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Among the many glitches and fiascos that marked India's preparation for the Common Wealth Games was the Delhi government's attempt to shut off the view of its sprawling slums from the eyes of foreign visitors coming in both to participate in the games and travel. In order to grapple with its 3 million slum population, the government came up with many ingenious ways. Huge bill boards of "Come out and play" acted as view cutters shutting slums like Coolie camp, on the airport road, from public view. Mobile courts started doing the rounds in Delhi picking up beggars and deporting them to the outskirts of the city. The government also took frequent recourse to evictions where billboards and deportations did not come in handy. Amidst all this, the slum improvement dialogue lost its voice.
One can't just wish away the existence of 3 million people. But, there is no workable policy in sight to improve their living conditions or to relocate them. From the Valmiki Ambedkar Yojna Awas (VAMBAY) announced in 2001 to the UPA's flagship project, Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY), which was announced in 2009, centrally sponsored schemes are ridden with insensitivity, and lack of reality-inspired visions.
Across India, there are an estimated 93 million distraught poor living in pitiable conditions with no sanitation, habitable structure, or approach roads. For more than two decades now, this population has been the target of endless policies that have inevitably treated slums, and their residents, as stumbling blocks in India's march towards development. Whereas policies and schemes have come and gone, slums have multiplied. In fact, from 2001 to 2011 there has been a 23 per cent growth in the slum population. It's imperative that India rethinks its approach to urbanisation.
Rethinking would encourage implementing provisions of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) Act, passed last year, as opposed to mere eviction. Eviction notices cause much worry to residents of Shankar camp, which stands in the prime real estate area of Moti Bagh in south Delhi. "The fact that there are 4 latrines in the camp for 600 residents, and of them two overflow, does not concern or worry the authorities, " points out 73-year-old Praveen Gurung, a resident. Gurung, who has a congenital heart disease, lives next to the toilets and has no option but to breathe in that putrid air. Residents of Kanak Durga (KD) colony in R K Puram have the same problem. "There are four thousand people here and we need a permanent toilet. Open drains and water logging underneath the mobile toilets caused me to contract chikungunya fever, " says Rama Devi, a resident.
Not surprisingly, Acts such as the DUSIB Act do not allow much scope for the "consent of the residents". The provision for the Basti Vikas Samiti, the only one that allows residents to "assist and advise" board members, is awaiting implementation in both Shankar camp and KD colony. The right to housing is not a fundamental right but the tenor of the Constitution, from the Preamble to the Directive Principles, makes it obligatory on the state to make that provision.
The only way eviction can be seen as an improvement is to see what follows eviction. When the Netaji Nagar slum in Delhi, consisting of 450 or more jhuggis, was razed to the ground last year, only 67 families were found eligible for resettlement. When slums in G-Point Gole market, also in Delhi, were razed, 16 families were resettled. The "ineligible" families, 86 per cent in Netaji Nagar and 60 per cent in Gole Market, continue to live in the heart of Delhi. On framing a policy for these ineligible evicted families, Amarnath, Special Officer, DUSIB, says, "The ministers will have to decide how they propose to address the issue of the ineligible slum dwellers. I do not make policies. I implement them. "
For those "eligible families" who are resettled in government housing colonies, whether in Delhi or elsewhere, post-eviction, it is not always a pleasant ever after. For instance, residents of Asifnagar, Hyderabad, have nothing to celebrate in the relocation drive. They point out that the only thing the housing colony has given them is a concrete structure to live in. There are no proper bathrooms or toilets, nor power supply. "We could have lived there itself, " says Shareefa, a resident, who was relocated from a slum pocket in Indira Park, Hyderabad. She complains that a chunk of her measly earnings as a domestic help is spent on her commute to work. "Now I have to change two buses to reach the houses I work in, " she rues.
For residents of Bawana, on the outskirts of Delhi, keeping their old jobs is quite out of question because the distance is prohibitive. Evicted from the Gole market and Netaji Nagar slum colonies, the residents are happy that they now live in 400-sq feet apartments, with a balcony and a private bathroom, both of which are a thing of luxury for them but livelihood concerns have dampened the initial excitement. "We have been here for more than two months but I have not worked for more than two weeks. How will I feed my family here? How will I pay for this flat? What is the use of giving us a flat but not a job to help us pay for it?" asks Tuntun Paswan, one of the many men who are battling to earn a daily wage in Bawana.
Sector III of the Bawana industrial area is now home to 1, 184 new flats, all available to residents at a subsidised rate of Rs 60, 000, to be paid in instalments. With jobs hard to find, resident Shaukat Ali's apprehension that non-payment of dues will lead to "double eviction" does not seem unfounded. A senior officer at DUSIB confirms that if the loan payments are not made families will have to be evicted, yet again.
While the state turns a deaf ear to Gurung, Shareefa and Paswan, it did come to Shambhu Majhi's aid. Majhi of Basanti slum colony, Kolkata, one of the 450 people rendered homeless by the fire last year, understands only too well that it is not his worth that matters to the state but the vote he casts. "The 2001 fire was no less devastating. We were flooded with promises but nothing happened. There was no impending poll that time, " he chuckles.
There is nothing new in any of these tales. The question is when will the state rise above wild promises and unimplementable schemes and initiate a dialogue towards improving our slums and their dwellers?
With additional reporting by Roli Srivastava in Hyderabad and Krishenendu Bandyopadhyay in Kolkata
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