People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 28

July 20 , 2008


On The Margins

Jayati Ghosh

DELHI, like all other Indian cities and especially the metros, is a study in contrasts. Too often, however, the contrast between the rich and the poor in this city is presented as reflecting the difference between the new and the old, or between the integrated and the marginalised.

This is typified in the journalistic cliche about malls and skyscrapers coming up amidst decaying and impoverished slums, suggesting that dynamism is creating the shiny new things while deprivation is the result of backwardness.

Yet, this particular way of looking at the problem may be missing the point. Much of what is new in this city is also poor; and many of the poor are poor not so much because they have been “marginalised” and left out of the system but because they have been drawn into it, in ways that have been adverse for them.

And this process of impoverishment in turn is often the result of the urge to create gleaming urban infrastructure that currently exemplifies progress and societal affluence. The megalopolis of Delhi has seen many such phases: before the Asian Games in the early 1980s; during the phase of rapid urban construction and displacement in the 1990s; and now in the many works planned as the city prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Such development is usually presented in the media as an unmitigated boon, and the large displacement of people that it typically causes is ignored. Slum clearance is now a positive phrase in the media, seen as part of the process of urban beautification and modernisation - a perception far removed from the days of the Emergency when forcible evictions from “unauthorised colonies” played a large role in creating public antipathy towards the government of the time.

It is further argued by officialdom that resettlement improves the quality of life of those who are moved, by taking them from haphazard and ramshackle residences without access to utilities and public services to planned neighbourhoods in which essential services are provided.

This particular myth is blown sky-high by a new book that describes in systematic but wrenching detail one such process in Delhi: the story of the forced displacement of those living in the river-bed settlement of Yamuna Pushta and the resettlement of some of them in the newly created colony of Bawana (Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi by Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan; Yoda Press, 2008).

Menon-Sen and Bhan begin by documenting the violent evacuation of more than 150,000 people, who were residing in the Pushta colony, as part of a plan to develop the 100-acre strip on the banks of the Yamuna into a promenade for residents and tourists. In February and April 2004, houses were razed in several operations until the violent demolitions supervised by the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary forced out all the residents in the heat of summer.

Resettlement was to be on the basis of proof of residence in the form of a ration card or a voter identity card but very few families had a complete set of documents, and of those who did, many had lost them in the fires and subsequent demolitions. While newspaper reports spoke of 35,000 families in residence, the Delhi Development Authority survey recorded only 16,000 “genuine claimants”, and finally only 6,000 families were resettled in Bawana.



There are no records of what happened to the others (more than one lakh people) and clearly officialdom has not been concerned with their fate. Indeed, officials of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) bragged that they deliberately delayed the distribution of allotment papers or parchis by three months “so that only genuine cases would be left”, ignoring the fact that the poorest people are the least likely to be able to wait that long, or even to afford the money necessary for down payment.

The survey that forms the basis of this book found that more than half of the surveyed households lived in plots of 12.5 square metre, while just under half had plots of 18 sq m. On an average, this implies that five people share a living space of 10 feet by 12 feet. Many of them still live in kuccha (unfinished) houses. The pukka “houses” amount to tiny matchbox-like constructions with a single window and no space for sanitary facilities. In any case, there is no sewerage.

All the surveyed households had larger plots, sometimes houses, in their previous basti (an urban settlement). Insecurity of tenure makes things even worse: instead of title deeds, the Bawana residents have been granted five-year leases with no certainty of renewal.

But it is in the provision of basic amenities and public services in the resettled colony that the monstrous nature of public policy becomes most evident. While the majority of the Bawana residents surveyed had access to metered electricity at their previous residences, only 3.7 per cent had regular meters in Bawana. The rest, more than 95 per cent, had wires connected to the overhead power lines, in an informal system based not on theft but on regular monthly payments of Rs.100 or Rs 150.

The official service provider had failed to provide electricity even after two years of the residents living in this area, and instead allowed the “local suppliers” to run this system. The authors note that for the residents, therefore, the choice between legal and illegal services simply does not exist.

