The Human Costs of "World Class Cities"

Aug 2nd 2008, Jayati Ghosh
Delhi – like all other Indian cities and especially the metros – is a study in contrasts. Too often, however, the contrast between rich and poor in this city is often presented as reflecting the difference between new and old, or integrated versus marginalised. This is typified in the hoary journalistic cliché about malls and skyscrapers coming up amidst decaying and impoverished slums, suggesting that dynamism is creating the shiny new things while deprivation is the result of backwardness.

Yet this particular way of looking at it may be missing the point. Much of what is new in this city is also poor; and many of the poor are poor not so much because they have been “marginalised” and left out of the system, but precisely because they have been drawn into it, in ways that have been adverse for them.

And this process of impoverishment in turn is often the result of the urge to create the gleaming urban infrastructure that is currently seen to exemplify both progress and societal affluence. The megalopolis of Delhi has seen many phases of this: before the Asian Games in the early 1980s; during the phase of rapid urban construction and displacement in the 1990s; and now in the many works planned as the city prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Such development is usually presented in the media as an unmitigated boon, and the large displacement of people that it typically causes is ignored. Slum clearance is now a positive phrase in the media, seen as part of urban beautification and modernisation - a perception very far removed from the days of the Emergency when the forcible evictions from “unauthorised colonies” played such a large role in creating public antipathy towards the ruling government of the time. And it is further argued by officialdom that resettlement improves the quality of life of those who are moved, by taking them from haphazard and ramshackle residences without access to utilities and public services, to planned neighbourhoods in which essential services are provided.

This particular myth is blown sky-high by a new book that describes in systematic but wrenching detail one such process in Delhi: the story of the forced displacement of those formerly living in the river-bed settlement of Yamuna Pushta and the resettlement of some of them into the newly created colony of Bawana. (“Swept off the map: Surviving eviction and resettlement in Delhi, by Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan, Yoda Press 2008)

Menon-Sen and Bhan begin by documenting the violent evacuation of more than 150,000 people who were resident in the Pushta colony, to fulfil the plan to develop the 100-acre strip on the banks of the Yamuna into a promenade for residents and tourists. In February and April 2004, houses were razed to the ground in several operations, until finally in the heat of summer the violent demolitions supervised by the UP PAC forced out all the residents.

Resettlement was to be on the basis of proof of residence in the form of ration card or voter identity card – but very few families had a complete set of documents, and of those who did, many lost them in the fires and subsequent demolition. While newspaper reports spoke of 35,000 families in residence, the DDA survey recorded only 16,000 “genuine claimants”, and finally only 6,000 families were resettled in Bawana.

There are no records of what happened to all the others (more than one lakh people) and clearly officialdom has not been concerned with their fate. Indeed, MCD officials bragged that they deliberately delayed the distribution of allotment parchis by three months “so that only genuine cases would be left”, ignoring the fact that the poorest people are the least likely to be able to wait that long, or even to afford the money necessary for down payment.

The survey that forms the basis of this book found that more than half of the surveyed households lived in plots of 12.5 sq.m., while just under half had plots of 18 sq.m. On average, this implies that 5 people share a living space of 10 feet by 12 feet. Many of them still live in kuccha houses. The pucca “houses” amount to tiny matchbox-like constructions with a single window and no space for sanitary facilities. In any case, there is no sewerage system. In all cases, the surveyed households had larger plots, sometimes houses, in their previous basti. Insecurity of tenure makes things even worse: instead of title deeds, the Bawana residents have been granted five-year leases with no certainty of renewal.

But it is in the provision of basic amenities and public services in the resettled colony that the monstrous nature of the public policy becomes most evident. While the majority of the Bawana residents surveyed had access to metered electricity at their previous residence, in Bawana only 3.7 per cent had regular meters. The rest – more than 95 per cent – had wires connected to the overhead lines, in an informal system based not on theft but on regular monthly payments of Rs. 100 or Rs. 150. The official service provider had failed to provide electricity even after two years of residence, and instead allowed the “local suppliers” to run this system. The authors note that for the residents, therefore, the choice between legal and illegal services simply does not exist.

