Ashish Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. In addition to writing for CityLab, he works as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle and The Times of London. He has previously held positions at Al Jazeera English and The Hindustan Times.
It only takes one visit to the basti at Kidwai Nagar to understand why its residents want to be relocated. But life on the outside may still not be much better.
On a scorching hot New Delhi day, Mathura Prasad slips through a crack in a brick wall adjacent to a partially constructed elevated highway. He offers his hand to those behind him as they negotiate their way down the precarious makeshift path below.
Soon, they’re walking along another path which cuts across an open drain beneath the unfinished flyover. The drain, full of raw sewage and wild pigs, gives off a stench that can be overwhelming, but it fails to deter the group from moving forward. When they reach the other side, one of the pigs runs by, greeting them with a plume of dust in its wake. If the group follows the dust they may not be able to go more than 15 feet before hitting the fencing of another construction site—this one for a new high-rise apartment complex.
But Prasad and those with him aren’t going that far anyway. It’s the narrow strip of land sandwiched in-between an elevated highway and the apartments they’re interested in. It’s all that remains of the “basti”—a colloquial term for an informal settlement—in the area of Kidwai Nagar that Prasad has called home for the past 34 years. “There used to be around 600 families here. Now there are only 334,” he laments.
Dubbed a “smart sub-city” by the government-backed corporation building it, the apartment complex coming up behind the basti costs around $786 million. And in 2016, India’s current Vice President Venkaiah Naidu described the project as a “role model for redevelopment.” The elevated highway, meanwhile, is part of an expansive four phase corridor aimed at reducing traffic congestion in the city.
But for Prasad and other residents of the basti, the projects that have sprung up on either side of them have boxed them in, making life unbearable. “This was an open air settlement and oxygen used to flow through. There used to be cross ventilation,” says Prasad. “Now that they’ve closed the area [on both sides] it has become very bad. The drain smells terrible.” The smell comes with health consequences. Residents of the basti say they used to have a public toilet where the smart sub-city has since arisen. With that facility now gone, many are forced to relieve themselves by the drain. They say the situation has led to illnesses and the constant threat of dengue fever through an infestation of mosquitoes. But despite the health hazard posed by the drain, it also serves as a lifeline for residents of the basti. Walking through it is one of the only ways they can access their homes, but even that can be shut off when the rainy season comes. “The water level rises so much that people are just stuck here,” says Savitri who lives by the drain. “If someone’s gone to work he can’t come back home. And you can imagine if someone is stuck on this side then they will be dead. Finished. ”
Threats of eviction, hopes of resettlement
For years the residents of the Kidwai Nagar basti have lived in fear of evictions and bulldozers demolishing their homes. Such demolitions did take place there in 2009 ahead of Delhi hosting the following year’s Commonwealth Games. Residents and activists say people have since been evicted from another camp in the area. But multiple court orders have also prevented additional demolitions, saving Prasad and others from losing their homes. But now, they actually want to leave, and demand to be relocated to apartments based on a 2015 Delhi Government policy aimed at the rehabilitation and relocation of informal settlements.
Some former residents of the Kidwai Nagar basti were previously resettled, but because the area falls under the jurisdiction of two separate government agencies, Prasad and others were left behind. Their ongoing push for resettlement comes despite the fact that many have lived in the Kidwai Nagar their entire lives.
Any sense of sentimentality, though, seems to have been eclipsed by the squalor of their living conditions. They want out, and they might be getting close. In late March, the Delhi High Court ordered the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) to conduct a survey of the community as a step towards resettling the community.
But while the residents of the basti wait, their lives continue to be under threat. Residents tell CityLab that their homes are often hit by debris from the construction site. This has been a particular issue in recent weeks—about 70 homes were damaged when a barricade from the smart sub-city complex fell on them during a storm. A recent wave of fires in other informal settlements in Delhi also has some residents worried. They say the narrow nature of their basti means they'd have nowhere to run if something similar happened to them. For Prasad, who is at the forefront of the resettlement case, potential relocation can't come quickly enough. “I’m really happy that [the case] has gone somewhere,” he says. “We’ve suffered a lot in this space. We aren’t really living here in happiness. It’s out of helplessness.”
A pattern of exclusion
The fact that residents of the Kidwai Nagar basti are now actually hoping for resettlement is fairly unique. Most Delhi slum-dwellers relocated by authorities are moved after being forcibly evicted from their homes. Such evictions are often accompanied by demolitions and followed by narrow eligibility requirements that make it difficult for those who have lost their homes to get resettled.
“These are tools that are used to exclude,” says Shivani Chaudhry, the Executive Director of Housing Rights and Land Network (HRLN), a Delhi-based NGO. “So not only do you demolish their homes, you don’t consider them equal citizens, you violate their rights, and then you use tools of eligibility criteria and legality— you constantly say they’re encroachers whereas public land is [supposed to be] land of the state and the people.”
