I was twelve years old when I first saw a slum demolition. My parents had rented a flat in a lower middle class locality of Patna. The rent was low because the locality was not considered very posh. There was a sprawling slum next to it inhabited by around 5000 families. Most of them had migrated to the city recently and eked out a living in poverty as rickshaw pullers, hawkers, construction workers etc and the women worked as household maids. Their children spent their days playing marbles and gulli-danda. I remember feeling jealous of them for being free from the compulsion of going to school. In the afternoon some of them would gather to play cricket in the ground adjacent to our house but I was strictly forbidden to join them. My parents were worried that if I mixed with riff-raff like them, I too would learn foul language. I distinctly remember the day this illegal slum was demolished. The city corporation came with bulldozers and a truck full of policemen. As the huts began to be demolished a pitched battle began because the municipality officials were not just demolishing the huts but they were also carrying away in trucks the logs of wood and hay out of which the huts were made, to prevent the illegals from rebuilding their houses after the demolition team left. In some hours the battle was over, all the hutments had been torn off and carried away, one could just see small groups of men heatedly discussing the next course of action and some women sitting and crying over their belongings, now lying in the open. My parents were sympathetic but not entire unhappy. Our address would become more respectable now because the slum was gone.
After twelve years I saw another slum being demolished, this time in Delhi. But unlike then this time I was not a bystander. I had joined the protest of the slum dwellers as a member of Ghar Bachao Morcha, an organization dedicated to the cause of safeguarding the poor people’s ‘right to the city’. As a student residing in Delhi, I along with thousands of other outstation students face the brunt of sky high rents. This organization sought to make a common cause between the lower middle families, families living in poverty, and students in the city whose survival is rendered precarious due to high rents and the people living in slums who live under the constant threat of their houses being demolished. Many of us lower middle class youth had realized that our issue was the same as that of the working people living in the slums, the right to live in the city without the fear of losing one’s shelter. Slums youths join our campaign for rent regulation in the lower middle class localities and we in turn join their struggle to save the slums from demolition. Perhaps very few people know that rent regulation is a need for the slum dwellers too, thanks to the unscrupulous profiteering zeal of numerous property dealers and well to do landlords who construct cheap slum dwellings that they rent out to the new migrants to the city.
People living in the slum are not idle squatters in the city. Most of them are engaged in back braking hard work. Through their toil they help create the glitz that ‘India Shining’ is so proud of, and it is obvious that if most of the slum dwellers really do leave the city then almost all the productive activity would come to a grinding halt. But an insensitive state and employers treat them as though their lives have no value. In return for their toil, the ruling elite do not even care to ensure a proper shelter for them. In a study commissioned by the DDA (Delhi Development Authority) to the Association of Urban Management and Development Authorities in 2003, what is clearly reported is the continuous unwillingness to meet estimated targets for low-income housing—a troubling policy approach that has led to a situation where an estimated 3 million people (about 27% of the total urban population) are forced to occupy less than 3% of the residential area in the city! The plight of slum dwellers is seldom accommodated within the scheme of DDA which is busy constructing expensive high-rise buildings for the rich. Also it is seen that often the land cleared through slum demolition is handed over to private builders who build expensive malls, residential complexes there. The question is: can urban authorities even claim that shopping malls and high-rise residential complexes are projects implemented for “larger public interest”, and are hence, projects that legitimately require urgent slum demolition?
Unlike popular perception the aspiration of the slum dwellers is not confined to saving their slums. The idyllic portrayal of slums in movies like Slum Dog millionaire notwithstanding life in a slum does not inspire any sort of romanticism. A state fast backtracking on its responsibilities to ensure potable water, public toilets, healthcare etc means that life in a slum is a daily battle. A common sight at most of the slums in Delhi, are long queues for water which start at 4 am in the morning. A population driven to the edge out of desperation has often shown the tendency to succumb to the bribery of self serving politicians. In Delhi for long, politicians of all hues have used lumpen slum youth as petty goons/henchmen in return for small doles. Recently even Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of Delhi, admitted that often politicians allow slums to grow so that they can be used as vote banks
Slums need to be replaced with humane accommodation financed and constructed by the state. Housing policies for the poor and those living close to the poverty line should be prioritized by the DDA, and DDA should recommend a feasible and affordable housing policy/plan for the urban poor to the Government of NCT of Delhi and the Central Urban Development Ministry. Simultaneously a rent regulation campaign should be launched throughout the city to protect the tenants from fleecing landlords.
Note: The factual portions of this post are a part of the press release sent by the organization of which the author is a member.