Fakira Babuliya Lohar sat on a cane chair in the 4×4 tent made of plastic sheet spread over a metal pipe framework, taking a brief break from his otherwise busy Wednesday — it is the weekly market day. Meanwhile, his daughter Sneha was shuffling through some papers to look for the electricity bill.
“I got it,” she declares minutes later, shoving the paper into my hand to show that they have not had to pay a penny for bijli (electricity) last month, thanks to the ruling Aam Aadmi Party’s electricity scheme in which residents have to pay for electricity only after they have consumed above 200 units. “Free water and electricity is good, but what is the use if I cannot provide my family with a pucca house,” Fakira asks.
Thirty-eight-year-old Fakira is the pradhan (head) of the lohar (blacksmith) camp at Palam’s Manglapuri in the national capital. The tent built on the footpath is identical to another 28 to 30 tents that are occupied by lohars or blacksmiths. The congested space has two beds, a TV with a Hindi serial running in the background and several utensils that Fakira and his wife would soon display outside their tent for the Wednesday Bazaar.
The blacksmith community, especially the Gadia Lohars which is a marginalised community in Delhi, are originally a nomadic community from Chittorgarh in Rajasthan. Lohars are known for small-scale manufacturing and selling of iron tools, utensils and others implements. Though the lohars have been settled in ‘informal settlements’ of bastis and jhuggis in the National Capital Region of Delhi (NCR) for several decades, they have not been recognised in surveys by the Delhi government or its Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. As a consequence, most members of the community are not considered ‘eligible’ for resettlement or permanent housing under the Delhi Slum and JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy, 2015, according to a Housing and Land Rights Network report. HLRN, in the report, had surveyed at least 58 settlements of the community, with a population which counted to 25,000, in September 2019.
“I am the Pradhan and this is my jhuggi, you can imagine what other jhuggis in this camp would be like. I’ve been living in Delhi for the last 35 years, governments have come and gone, but I’m still homeless,” Fakira shares.
Most jhuggis in the area resemble a similar structure which can easily come off if a rod displaces itself or if it rained heavily. As part of the Gadia Lohar Rehabilitation Scheme, according to the HLRN report, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), a central government body had constructed a settlement of 34 shops-cum-houses for the community in Manglapuri in 2003. However, in spite of the then union labour minister, Saheb Singh Verma inaugurating the settlement, it was not allotted to the community.
Fakira says, while he has heard of various government schemes, none of them has ever reaped any result and adds that he is not aware of any such settlement in the area. “I do not trust any of these mainstream parties but I’m associated with Rashtriya Janaadhikar Party (RJP) as they support and encourage us. I even contested the 2017 MCD elections but how could I win, I did not have money for donations,” he laments.
In the middle of the conversation, Sneha turns to introduce her 10-year-old brother who has just returned from school. Both the siblings attend the government school in the vicinity. “Education is free, but other kids go to tuition, we cannot afford that so we are unable to score well,” she says, adding she hopes to become a police officer someday.
“Our kids also want to speak in good English, become doctors and policemen. They want to play and study but people discriminate against our community. Residents don’t let our children play in the parks because we are homeless,” Fakira says.
Suddenly a man walks in, and Fakira introduces his neighbour, Manohar Lohar, who is also a blacksmith. On the housing schemes promised by various governments, Manohar says, “A few years ago, Congress workers came to us with Rs 100 forms, asking us to fill it and assured us of pucca homes. All of it was false.” He collects some utensils from Sneha and leaves in a hurry to set up his shop at the bazaar.
“Now AAP has come up with the slogan- ‘Jahan Jhuggi, wahin makaan’, if that is so, why don’t they do it before elections? I had even written to AAP’s Adarsh Shastri for construction of toilets but he never replied,” Fakira says.
Echoing the Pradhan’s words, Sarita Gadia Lohar who got recently married and moved to the Palam Lohar camp says, “I got married six months ago, life is not very different after marriage. I used to live with my parents near Thyagaraja stadium and one day (in 2009), the authorities came and demolished our jhuggi. We were not given any notice or bharpai (resettlement charges). During Kejriwal sarkar (government), demolition hasn’t taken place and amenities are free, so I’ll vote for him.”
Sarita was referring to the demolition which took place ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in the name of city beautification, which rendered many lohar families homeless. The matter was moved before the High Court, in the Sudama Singh vs Government of Delhi case, which upheld the basic human right to adequate housing of the petitioners, including the lohar community and passed a landmark judgment in their favour, according to the HLRN report.
Most families have at least one proof of identity and they assert their right to vote in Delhi, as they recognise themselves as residents of the national capital.
“We appreciate the current government’s scheme but they are not truly supportive. I’ve my voter card, I’ll obviously vote and so will my brothers and sisters here. The vote in this camp is divided, but it will support the party which has worked in our favour,” Fakira says.
The Pradhan seems restless to resume business and before joining his wife outside the tent, he says, “Jab tak basenge nahi, tab tak aage badhenge bhi nahi.”
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