Uneasy reprieve

Print edition : October 20, 2006

RIOTING AT SEELAMPUR during the bandh called by traders to protest against the sealing and demolition of illegal commercial establishments in Delhi. - V.V. KRISHNAN

The Supreme Court allows commercial activities in Delhi's residential areas, but after police firing claims four lives in Seelampur.

TRADERS on nearly 2,250 roads and streets across Delhi got a respite (until October 31) from sealing and demolition by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) following the Supreme Court's order on September 29 allowing continuation of commercial activities in residential areas, pending a final decision on the matter. But the MCD's sealing drive had already claimed four lives, including that of a 15-year-old boy, when the police were "forced to retaliate" by opening fire at violent protesters in Seelampur in East Delhi on September 20.

The court's decision has several caveats for the traders, the most obvious one being the demand for affidavits. It has directed them to file affidavits pledging to close their shops by November 10 if the Central government's September 7 notification allowing mixed use on these roads, which has been contested through a public interest petition, is found to be invalid.

Traders fear that such affidavits would make them ineligible for further relief should the government issue a fresh notification. This view was bolstered by the court's observation that those who had filed affidavits to close shop by July 30 were ineligible for any further deadline extensions. The court also restrained the government and the MCD from issuing any further notifications granting relief to traders without its permission.

The politico-legal battle that could decide the nature and shape of Delhi in the years to come could also result in upheavals that would make the Seelampur firing pale in comparison.

What happened at Seelampur on September 20? Why did hundreds of workers, petty traders and residents come out on the streets and brave lathicharges, teargas shells and eventually police bullets? Why is everyone, from the police to the corporate media, intent on blaming the violence on "anti-social elements"?

Television newsreaders explained that the violence was caused by "daily wage labourers", and described them as "lumpen elements". National newspapers carried editorials in favour of the demolitions which would free the public, "held to ransom by the trader lobby".

"On the morning of the riots, we heard that the Confederation of All India Traders had called for a city-wide bandh," explains Vinod Gupta, a wholesale trader of incense at New Seelampur. "We decided to down the shutters in solidarity." As the day progressed, he said, a crowd gathered along the main road and turned aggressive when officials arrived to seal workshops and commercial buildings in the area. Predictably, no one is sure who cast the first stone, but the situation went out of control and culminated in the police firing.

Over the years, Seelampur has acquired a reputation as a sensitive area prone to violence. Local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders attribute this to the large Muslim population in the area and local policemen call it the nerve centre of criminal activities. Residents complain that they are victims of unsubstantiated prejudice. Like most resettlement colonies, large parts of Seelampur, particularly Jaffrabad and Welcome, were set up during the Emergency years (1975-77) when an estimated 700,000 people were displaced in 21 months.

In her book Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi, Emma Tarlo chronicles the early history of Seelampur, noting that when a proposal to relocate the largely Muslim population of a settlement at Turkman Gate to Seelampur was brought before Jagmohan, the then Vice-Chairman of the Delhi Development Authority, he responded by saying, "Do you think we are mad to destroy one Pakistan to create another?"

Subsequently, Seelampur's working class character was seen to be at odds with the glistening, gentrified South Delhi, and its residents were increasingly portrayed by the media as "criminal encroachers" running "polluting units". Thus, the constant portrayal of Seelampur as illegal and unauthorised, and its inhabitants as lumpen and anti-social was the first step towards transforming the image of Delhi from working class to "world class".

THE POLICE DEALING with a demonstrator.-

Thus, to admit that the participants in the September 20 riots were ordinary workers, shop-owners and residents fighting for their livelihood and survival in the city would be to question the very basis of the compact between the elite residents, big business, corporate media and sections of the political class. After all, how can one justify a supposedly innocuous effort at urban renewal when decent, ordinary people are shot by the police?

In their defence, supporters of the sealing-and-demolition drive explain that they are simply asking that the rule of law prevail. "It is a simple case of following the law," says Jasbir Singh Malik, lawyer for the Delhi Pradesh Citizen's Council. "The law is applicable to all, rich or poor." Malik points out that the workshops and shops in Seelampur and elsewhere are unauthorised, illegal and in some cases hazardous. This, he believes, is leading to problems of congestion, pollution and a deterioration in the quality of life in Delhi.

