Sep 23, 2023
Sep 23, 2023
by Gautam Bhan
When the US invaded Iran and Afghanistan, there was one popular anti-war slogan that caught the attention of many - "Not in My Name". The appeal of the slogan was simple: it generously spread the responsibility of war away from just the White House to the doorstep of each citizen of a democratically-elected nation. It reminded all of us that our governments act in our name - whether or not we voted for them - and if they commit and perpetuate injustice, then so do we.
For the better-off citizens of Delhi, our habitation on the land of this city entitles us to shelter, identity, rights and urban citizenship. For those that cannot afford to live in the gated and patrolled islands of South Delhi, however, there is neither space nor justice, let alone dignity and opportunity. The thing to realize is that, as the slogan goes, all of this happens (whether we like it or not) in all our names.
Slum demolitions have become an almost banal reality in our city, unable even to summon outrage on behalf of most Delhi residents. The elephant in the room is the DDA Master Plan, a document that oscillates between being meaningless to being all-powerful depending on convenience.
When DDA colonies blatantly violated Master Plan norms and built extra floors and took over land, they were simply regularized and extensions allowed. When illegally constructed shops were identified, and merely a thousand of the estimated 18,000 illegal shops were demolished, there was a furor and a resulting High Court stay order. Though the land on the Yamuna river bed is said to be unfit for construction or habitation according to the demolishers of the bastis of Yamuna Pushta, the river bed apparently is a perfect site for a mammoth temple that was built, yet again, in violation of the Master Plan, as will be the games village on the eastern fringes of Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. God and foreign athletes apparently have a (highly subsidized) place to live in Delhi, but the urban poor simply don't make the cut.
In-situ up-gradation and regularization of illegal colonies and structures appears to be an option only when the middle- and upper-classes are involved - for slums, demolition and token efforts at resettlement are somehow that only imaginable pathways.
The pre-occupation with having the appearance of becoming 'world-class' has long obsessed Delhizens. Yet, the flip side of asking someone to abide by laws and fulfill their duties is to give them rights and basic access to shelter. According to the DDA's own data, the city should have had 2.36 million housing units across class categories in 2000. Of these, the DDA built only 1.099 million, leaving the city short of over a million dwelling units that the people of the city are entitled to. Is anyone holding the DDA responsible? Why is it that the courts can charge migrants with the responsibility of being able to live in this city, but refuse to charge the DDA with actually carrying out its responsibility to house these very people?
Where do evicted slum dwellers go? Most vanish into different parts of the city, seeking to begin lives again without any certainty that violence will not once again take away the roof over their heads. The lucky ones that are able to navigate the maze of documents and loans, and raise enough money live in JJ (jhuggi-jhompri; slum) clusters like Bawana - 50 kilometres from South Extension, and 40 kilometres from the bustling economies of Old Delhi where most Bawana residents used to work, live, and survive.
The people of Bawana have been brought from the heart of Old Delhi, where they saw themselves as living, breathing parts of the urban heart of this city, to the peripheries of a map-drawn NCR (national capital region) boundary that places them in a 'Delhi' of villages and mustard fields. Going to Delhi becomes a four-hour, 50 rupee, three-bus affair, and most people who still work in the city return home only once a week, if that.
The Bawana experience clearly demonstrates that even the simple act of coming and going to work has become impossible. Yet, the courts insist that relocating nearly 50,000 people to make way for a Games Village for the 2010 Commonwealth Games does not interfere with their right to life and livelihood.
The link of livelihood is brutally stark: if you take a rickshaw puller away from people, who will sit in his rickshaw? If you take women who make necklaces and beads for a measly Rs 20 a day, which supplier will go 40 kilometres out of his way to still supply to them? If daily commuting takes up 60 per cent of one day's wages, how will a family eat?
Why is it that there has not been a single project of slum up-gradation - that does not require demolition and resettlement - in the past 12 years? Why is poverty alleviation not even part of the agenda of slum resettlement?
There is now no longer even a pretence of suggesting that rehabilitation is an opportunity to actually improve the lives of those who live in slums and squatter colonies. The token gestures made in the name of resettlement are more insult than policy. In Bawana, land is given only on a five-year lease. Why? If slum dwellers are meant to be resettled, why make them fear further demolition every five years? Why prevent them from ever being at peace that the roof over their heads will not be snatched away again by bulldozers?
It is time that this city realizes what is being done in its name. It is time that we realize that it is not just if only one section of society has to pay the penalty of selectively and arbitrarily enforced laws. If survival is a crime, then it is the law that is on the wrong side of people and not the other way around. It is time that we understand that migrants and people who live in slums have a right to life in this city, and that they are our strength and the engines of our economies. It is time that we take responsibility, stop pretending that this happens to distant people in mythical lands, and say, simply - Not in Our Names.
(Data used is from the Delhi Master Plan 2021 and the Delhi Economic Survey 1998.)
(Gautam Bhan works in Bawana, a resettlement slum colony in New Delhi.)
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