The absence of adequate access to drinking water is also striking. Remarkably, piped water to households was simply never part of the plans for the resettlement colony. There are a few public taps in each block, with erratic and infrequent supply of less than three hours each day, causing long queues and lots of time wasted by female members of the household. This water is also unsafe for drinking according to laboratory tests. In any case, more than half the households are forced to rely on hard water from tube wells dug by private providers who charge by the bucket.

Sanitation – one of the most essential public services – is equally underprovided. The number of toilets is far too small – amounting to one toilet sets for 80 people on average, so there is huge overcrowding, especially in the mornings. Toilet management has been outsourced to an NGO that maintains the toilets poorly, and there is no monitoring by the MCD. By the NGO charges a fee that is quite hefty for the poor: amounting to Rs. 4.62 per family per day, or around Rs. 135 per month, which was 8 per cent of the monthly average household income of Rs. 1500. Not surprisingly, there is widespread incidence of gastrointestinal and water-borne diseases in Bawana, especially among children.

Waste management also does not seem to have entered into the plan for Bawana. There are no dustbins, no garbage disposal points, no landfill sites. There is no designated space for throwing garbage, much less for sorting it. This is particularly ironic, since many of the Bawana residents work outside the colony as rag pickers and sanitation workers.

The reduced access to the Public Distribution System for food is another significant feature of the households in Bawana. The system requires re-issue of ration cards with every change of address, so all the residents had to get new cards, and many had not been able to do so despite trying for more than two years. The survey found that only 60 per cent of the households had valid ration cards, compared to 88 per cent in their previous location. Three-fourths of those surveyed had BPL cards in their previous location; only half held them in Bawana. In any case, the ration shops in the colony open rarely and on random days of the week and provide rations only to the head of the household, so that one-fifth of the households reported that they sometimes or never got their rations.

One thing the resettlement plan for Bawana did provide for was health facilities: both a primary health centre and a functioning dispensary. However, neither of these existed in the colony even two years after the resettlement. The nearest health care facility remains a hospital 5 km away, and residents reported a mobile MCD health van that makes infrequent and random trips to distribute medicines. So there is naturally a profusion of private clinics with “doctors” of varying degrees of qualification and reliability, who charge relatively high amounts for each visit and for all medicines.

Schooling has been another major casualty of the resettlement process. Forty per cent of the children aged 5-18 years in the surveyed households were not enrolled in the nearest school, and there was evidence of significant declines in enrolment rates for both boys and girls. One important reason for this was the perception of harassment and humiliation in the local schools. There was also widespread feeling that girls are not safe to travel to the schools in the vicinity.

The resettlement has also led – expectedly – to a decline in work opportunities, as forms of livelihood in the earlier residence were lost and workers are forced to commute long distances to find work, which is both difficult and expensive to do. The survey therefore found clear evidence of unemployment and under-employment, as well as being forced to work for much lower wages in informal activities and home-based work. The authors come to the conclusion that material well-being of Bawana residents has been severely compromised, with a majority of families living at or near the poverty line.

The study therefore shows that the Yamuna Pushta-Bawana resettlement has led to a decline – in most cases, a sharp decline – in the material conditions and quality of life of the resettled people. Not only has the provision of basic services declined, but in most cases they have been privatised and made more expensive for worse delivery.

It is not an accident that the poor, who have been forcibly moved with such violence, disruption and loss in this urban transition, have been treated with such cynicism. It is clearly inbuilt into the very approach, as the absence of planning for basic facilities for sanitation and waste management in the resettled colony indicates. And it is reinforced at each point in the struggle of these residents to meet the minimum necessities of life.

Yet it is the people who live in colonies such as these who provide the work force essential to maintain the quality of life of the middle classes of the same city and indeed make possible the economic expansion that is then symbolised by the malls and the flyovers. Unfortunately, what the authors call “the disappearing politics of the urban” means that urban policy making and management is increasingly bereft of attention to the basic conditions of life for such residents, despite the fancy talk in new initiatives such as the JNNURM.

Every urban planner and administrator in India should be forced to read this important book. Or better still, perhaps they could be made to spend a few days – or even just 24 hours - just living in one of the “homes” in Bawana, experiencing the same conditions. Maybe it is only then that addressing these basic issues will get the priority it deserves.


Site optimised for 800 x 600 and above for Internet Explorer 5 and above