As Avatar Bhat was making his way home through the narrow lanes of the Kathputli Colony on Tuesday afternoon, a Delhi police constable asked him to step aside to make way for the contingent of over 200 police and paramilitary personnel who were accompanying a team of senior officials of the Delhi police and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Among the officials were J.P. Aggarwal, the DDA principal commissioner, and Navin Raheja, the chairperson and managing director of Raheja Developers – a private real estate development company headquartered in New Delhi.
Stumped by it all, Bhat froze and mumbled, “to not be able to reach your own home is a strange and unprecedented feeling”. The contingent made its way through dingy and narrow lanes with the help of mobile flashlights to reach a house in the Muslim settlements of the locality.
Eleven-year-old Sakina watched from her terrace as the officials persuaded her neighbours to move to the Anand Parbat transit camp. Upon being asked when her family was moving, she said, “I will not leave until my entire neighbourhood is empty.” Her septuagenarian grandmother Hazrat Begum, who was sitting in front of their house, struggled to stand and remained wary of disrespecting the enormous party that had arrived in her neighbourhood. “They might take offence thinking the old woman shows no respect and stays comfortably seated,” she said. Pointing to the demolished walls of the houses in the vicinity, Begum remarked, “These people signed up and have gone to the transit camp.”
The renewed efforts for the relocation of the JJ clusters of the Kathputli Colony to Shadipur – being undertaken by the DDA in the presence of police and paramilitary forces since December 19 – has rankled the residents who fear the use of coercive force to weed them out of the settlement.
The process of moving these slum dwellers from the land that is meant for mixed use has been started for the in situ development of the area under DDA’s PPP (public-private partnership) model through Raheja Developers.
The settlement that houses over 3,600 families of puppeteers, dancers, acrobats, magicians, folk singers, musicians, wood-carvers and host of other craftspeople, has been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the redevelopment for over six years.
The process requires shifting the residents about 4.8 kilometers away to a transit camp in Anan Parbat area comprising one room lodgings and shared community toilets. An information pamphlet circulated by the DDA states that all families with the requisite documents will be issued flats in the redeveloped Kathputhli Colony within two years of shifting to the transit camp at a price of Rs 1,12,000 (plus Rs 30,000 for maintenance expenses for a period of five years).
Till date, approximately 525 families have already been moved to the transit camp that, according to the DDA websites, has housing available for only “2,800 slum dwellers families of Kathputli Colony.”
During the latest DDA drive that began on Monday, the narrow lanes of the Kathputli Colony were studded with hundreds of Delhi police personnel belonging to the local and outer units – Sashastra Seema Bal, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Central Industrial Security Force and Central Reserve Police Force – and water cannons remained on standby at the periphery of the now barricaded colony.
Raj Kumar Bhardwaj, the assistant commissioner of police in Ranjit Nagar, said that ten companies of Delhi police and outer forces had been deployed, each comprising 63 personnel. The reason behind such heavy deployment of personnel, according to Bhardwaj, “Is to thwart any untoward incident of violence in the light of the latest DDA drive for shifting the residents, though there had been no precedent to merit such heavy deployment.”
For Kamini Bhat, the heavy presence of security forces brought back memories of the night of August 11, 2014, when police forces allegedly dropped tear gas shells in the colony, barged into houses and took over a dozen men into custody – most of who were subsequently charged under Section 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide) of the IPC – and manhandled the women who tried to shield the men of their families.
The reason for such a crackdown was said to be for settling the violence that had resulted from a fight between boys from Kathputli Colony and from the nearby Pandav Nagar, though Bhat claims that it was a veiled eviction threat.
“Water supply has been disabled for the past four days and electricity has been disrupted since an anticipatory communication of the December 19 visit by DDA”, she said, adding, “These are only ways to force us out without addressing our concerns of inadequate housing for our growing families in the one-room lodgings of the transit camp”.
Bhagwan Dass, Bhat’s father and a performing artist who is recuperating from a paralytic attack in a 12×8 foot room filled with a dozen musical instruments including harmoniums, drums, dholaks, khartals, tashas and ravan hattas, and over 200 puppets of various sizes, is worried about fitting all of it along with his vast family in the one-room house.
“I came here as a 13-year-old from Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan and have lived on this land for 60 years, practicing my craft and having represented India in 15 countries abroad and now we are being driven out with no space to house my four married sons and their families,” he said. “If this massive police force deployment is not intimidation, then what is?”
Maya Mohan, a woman in her late 40s, who stood at the camp set up by the DDA in the colony for issuing slips to residents willing to shift, echoed Dass’ concerns. She wanted separate lodging for her son Vir Ram who had married and had a kid since 2014 when she had signed up for shifting to the transit camp. “We are six members in the family now. Do you think it is feasible to fit in one tiny room leaving our three-roomed two-story house here?” Mohan asked.
In addition to spatial concerns at the Anand Parbat Camp, residents claim that several households have been left out of the surveys that have been conducted and only 2,641 households have been counted as being eligible for rehabilitation. The DDA, on its part, has promised a final survey to consider the dwellers whose names have been left out of the earlier survey lists.
