Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Searing critique of an ongoing slum clearance drive in Delhi

Yesterday's edition of the Hindustan Times featured a biting indictment of the slum clearance policies of the Delhi government as well as recent orders issued by the Delhi High Court. Authored by Bela Bhatia of CSDS, Delhi and the noted economist and social activist, Jean Dreze , the piece focuses on an ongoing drive in Sanjay Basti, a squatter settlement in Timarpur, North Delhi. As they point out, the irony of the situation is that the residents of Sanjay Basti have a good case in law, but that will not help them avert their impending fate:

"About two weeks ago, a terse notice appeared on a few walls in Sanjay Basti, a squatter settlement in Timarpur, North Delhi. Posted by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), it directs the residents to vacate by April 27, or face demolition soon after that. The notice does not explain the purpose of this forcible removal, or specify the area to which the order applies, or mention any relocation plan. Nor does it provide a contact number where further details might be sought — so much for the right to information.

... In common parlance, Sanjay Basti is a ‘slum’ or ‘encroachment’, but these pejorative terms fail to convey the real nature of this settlement. Most of the residents have been there for 20 years or more, and they have had time to transform their humble dwellings into real ‘homes’. Without much help or subsidies, they have made thoughtful use of every inch of space to improve their environment, often by recycling middle-class ‘waste’. Their houses are tidy and functional and, what is more, they have character. In this respect, this ‘slum’ compares favourably with the somewhat dull lower-middle-class quarters across the road, built at considerable public expense. As a form of low-cost urban housing, Sanjay Basti is not doing badly.

... ... ... In principle, Sanjay Basti is well protected from arbitrary demolition under existing policies and laws. The Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act, 2006, prohibits any slum demolition for the time being unless the land is required for a “specific public project”, which is conspicuous by its absence in this case. Indeed, persistent enquiries from countless offices failed to uncover any specific reason for the demolition of Sanjay Basti.

Further, the Delhi Master Plan 2021, which has statutory force, declares and mandates a policy of in situ upgradation or relocation as per strict specifications (provided for in the Plan itself) of all slums and “jhuggi-jhopri clusters”, and a continuance of these settlements in the interim. The impending demolition of Sanjay Basti violates this Master Plan as well as the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act, 2006. For good measure, it is also contrary to the slum policy of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

These laws and policies, unfortunately, are being overridden by reckless High Court orders aimed at ‘cleansing’ the city of settlements of this kind. Indeed, Sanjay Basti is only the latest target in a long series of slum demolitions carried out under pressure from the Delhi High Court and its offshoots — notably the commissioners and monitoring committees appointed to oversee the progress of demolition orders.

These orders are based on the notion that slums are parasitical settlements that tarnish the urban environment. They overlook the fact that slums serve an essential economic purpose: they provide low-cost housing to masses of workers who ‘service’ the city, and for whom no provision has been made in urban development planning. For many of them, it would be impractical or expensive to commute long distances from the outskirts of the city. For instance, street vendors and roadside workers (barbers, tea-stall owners, cycle mechanics and so on) need equipment that would be difficult to carry back and forth. Similarly, it is the short distance between work and home that enables many women to work as part-time domestic helpers in the neighbourhood even as they continue to handle child care and other household tasks.

Slum demolition drives also overlook another important fact about squatter settlements in Delhi: they occupy very little space. Indeed, squatter settlements in Delhi cover barely one per cent of the total land area in the city. This point can also be appreciated by examining Google Earth’s high-resolution maps of Delhi. It is a striking fact that slums are virtually invisible on these maps. The reason is that squatter settlements are tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the city, too small to be visible on aerial maps — even detailed maps where single trees can be spotted.

On this one per cent of the total Delhi area live some three million people who keep the informal economy going and for whom no shelter provisions have been made. When the situation is seen in this light, the case for removal looks much weaker than when slums are regarded as an eyesore and a nuisance. Would it really be unwise to allocate one per cent of the land for in situ improvement of existing slums, and spare the trauma of forced eviction to millions of people, except possibly when essential public purposes are at stake?"

Hopefully, the Op-Ed will serve its desired purpose of getting the authorities involved to at least ensure that they comply with the requirements of existing law before proceeding to act. This particular instance also draws attention to the trend of cases highlighted by the recent editorial of the EPW which should lead to a close examination of the changing nature of PIL in India, and a proper assessment of its impact. (click here to link to the post which discusses this issue and also contains the link to the editorial).

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