“People invest large amounts of money into their homes incrementally over 10-20 years, then at the stroke of one bulldozer it’s lost and they have to dish out more money [for new homes],” she adds. “It’s a cycle that’s pushing people further and further into poverty.”
Official data on forced evictions does not exist, but HRLN research shows that government authorities forcibly evicted more than 260,000 people across India in 2017. Activists say the situation is a national crisis and that evictions rarely adhere to laws or human rights standards. And though the Indian government is pursuing a a “Housing For All” campaign with a target date of 2022, Chaudhry believes development is clearly only taking certain segments of society into account. Preliminary findings of a study she’s involved in show that 60 percent of Delhi’s homeless are actually homeless because of evictions. “You’re building housing for a certain class of people while denying housing to another,” she says, while noting the lack of affordable housing in Indian cities. “What’s alarming is [evictions are] justified on the basis of city beautification—with this notion of beautification being one of sanitized, rich and not for everybody. It’s this sort of exclusive kind of model of development.”
The trend is not lost on those at the brunt of Delhi’s major infrastructure projects. “When the government finishes the flats and the flyover this will become a posh area on either side,” says Vicky Kumar of the Kidwai Nagar basti. “How will they let people like us live in between? How will they allow dirt in their midst?” Kumar’s feelings of exclusion are steeped in the memories of how he says his community was treated ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. “They didn’t want the place to look dirty so they built a wall,” he says. “They were worried that people would come from overseas, see us and wonder what sort of people live in India.”
Relocated but not settled
It only takes one visit to the basti at Kidwai Nagar to understand why the people living there want to be resettled. But in reality, depending on where the community might move, life may still not be rosy elsewhere. Resettlement sites are often situated deep into Delhi’s massive urban sprawl, in areas far from residents’ previous places of work, schools, and the city’s major hubs of activity. As a result, what often follows evictions and resettlements are major losses of livelihood and education. "Since I've come here, my business is just not happening at all,” Rani, who lives in a resettlement complex in an area called Baprola, tells CityLab. Rani used to sell women’s jewelry near a basti she lived in a neighborhood called Jwalapuri, which she recalls fondly. “Fruit sellers and vegetable sellers were around, we had good income as well.”
Rani and her family moved to Baprola after they were told they had make room for a road. Later, they heard a hospital would be built in the area. Now, Rani says that even though neither project has happened, she and her family are stuck in Baprola, where she’s cut off from potential customers. As she rummages through her stock of shiny bangles, she says there’s nobody nearby to sell to but she can’t afford a regular commute to the area she worked for so long. Her son Arjun, in his early twenties, is faced with a similar situation, having sat jobless in Baprola for more than six months. "It was very easy to get work where we used to live. Everything was easier.”
The family has also lost a decided amount of space, with 12 of them now packed into one small apartment. “How can we live like this?” Rani asks. On the day CityLab met them, a social worker also present told the family they were entitled to more space. But getting it requires paperwork and knowing the ins and outs of bureaucracy, something Rani says she’s not equipped to do. “Nobody listens to us,” she says. “The authorities didn’t accept a letter I brought to them. I begged them, I touched their feet, I cried, but they didn't accept it.”
Rani is not the only one unhappy with the living conditions in Baprola. Many other residents of the resettlement complex speak of difficulties they face in day-to-day life, problems corroborated by social workers who regularly visit the site. In one case, a wheelchair-bound man with no legs was allotted a fourth floor apartment in a building with no elevator. He lived there for months before being resettled again.
DUSIB—the government body in charge of such relocations—says it’s aware of problems that exist at resettlement sites, but insists people like Rani are now better off. “People happily moved from Jwalapuri to Baprola and the condition of the people is much better. When they left Jwalapuri [the situation there] was pathetic,” says Bipin Rai, an expert member of the board. “There were no basic amenities, facilities, no water, no sanitation. In Baprola they have proper housing, toilets, and cooking space.”
But the residents of Baprola are not convinced about their new homes, and many long for their old ones. “These apartments are not strong or well-built...[our previous homes] were only bastis, but we made them well—ourselves,” Rani says proudly. “My kids were born there. They grew up there and studied there. They got married there as well. Everything happened there.”
Rani’s sense of nostalgia is a stark contrast from the prevailing desire in Kidwai Nagar to get out. To Chaudhry, this desperation illustrates just how few options are at the disposal of Delhi’s least fortunate. “The poor are pushed so much to the wall that at the end they’re like, ‘Okay, anything is fine let’s just get out of here.’ They just accept what you give them because they don’t have the means to fight,” she says. “Everything in this country favors the rich.”