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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

To whom does the Capital belong?

A website that maps slum evictions and resettlement colonies questions the imagination of a city

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi |
Updated: June 9, 2021 7:45:44 pm
shakur bastiDemolished houses in Shakur Basti JJ Cluster on the Railway Property in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

New Delhi’s Gole Market of the 1930s was where British sahibs and memsahibs came for daily needs. Fashioned on the lines of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, it was a precursor to the modern supermarket, where everything from meat to garments were sold. In mid-July 2017, the New Delhi Municipal Council announced that Gole Market would be turned into a museum, which will record Delhi’s history, with vignettes from the Delhi Durbar of 1911.

But hidden between the market and the museum is yet another story. In 1984, near Kali Bari, about two minutes away from Gole Market, was an empty unclaimed land. Daily wage workers began building their homes here with as frugal means as was possible. It would take a year to build one wall of a house, with the resources they had, and the next year the next wall. Thus, brick by brick, from 100 families it grew to nearly 500. One morning, a notice was all they got which warned them that their houses had to be vacated. Subsequently, on November 22, 2010, officials from five government departments and over 20 police officers arrived to bring down 40 houses. By the end of two days what was an eviction turned into the demolition of nearly 400 houses. These families await rehabilitation still, caught between the web of legal battles and paperwork of alternate housing.

Highlighting such stories is an online portal called “Missing Basti”, a project that documents evictions that have happened in Delhi, over decades. The red pins that dot the map of the Capital are telling of not only what development has meant for the city but is also a reminder that a large population of the people who service citizens, from street vendors to house helps, come from such displaced neighbourhoods. The Missing Basti website is a culmination of a workshop, organised at Ahmedabad’s CEPT University’s Summer-Winter School. Led by architect-urbanist Swati Janu, architect-urban planner Friederike Thonke and web designer Mayank Chandak, the platform aims to understand the impact of evictions on communities and the result of resettlement colonies on their lives. Much of the stories and data came from the on-ground experience of social worker Abdul Shakeel, urbanist-author Gautam Bhan from Indian Institute for Human Settlements, academic Veronique Dupont and Housing & Lands Right Network.

kidwai nagar Sketch of Kidwai Nagar eviction on the Missing Basti website

While The CEPT workshop was a beta stage for the main website – it covered about 10 evictions from 2017 – the main Missing Basti project website has compiled around 300 evictions since 1990. It is an interdisciplinary collective of human rights lawyers, academics, social workers, architects, activists, film-makers, who were involved in bringing content together, over a period of three years. It is envisioned as an open and live archive to which anyone can contribute.

“There are different histories in different cities. In Mumbai, the private sector is more engaged in the story of the slum since land is much more valuable there. In Delhi, which is spatially unique, the pressures are different. There is this need to portray a modern aesthetic in the Capital, so visitors don’t see what life is across the Yamuna, how dense or chaotic it can be. For instance, there is a slum right next to the American Embassy, but it’s hidden and the interdependency of people on the slum is very high. Eventually, they will be marked and evicted but currently, there is a political economy that is ensuring that it hangs on a fragile thread,” says Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research.

delhi, gole market, missing basti, missing basti indianexpress, kali bari, missing basti website, shakur basti demolition, slum demolition The Hindi graphic, by Aditi Rai, a member of the collective, provides simple and easy-to-understand steps for basti dwellers, about their rights in case of an eviction.

It’s stories of indefatigable courage and yet intense helplessness that emerge on the Missing Basti site. There are maps, sketches, timelines, and audio interviews that present these stories online. From the eviction in Shakur Basti in 2015 by the Northern Railways and 2015 one in Kidwai Nagar by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), and the Public Works Department (PWD) to stories of resettlement in Madanpur Khadar and Dwarka, the website offers a comprehensive overview of the state of affairs.

“How do we imagine the city? It’s often by the West and superimposed on India, which doesn’t have the same history and complexities. Delhi with its rigid class has very little appetite for slums or organic settlements. Many evictions these days are partial clearances, be it for a metro or road project. Unlike the Yamuna Pushta eviction of 2004, where everything was uprooted, now it’s a surgical approach. Of course, the city needs its metro and highways, but such evictions should come with due process and method. My own experience is that the state is getting less sympathetic,” says Naik.

On the project website, one meets Vijayalaxmi, 52, resident-activist of Sarojini Nagar, who says, “Saat sal hamne ladi hai aapne hakh ki ladayi, aur aage bhi ladte rahenge (We have fought for our rights for seven years and we will continue to fight)”. There’s Kamla Devi, who was evicted from her home in Kidwai Nagar and now lives in a temporary shelter along the drain. She says, “Ghum hai par dum bhi hai (We are in grief but we are determined)”.

“Delhi is dotted with red pins on our map, which shows the number of evictions in the city. Even during Covid-19, there have been evictions – in Yamuna Khadar for instance. People there, mostly farmers, have been living there for decades, and they contribute greatly to our city. Are they to be simply removed from there to build parks and jogging tracks for the rest of us? It’s our attempt to give people a voice and allow for fair and just transitions,” says Janu, founder, Social Design Collaborative.

shakur basti Sketch of Shakur Basti eviction on the Missing Basti website

Even when resettlements have happened and people have been given homes, it’s often poorly planned and executed and along the periphery of the city. On the website, we see Mohammad Bhai, 45, in Yamuna Khadar, a tailor, who was among those who had to shift from a slum near Alakananda to one such resettlement colony, where the “un-ventilated, one-room house is crammed between narrow and foul-smelling streets”. “Ghar aur suvidhaye, dono mein hi khot hai (Both the house and facilities are inefficient),” he says.

“When people are relocated to the peripheries of the city, there are no livelihood options. They can’t farm either because the soil is often bad, nor can they build for themselves. Then there are issues of health care and access to education. Such a website is useful for students and research scholars. We hope to have the website in local languages that basti people too can access, to learn more about their rights and what they can fight for. It’s a way to make those in power more accountable,” says Shakeel.

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