The present round of sealings and demolitions has its roots in a number of separate cases filed in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court over the past two years. The MCD drive to demolish illegal encroachments and crack down on building bye-law violations, which seems to have run out of steam, originated in mid-2005 when the High Court directed it to demolish a number of illegal constructions in West Patel Nagar.

On December 14, 2005, the High Court expanded the scope of the case and directed the MCD to demolish all illegal structures across Delhi. This triggered the first demolition crisis wherein the Delhi government contemplated an act modelled on the Ulhasnagar legislation in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, the MCD demolition squads were involved in an ongoing case at the Supreme Court that was clubbed along with the M.C. Mehta vs Union of India and Others case seeking the removal of commercial complexes from residential areas. The Delhi (Special Provisions) Act, 2006, notified on May 19, was brought in as a cure-all placebo and suspended all notices issued by any local body (including the MCD) relating to mixed land use, unsanctioned constructions and encroachment by slums, hawkers and jhuggi-jhopri clusters, only to be challenged in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional by a petition filed in the public interest.

But is it a simple case of following a law that applies equally to all? Even as MCD bulldozers razed slums to rubble, residents of the posh, entirely unauthorised colony of Sanik Farms successfully blocked the building of storm-water drains in their area (a matter of acute public interest for the neighbouring villages that are flooded each year) on the grounds that the laying of pipes would hamper the movement of traffic within their colony.

Further, the assumptions on which the existing laws are framed are apparently questionable. In his article "Land, Productive Slums and Urban Poverty", Solomon Benjamin, a Bangalore-based architect and urban theorist, states that the fundamental issue of urban planning revolves around how the relationship between economic development and poor groups is conceptualised. Benjamin argues that urban policymakers view rich groups as the prime engines of growth in a city and the poor as recipients of state spending and the "trickle down effect". This justifies the access of rich groups to economically productive sites, often serviced by state-subsidised infrastructure. The poor, on the other hand, are viewed as peripheral to economic growth and are pushed to poorly serviced marginal lands.

Benjamin argues that far from being marginal to growth, recent evidence suggests that the so-called informal sector is actually "... a significant part of mainstream economic development on a par with conventional industrialisation and development projects".

So how do poor groups gain access to land? In the case of Seelampur, most of the land was allotted to those displaced following the demolition of their homes in north and central Delhi during the Emergency. Cut off from the rest of the city, East Delhi was the Bawana, Nangloi and Holambi Kalan (the preferred site of present-day resettlement) of the 1970s.

In fact, Emma Tarlo's book provides evidence that in many instances, proof of sterilisation of at least one member of the family was a crucial requirement for allotment of plots. The plots were provisionally leased out to settlers and further sale was prohibited. Over the years, as the city expanded eastwards, Seelampur found itself in the midst of rising land prices and improved access to infrastructure. As sale was prohibited, many residents resorted to the transfer of their "power of attorney" - thereby handing over control of their land in exchange for money. Local entrepreneurs set up small-scale, home-based workshops, which gradually expanded.

Today Seelampur is a bustling settlement that specialises in the manufacture of jeans, handicrafts, incense, lathes, iron and timber goods, providing employment to thousands of workers, loaders and transporters. Over the decades, the colony has given rise to dense and sophisticated economic and social networks that operate on principles of goodwill.

Babar Khan, a local ironworker, says, "No work is possible without goodwill between buyers and sellers, manufacturers and suppliers, exporters and transporters." But this "goodwill" gets broken when workshops are relocated. In new locations, businesses have to establish customer relations from scratch.

The shooting in Seelampur represents the frighteningly logical outcome of an attempt to re-configure the demography and urban landscape of the National Capital Region.

The past one year saw judicial rulings on a host of public interest petitions, ranging from the M.C. Mehta case filed in the 1980s to the most recent case filed by the Delhi Pradesh Citizen's Council, all of which aimed at improving the quality of life in Delhi. Judicial rulings have resulted in thousands of people losing their homes and livelihoods through the demolition of settlements in the Bhatti Mines, Nangla Machi, Jama Masjid, Ramakrishnapuram and Yamuna Pushta.

What is not required is another exercise in urban planning with slightly different provisions. What is required is an acknowledgement of diverse claims to the shape and space of the city: claims of shelter, livelihood and community.

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