A tussle on the Yamuna's banks

Published : Mar 12, 2004 00:00 IST

Questions are raised about Union Minister Jagmohan's motives in evicting slum-dwellers at Yamuna Pushta on the eve of the elections, but there is general agreement about the need to resettle them.

in New Delhi

UNION Minister of Tourism and Culture Jagmohan is making yet another attempt to evict the people living in the illegal slum settlements on the banks of the Yamuna, this time armed with a March 2003 order from the Delhi High Court. Hearing a petition against the encroachment of government land by slum-dwellers and other individuals with vested interests, the High Court had ordered the Delhi and Central governments to clear the banks of the Yamuna. Jagmohan plans to have a promenade there, connecting the Yamuna to national memorials and the Red Fort.

The Yamuna Pushta jhuggis (slum settlements) stretch from the old Yamuna bridge to the Indraprastha Estate Gas Turbine, on both sides of the river. While the western side is the constituency of Janata Dal leader Shoib Iqbal, the Pushta area falls in the constituency of Congress(I) legislator Tajdar Babar. The Pushta population of over 1.5 lakh is mostly from Bihar, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, and about 70 per cent is Muslim. Traditionally, this section votes for the Congress(I). "Arrest me, but you will only remove these people over my dead body," said Babar as she protested against the winter evictions.

Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and her Ministers have resisted eviction attempts and even Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, during a visit to Holambi Kalan, one of the relocation sites, took a jibe at the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's India Shining slogan. The Shahi Imam of Delhi's Juma Masjid also turned up at the Pushta to lament the evictions. Jagmohan's mission to remove the slums has been viewed as a ploy to pump up his chances in the New Delhi constituency and cut into the Congress(I)'s vote share.

Farhad Suri, the Congress councillor from the area, claims that the evictions, starting with Gautampuri, are being done selectively with an eye on the elections and "defy all logic". They should begin where the Yamuna settlement begins near Wazirpur, he said. Jagmohan brushed off the charges, claiming that `petty politics' never interested him. "I started from Gautampuri because it is the most peaceful stretch in the area, compared to say, Sanjay Amar Colony, and evictions have happened without much resistance as anticipated," he said. Twelve companies of the Delhi Police were deployed to make sure things proceeded smoothly. "What about all the demolitions I have undertaken outside my constituency in the past?" he asked.

He claims that he had tried to get the settlements removed even when he was the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi in the 1980s, but the "plans had been persistently frustrated by vested interests". He hit out at the Congress(I) for exploiting the situation and using jhuggi-jhompri clusters as a "massive storehouse of bonded voters".

Of course, there is no way anyone can overstate the case for cleaning up the river, which is crucial to maintain the water table in the city and for its development. The Yamuna and its banks set new standards in squalor. Infectious diseases abound and the river is clogged with factory effluents, human waste and polythene bags. As such, the clearing of slums and factories is long overdue. Mehmood Pracha, a lawyer who has been involved in the Yamuna Pushta issue, said: "Pollution is the big issue that has been ignored in the conflict over land-use."

V.K. Das, a social activist working with Navjyoti, one of the largest non-government organisations in the Pushta area, admits that there are unauthorised, illegal entities. "But they cannot be arbitrarily resettled without basic amenities. And, let us face it, there is a huge gap between the number of plots available and the population at the Pushta," he said. After all, "it is not the electroplating units or large dairies that will bear the brunt of the dislocation, but poor squatter families", says Mona Singh, an education activist who has been working in the area for over a decade. As the Supreme Court has observed, the right to life is linked with the right to shelter. "India is a welfare state, we cannot throw people out on the roadside," said Pracha.

In 1990-2000, 22,000 families were resettled. "Once they are resettled, they will have security of tenure. And travelling some distance to your place of work is part of life in every metropolis," said Jagmohan. However, resettling slum dwellers in far-flung colonies betrays the city's original vision, which aims at both integration and segregation of different income groups within a given geographical area.

On the waterfront itself, chaos reigns. The slum wing and the engineering division of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which has been assigned the logistics of the shift, has registered familes willing to move. About 18,000 shanties have been targeted to move to sites like Madanpur Khadar and Narela. While each family has to give Rs.7,000, the government chips in with Rs.33,000 for the new plot. A January 30 court directive said that on a minimum payment of Rs.500, eligible squatters would be relocated with the assurance that they pay the remaining amount within two months. Families that settled before 1990 were promised 18 square metre plots and those who settled before 1998 would get 12 square metre plots. Also, the government claimed that children would be given admission in government schools within 5 km of the relocated site. However, these claims were questioned in several petitions seeking a stay on the eviction.

"We have nowhere to go if we do not get a plot. Suddenly, everything we had is being snatched away," says Shashi, whose husband works as a mechanic. In contrast, scrap dealer Ashok says this is business as usual for politicians before elections. "Wait and watch, I will vote here again in the next general elections, five years later," he said.

However, that prospect looks increasingly unlikely with the High Court rejecting yet another petition to stay the eviction on the plea that school examinations were due in a matter of weeks. Congress(I) spokesperson Kapil Sibal, who argued the case, questioned the hurry to evict, while acknowledging that the need to shift was not under dispute. The six petitioners from Sanjay Amar Colony claimed that they were denied plots in the resettlement colonies and that the colonies did not have basic amenities. However, the government rebutted the claims and offered upgradation if required. The High Court accepted the assurance of the chief engineer (slum and JJ cluster) that minimum basic amenities were available at the resettlement colonies. While the petitioners promise to take the matter to the Supreme Court, the evictions are set to resume. Mehmood Pracha admits that "the only point that is debatable in the Supreme Court now is whether they will be ensured accommodation before they are thrown out".

Social activists argue that Delhi's slum problem is not a natural outcome of the urban phenomenon of overcrowding, but a result of the persistent denial of housing rights to the needy. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was allotted 19,182 hectares of land for residential purpose, including low-income housing, but it has used only 20 per cent of this area, according to an assessment by the activist group Sanjha Manch. In fact, in 1994, the year for which MCD figures are last available, squatter families accounted for a fifth of the city's population and occupied a fiftieth of the city's total land.

Gita Dewan Verma, the author of the book Slumming India, believes that the way out is to return to the Delhi master plan, which provides low-income housing to squatter families. Going by the last Census, the current slum population is consistent with this "implementation backlog", she claims. (Though hardly any housing for the poor was developed, the plan did anticipate that 4.25 lakh poor families would need housing by 2001. Delhi has four lakh slum families as per the Census.)

"The 13th Lok Sabha has not had the time to debate the DDA scam, which lies at the bottom of the Pushta problem," claims Verma. Worse still, the supposedly pro-poor initiatives like V.P. Singh's Slum Resettlement Policy, which was struck down by the court in 2002, only exacerbate the problem with measures that actually downsize their rights.

Criticising "this anarchist-endowment paradigm", Verma says "the big guys are all playing from the same side on Pushta. Their play is not going to benefit the river or the city. What the citizens in Pushta are facing may appear to be "their" crisis, but it is actually a crisis of all, betrayed by all in charge".

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