Demolishing Homes in Delhi

April 13, 2010

A little over a year after I first wrote about Shaloo, the hired help in my house, her worst fears have come true. About a week ago, a notice was pasted in her slum, the slum, her home, is scheduled for demolition. Shaloo gave me this news while rinsing a glass under the tap, as I came into the kitchen to get some water. Because this is a recurring refrain, I didn’t take her seriously telling her only to bring me a copy of the notice or show me where it’s pasted (which she didn’t ‘cause someone tore away the notice, as if removal of a notice could forestall events).

Yesterday however, the surveyors came. With a register in hand, he was marking each jhuggi and noting down the dweller’s name and identity card information. We talked briefly, the essence of which is below.
1. Surveyor (from DDA) was charged with only marking each jhuggi and noting down dweller’s identity document (ration/election card) information.
2. Slums all over Delhi were being surveyed for demolition and resettlement.
3. While the date for demolition is not yet fixed , all demolition will happen before the Commonwealth games (side note: over 70 workers have died in preparation due to flagrant labor rights violations)
4. Resettlement would be based on a jhuggi residence cut-off date (yet to be decided) as substantiated by election/ration card. The surveyor shrugged when I asked him how residents without these two documents will be resettled.

The State is systematically disenfranchising the weakest sections of the society: It is near impossible for slum dwellers to get legal documents. Shaloo has a bank account (since 2001) that my sister helped open for her using her address; and an election card (2008) using another employer’s address. She has no ration card (obviously not for lack of trying). When it’s near impossible to get state documents while living in an unauthorized colony, how can these very documents be the only acceptable basis for resettlement?

If the government is truly interested in inclusive non-predatory resettlement (and we’re not even discussing braindead/heartless Timbuktu displacement) then why is the onus of documentary evidence left on the poor and often uneducated migrant? Why doesn’t the government call an open sabha (meeting) of the slum residents, and identify long-term residents in an open transparent process? Even if documentary evidence is required, why limit the options to bullshit ration and election card, which is impossible to get while living in an unauthorized area and from the dysfunctional frontline bureaucracy. 

Documentary proof of residence in the vicinity should suffice: Most slum residents live and work within a few kilometers of the slum. There are multiple documents that can prove residency in a few kilometer radius: medical reports, school report cards, bank account, election card, employer affidavits. In this area given the real estate rates, it’s impossible for a worker in the unorganized work to live anywhere other than these two slum areas. So if Shaloo is sending her kids to a local school, banking at a local bank, and visiting the local doctor/hospital, she is most definitely living in one of the two slums. And the open slum meeting can be used to exclude the obvious malefactors.

Some people argue that slums are encroachments and that there isn’t a real legal/moral entitlement to either the ration card and/or resettlement (also argued in pseudo-serious Bollywood movie, Paa). Slum dwellers are rural migrants, with continued roots to their village. They migrate to the cities not for some deviant purpose of polluting the cities and further burdening straining city infrastructure, but because they have no choice. We have systematically cut off the entire rural populace from the Indian economy – small land holding agriculture is both risky and unprofitable (anyway agriculture contributes an ever smaller percentage to the nation’s GDP), education opportunities are often non-existent and largely crappy (in any case, our population is many times greater than the number of current and future service sector jobs so mass scale unemployment is a given); even the manufacturing hubs are located in and around urban areas. Should these 700 million villagers sit in silence in their mud huts to die?

Shaloo has been living in Delhi for eighteen years; how can she be so summarily just thrown out of her house? No city can survive without its unorganized workers. The domestic help, the factory worker, the errand boys, the drivers, the rickshaw puller, the press-wallahs, the waiters, the load carriers… we need them, yet we exploit their very numbers and unorganized status to artificially reduce their wages. The least we can do is give them a fair deal.

Ruchi blogs (infrequently) at http://bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com/ and can be reached at gupta.ruchi@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter @ http://twitter.com/guptar
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