Print edition : April 18, 2014

Kathputli Colony derives its name from the puppeteers who first settled there around 60 years ago. Today it has artists, artisans, sculptors, daily-wage labourers, construction workers and safai karmacharis. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

An artist residing in Kathputli Colony at the cultural exhibition to protest against the Delhi Development Authority's move to demolish the slum and "develop" it. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

A slum populated mostly by artists, Kathputli Colony is a colourful place. Most residents move around in their traditional attire, and children pick up their family’s traditional art form at an early age. One can see children as young as five years playing drums or the shehnai, trying their hands at making sculptures, or working on puppets. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Residents of Kathputli Colony protest against the Delhi Development Authority’s plans to demolish their slum and “develop” it with the help of a prominent construction company.

ON March 9, New Delhi witnessed an unusual exhibition of traditional art forms at a most unlikely venue. Acrobats walked the tightrope displaying their bravura and puppeteers put up a good show in a fine exhibit of their skills. In a corner, a few artists deftly carved complicated animal figurines out of wood, while in another, some women dexterously made chic, colourful wall mounts in minutes. Qawwals, or Sufi vocalists, brought out their spiritual selves on stage, and traditional percussionists drummed up enthusiasm for a uniquely pulsating environment created by this diverse group of artists. A display of skills rather than art, this exhibition stood out for its magnificence. However, what seemed like celebrations galore were in fact a protest against the government by these artists who live in a slum that stands, perhaps, only to be demolished by April 1.

Kathputli Colony, the venue of the exhibition, is a slum or what the Delhi government calls “a jhuggi jhopri cluster” in west Delhi. It derives its name from the puppeteers who first settled here around 60 years ago. As time passed by, it became a slum inhabited not only by artists, artisans, and sculptors from different parts of the country but also migrant labourers, safai karmacharis, construction workers and masons. Today, there are at least 12 organised communities that stay here, each community with its own pradhan, the nominated head. The residents of the slum claim that the puppeteers from Rajasthan converted the erstwhile swampy, high grasslands of what is now called the Kathputli Colony into a liveable place. “There were just jungles in and around this place. We filled up this land to make it inhabitable. Since we were a group of artists staying here, it became a natural abode for other poor artists who came to Delhi for work,” said Ramesh Tandon, a puppeteer who was born in the slum 55 years ago.

Kathputli Colony is unique because of its composition. Being a slum populated mostly by artists, it is a colourful colony, with most residents moving around in their traditional attire. Children pick up their family’s traditional art form at an early age. One can see children as young as five years playing drums or the shehnai, trying their hands at making sculptures, or working on puppets. Many have been called to perform at international venues. Many have also received government awards. And yet they have remained poor, with hardly any income to live beyond their own jhuggis.

In the last fortnight, Kathputli Colony became one of the most prominent sites of contestation between the people and the government. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the capital’s premiere urban planning body under the Union government, plans to demolish the slum and “develop” it with the help of a prominent construction company. What the DDA promises the slum-dwellers at present is a multistorey apartment complex in situ in a period of two years. If the project goes through, each registered family will get a 38-square-metre house in this complex. In the meantime, the DDA wants the residents of the colony to shift to a transit camp made for them in Anand Parbat, around 12 kilometres from the colony. The transit camp is run by the construction company.

Under the Rajiv Awas Yojana, a scheme that was started in 2009 to cater to the housing needs of the urban poor, the construction firm landed the contract the same year to “develop” the slum. In a public-private partnership (PPP) project, the DDA awarded this firm around 14 acres of land (one acre is 0.4 hectare) to construct a multistoreyed apartment complex in Kathputli Colony for its residents. In return, the builders were asked to deposit Rs.6.11 crore with the DDA as tender money and a refundable sum of Rs.10 crore as performance guarantee. After the completion of the project, the builders are to be given 0.97 acre of land, in which they can construct commercial complexes and residential apartments.

However, given the history of slum demolitions in New Delhi, the residents are sceptical. Instead of a multistoreyed house, they are demanding that if at all the DDA is planning to develop the colony, they should be given plots of land in which they can make their own houses according to their requirements. They told Frontline that none of the slums that had been demolished were rehabilitated in situ. “We do not believe that the DDA will let us come back here if we leave. It has sold off our homes to the builders,” said Dileep Bhatt, pradhan of Bhule Bheesre Kalakaar Sahakar Samiti, a conglomerate of artists living in Kathputli Colony. The samiti has been in existence since the 1970s.

Redevelopment project

“The government did not consult us even once before it went ahead with this redevelopment project. It must understand that such small houses in a multistoreyed apartment will be redundant for us as we need more space to work. Some of us make puppets, some are sculptors. Where will we keep our paraphernalia in a one-room house? Even the drummers, the Kalandars and the magicians in the village will need space to keep their instruments. The DDA should conduct a public hearing to understand our demands,” he said.