The absence of adequate access to drinking water is also striking. Remarkably, piped water to households was simply never part of the plans for the resettlement colony. There are a few public taps in each block, with erratic and infrequent supply of less than three hours each day, causing long queues, and a lot of time is wasted by women members of households. This water is also unsafe for drinking according to laboratory tests. In any case, more than half the households are forced to rely on hard water from tube-wells dug by private providers who charge by the bucket.

Sanitation, one of the most essential public services, is equally underprovided. The number of toilets is far too small, amounting to one toilet for 80 people on average, so there is overcrowding, especially in the mornings. Toilet management has been outsourced to a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which maintains the toilets poorly, and there is no monitoring by the MCD.


But the NGO charges a fee that is quite hefty for the poor: amounting to Rs 4.62 for a family a day, or around Rs 135 a month, which was 8 per cent of the average monthly household income of Rs 1500. Not surprisingly, there is widespread incidence of gastrointestinal and water-borne diseases in Bawana, especially among children.

Waste management also does not seem to have entered into the plans for Bawana. There are no dustbins, no garbage disposal points, no landfill sites. There is no designated space for throwing garbage, much less for sorting it. This is particularly ironic, since many of the Bawana residents work outside the colony as rag-pickers and sanitation workers.

Reduced access to the Public Distribution System for food is another significant feature of the households in Bawana. The system requires re-issue of ration cards with every change of address, so all the residents had to get new cards and many were not able to do so despite trying for more than two years. The survey found that only 60 per cent of the households had valid ration cards, compared with 88 per cent in their previous location.

Three-fourths of those surveyed had below poverty line cards in their previous location; only half the number held them in Bawana. In any case, the ration shops in the colony open rarely and on random days of the week and provide rations only to the head of the household. One-fifth of the households reported that they got their rations only occasionally or never.

One thing the resettlement plan for Bawana did provide for was health facilities: both a primary health centre and a functioning dispensary. However, neither of these exists in the colony even two years after the resettlement. The nearest health care facility is a hospital 5 km away, and residents reported a mobile MCD health van that makes infrequent and random trips to distribute medicines. So there is naturally a profusion of private clinics with “doctors” of varying degrees of qualification and reliability, who charge relatively high amounts for each visit and for all medicines.

Schooling is another major casualty of the resettlement process. Forty per cent of the children aged 5-18 years in the surveyed households were not enrolled in the nearest school, and there was evidence of a significant decline in enrolment rates for boys and girls. One important reason for this was the perception of harassment and humiliation in the local schools. There was also widespread feeling that girls were not safe travelling to the schools in the vicinity.



The resettlement also led, expectedly, to a decline in work opportunities, as forms of livelihood available in the earlier residence were lost and workers were forced to commute long distances to find work, which was difficult and expensive.

The survey, therefore, found clear evidence of unemployment and under-employment and of the displaced being forced to work for much lower wages in informal activities and domestic work. The authors conclude that the material well-being of Bawana residents has been severely compromised, with a majority of families living at or near the poverty line.

The study, therefore, shows that the Yamuna Pushta-Bawana resettlement has led to a decline - in most cases, a sharp decline - in the material conditions and quality of life of the resettled people. Not only has the provision of basic services declined, but in most cases they have been privatised and made more expensive for worse delivery.

It is not an accident that the poor, who have been forcibly moved with such violence, disruption and loss in this urban transition, have been treated with such cynicism. It is clearly inbuilt into the very approach, as the absence of planning for basic facilities for sanitation and waste management in the resettled colony indicates. And it is reinforced at each point in the struggle of these residents to meet the minimum necessities of life.



Yet, it is the people who live in colonies such as these who provide the workforce essential to maintain the quality of life of the middle classes in the same city and indeed make possible the economic expansion that is then symbolised by the malls and the flyovers. Unfortunately, what the authors call “the disappearing politics of the urban” means that urban policymaking and management are increasingly not focussing attention on the basic conditions of life for such residents, despite the fancy talk in new initiatives such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Every urban planner and administrator in India should be forced to read this important book. Or, better still, perhaps they could be made to spend a few days, or just 24 hours, living in one of the “homes” in Bawana, experiencing the same conditions.

Maybe it is only then that addressing these basic issues will get the priority it deserves.