Another concern among the residents is about the tripartite agreement involving the private developer. Sixty-five-year-old Syed Hussain said, “The builder will build whatever quality of flats and run away but the DDA being a government authority cannot go anywhere and can be held accountable, hence we want to enter into a high court-supervised agreement only with the DDA.”
The quality of facilities at the transit camp and its distance from their present location also worries the residents. Anita Soni, who works as a domestic help, said, “The transit camp lodgings are made up of synthetic fiber sheets that are susceptible to the vagaries of nature and the water supplied there is highly contaminated.” Ram Moorat Yadav added, “There are only four washrooms for every 19 houses there.” Soni was particularly bitter about the timing of the latest DDA drive which has coincided with the demonetisation struggles and the winter season. “For a month since note bandi my husband and sons have been out of work [and have been] surviving on my meager earnings. Besides, winter is setting in deeply to make things worse,” she said.
Prakash Bhat, who sat chiseling a wooden bust of Lord Buddha in the courtyard of the headquarters of the Bhule Bisre Kalakar Co-operative Industrial Society, while his colleagues talked about how the relocation seemed imminent after the latest drive, let out a cry “na katwaengey parchi (won’t sign up for relocation).”
In the ensuing effusion, he said, “We have all facilities here. People come here to seek our craft and shifting away means losing even the minuscule commissioning that we get here, and there would not be any space to store wood or work on it in those tiny transit lodgings or redeveloped flats. Our craft will perish and so will we.”
Kishore Bhat, who stood nearby, stated, “We will have to come here for our work, ration procurements, kids’ education, spending at least 20 rupees on travel each day. We could buy a kilogram of aata (wheat flour) with that money instead.”
Kishore also expressed his concerns about the money needed to acquire the flats in the redeveloped Kathputli Colony. “We dig wells every day to drink water,” bemoaned Kishore while alluding to the scanty nature of their earnings.
Dilip Bhat, a folk singer who sat with his crutches resting against the bench he occupied in the co-operative society’s courtyard, shared his reasons for resisting the relocation move, “It is impossible for a person of my condition to use the chalta phirta toilets (mobile toilets) that have been installed at the transit camp and that stand at an elevated platform.”
“Moreover, if I am allotted a 14th floor flat in the redeveloped colony and the elevator remains ill maintained, I will be damned.”
Naseem Begum voiced similar concerns for her 20-year-old daughter who is physically challenged and has limited mobility. “How will we pay and maintain the elevator in the redeveloped high-rise of Kathputli Colony,” said Begum, who works as a plumber along with her husband to support a family of seven.
Amidst the din of resistive opinions on the relocation and rehabilitation move, Mumtaz, along with two of her neighbours from the transit camp, occupied a spot in the colony holding hand-drawn placards given to them by DDA officials, extolling the redevelopment plan and calling for all residents to shift to the Anand Parbat camp.
She had shifted to the camp 28 months ago but awaits the vacancy of the entire colony for its demolition and subsequent rebuilding. The families who shifted along with her have lost on the promise of receiving a flat in the redeveloped colony within two years of moving into the transit camp. “These people are not ready to move out of this filthy colony to a place replete with better living conditions. I made the choice for my family’s well-being,” she said. Some passersby accused Mumtaz and the other two women of being paid agents of the DDA.
Walking back briskly from a persuasion trip with the contingent comprising Raheja at a house in the colony on Tuesday evening, DDA principal commissioner Aggarwal said that in the two days of the current DDA drive in Kathputli Colony, approximately 200 slips or sign ups for relocation had materialised. “This time we will go on persuading until everyone shifts out so that redevelopment of this 13-acre area could begin, even if it takes continuous efforts of a month or two in doing so.”
At the house of Dileep Bhat, the pradhaan or community elder along with over three dozen residents sat nervously mulling over the course of action. He said they felt abandoned by everyone. “Our area MLA Vijender Garg visited the colony on Monday along with Aam Aadmi Party minister Satyendra Jain, but they barely engaged with us while the MP of their constituency, Meenakshi Lekhi, has been missing in action, ” he said.
Bhukkul Ansari added, “Unless we get officially stamped assurance by the court about getting a house here, we will not budge. This is a ploy to drive us out, never to return.” Dileep, in the meantime, sat sifting through a bundle of court orders and official communications to find a way to resist this drive, seeking help from journalists in the room to read the English text.
He expressed his exasperation, saying, “All this is in English but some of us can, at least, read Hindi. They can write anything in English and fool us this way.” Pappu Bhat, who was amongst the lot charged under IPC Section 308 along with Dileep and a dozen others, said that they had been told by authorities to “sort this slum matter and the cases against you will be taken care of”. Outside, as officials went knocking on houses to personally persuade families, in the congregation at Dileep’s house, distrust was the strongest scent.
Akshita is a New Delhi-based multimedia journalist who has written for The Caravan, The Hindu, Deccan Herald and Kafila amongst other publications and has shot non-fiction films for digital portals.