive. Therefore, the government's failure to meet constitutional and legal obligations is being re-cast as the illegality of the urban poor.
When a statute - such as the DDA Act 1957 - provides an authority with the power to acquire land with a view to facilitating the planned development of a city, it does not make the State or its agency a land owner. Instead, it invests a responsibility in them to act according to their statutory duty in dealing with the land. When it does not perform as it is mandated to, it would be absurd to punish those whom it has not served. Yet, that is precisely what demolition does.
Demolition has become such an everyday occurrence that the cruelty practiced by the State when it demolishes, and forcibly evicts, is not even acknowledged.
There is a new meaning that 'impunity' acquires in the context of demolition. The way it is practiced, it would appear that no laws apply where demolition has been ordered. There is no system of survey of the affected people, or of the differential impacts on women, men and children; notice of demolition, when given, is ridiculously short, even a few hours, with rumors often substituting for notice; there is no hearing of the slum dwellers; no mechanism to deal with complaints. There is no computing of losses, not even of life. There is no investigation when fires break out. In effect, there is lawlessness, and the supposed illegality of the poor is used as a cover to permit the commission of what would otherwise be recognized as atrocities.
The Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act, passed in May 2006, which suspends demolitions for a period of one year, continues this tradition of criminal callousness. While 'mixed land use not conforming to the Master Plan', and 'construction beyond sanctioned plans' are protected without exception, the Act says that there will be no such moratorium in relation to the 'removal of slums and jhuggi jhopri dwellers and hawkers and street vendors' where 'clearance of land is required for specific public purpose'.
The Master Plan, the National Housing Policy 1988, India's international commitment to the UN norm of 'adequate housing' have all been flouted by the State. The fact is this: that it is the State that has violated the law and its obligations. An explanation must now emerge for why the urban poor are being demonized and their houses ruthlessly destroyed for the illegalities of the non-performing State.