The transit camps where the residents of the colony are expected to stay in the interim period are constructed with fibre and are one-room sets, something like porta cabins. The residents claimed that most people who had moved into such transit camps in other parts of the city were never rehabilitated. But what bothered them the most was that the shift could take a heavy toll on their livelihoods. “Most women in the colony work as domestic helps in nearby areas. It will burn our pockets to commute from the transit camps. Many work as daily-wage labourers in the locality. We fear our work will suffer if we shift,” said Rama, a resident of the colony.

The DDA dismisses the residents’ fear. “We want them to live in hygienic conditions and in modern houses. What is wrong with the project? If the builders are unable to perform, we will confiscate the security amount,” said S.P. Auluck, the DDA official in charge of the project.

However, information accessed by a few residents through the Right to Information (RTI) Act suggests that the DDA has been quite lenient with the builders. When the construction firm was awarded the contract, the completion date for the project was September 2011. But, violating the terms and conditions of the agreement, it was given an extension without any hesitation when it could not complete the project.

The residents feel that the project will only benefit the private developer who stands to make a profit of around Rs.600 crore. They are protesting against four main irregularities after they accessed information under the RTI.

Firstly, the audit report of the project by the Auditor General, Delhi, in March 2011 reports that Kathputli Colony’s land, costing Rs.1,043 crore according to a conservative estimate, was auctioned off to the construction firm for a mere Rs.6.11 crore. Secondly, the State Environmental Appraisal Committee and the Delhi Urban Arts Commission have pointed out problems with the site plan and expressed grave concerns about the misuse of FAR (floor area ratio) provisions to enlarge commercial and remunerative components while reducing the space available for the 2,700 EWS flats (under the economically weaker section category) proposed for the residents of Kathputli Colony.

Thirdly, of the roughly 3,200 families on the site who were surveyed in 2010-11, only 2,641 figure on the list published on the DDA’s website as on February 24, 2014. Over half of these families are recorded to have no supporting documents other than the ration card, which will have to be further verified. And lastly, in the viability calculation of the project, the actual costing of the flats has been done on the basis of 19.6 sq m as opposed to the 38 sq m promised to the residents.

To top the woes of residents, there have been minimal efforts by the DDA to introduce transparency in the whole process and win the confidence of the residents. Instead, through the month of February, the DDA and police officials were threatening the residents with force, most residents claimed. After sustained protests by the residents of Kathputli Colony, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi postponed the demolition until April 1. Taking note of the opacity in the process of eviction, the Delhi High Court directed the DDA on March 21 to conduct a survey to ensure that all families eligible for relocation were included. It also took an undertaking from the DDA that no force would be used during the resettlement process.

Sanitising the cities

Redevelopment of slums in Indian metropolises has come to mean sanitising the cities and driving out the poor to their peripheries. Kathputli Colony is not the first one that could meet this fate. In 2010, during the preparations for the Commonwealth Games, many big slums of New Delhi were razed to put up a facade of a world-class city in front of the foreigners who visited India. Instead of implementing dynamic urban designs to accommodate the poor within the city limits, the governments have sought to demolish the habitations of the poor in big cities. And this is being done in the name of “redevelopment of slums”.

The New Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) has attempted to track forced evictions across India during 2013. The data are not complete, but according to information received on instances of forced evictions, at least 11,400 families, which means at least 60,000 people, including women, children, members of religious minorities, the Scheduled Castes, persons with disabilities and the elderly, were forcibly evicted from their homes in 2013, for reasons ranging from road widening to city beautification. Rehabilitation has reportedly not been provided in most of the cases and the majority of the displaced families have been left to fend for themselves. The HLRN lists out 20 such incidents in 2013 where rehabilitation has not happened.

A document prepared by the National Forum for Housing Rights points out that the so-called Gujarat development model that is being celebrated by the Bharatiya Janata Party has a very poor record when it comes to affordable housing and slum demolition. As recently as February 2014, the government of Gujarat forcibly evicted 474 families (affecting over 2,500 women, men and children) across the State and demolished their homes, its press release says.

As per Census of India 2011, a total of 13.75 million households live in slums. Many believe the figure is an underestimation. The Rajiv Awas Yojana proudly claims that it intends to build a “slum-free” country. However, a crony capitalist system has led to private builders benefitting the most out of the scheme. In the process, the urban poor are pushed to the peripheries of the city.

In her essay “Maximum City, Minimum Shelter”, Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer, while speaking about the slum demolition drive, says, “The Indian city is in the throes of change. It is being reimagined, with ambitions of becoming a Shanghai, a Singapore, or, more generally, a ‘world city’. Naturally, there is no longer any space in it for the poor and their squalid settlements. Characterising the slum-dweller as an ‘encroacher’ and as being in ‘illegal occupation [of] government land’ has lent language and an assumed legitimacy to the epidemic of demolitions that has been unleashed on the urban poor… the imagery has taken the slum-dweller past illegality to criminality.”

The protest in Kathputli Colony’s is only a symbol of the bigger disconnect that has happened between the Indian state and its people. What ostensibly looks like slum demolition is actually a systematic process through which the Indian city is gradually transforming its demographic character. The sanitisation of the Indian city comes at the cost of the poor.

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