Chronicles Inhuman Geography
The battle scarred walls of the Tughlaqabad fort, with their stories of a tumultuous history of centuries of violence, were recently witness to another, rather curious, ‘victory’, as the might of the modern Indian state prevailed over a more recent enemy – the ubiquitous, illegal squatters. This is the new, all-invading menace of urban India – the migrants, the economically challenged, who eke out a precarious existence and, literally, brick by brick, put together the miserable shelters they call home. With their eviction one more battle was ‘won’ against the shanties, slums and illegal constructions that proliferate and mar the aesthetic consonance of the city of Delhi.

And evicted they must be; they are ‘illegal’ squatters, guilty of a crime, of breaking an enshrined law. The writ is clear, and demolitions are legally and morally binding on a state that wishes to uphold the law of the land. Yet this act, more than anything, demonstrates the glaring injustice, the complete lack of awareness and the dehumanised condition of mind within which our lawmakers dwell.

Each year millions of people pour into Delhi, in hope of an escape from mind-blunting poverty. Migrants alone constitute 37 percent of the city’s population, with an estimated 160,000 arriving annually. They pervade the city with their presence, settling in sprawling slums and shanties, dwelling on the pavements, hawking their wares at every traffic crossing, working in the noonday sun at construction sites, learning intricate, skill-defined jobs; they are there in the more familiar faces of domestic workers – the sweeper, the cook – who weave in and out of the more tangible homes of the affluent. They are all there; you can’t not see them.
Yet all these people exist in a Kafkaesque world, where the all seeing eye of the state cannot, is unable to, register their presence.

Why is it that shanties grow from a grouping of a mere ten or fifteen, to assume mammoth proportions, existing cheek by jowl with super rich colonies? Who are these politicians who go to these migrants for votes and falsely ‘empower’ the desperate, the gullible? Eventually thousands of these ‘illegal’ colonies have been ‘legalised’, because the dynamics of a city make them a reality that has to be admitted. This annual influx has resulted in a housing shortage of 450,000 units – and those are official figures. At the last count, way back in ’93, there were 1071 unauthorized colonies, with a population of two million, awaiting ‘regularization’. The eventual result is total chaos, the ugly, cluttered face of the urban landscape.

Delhi is not alone; the story of the ‘concretization’ of India is one of heartless and brutal corruption. Whole areas of agricultural outback have been transformed into hellish wastelands, and all hope is centered on the burgeoning metropolis. But, owing to its utter inefficiency, the government machinery has failed to cope with the influx of humanity.

After China, India has the second largest urban population – 305 million. Cities need these people, and can – are meant to – absorb them. They are areas of extraordinary productivity and growth. In the year 2001 the estimated contribution of urban centres to the national income was set at 60 percent, rising from 29 percent in1951. And yet, the top heavy economy and patterns of employment in urban centers serve to perpetuate cycles of exploitation. The city is a chaotic mess, with a breakdown of administration, a collapse of governance, rampant corruption. There is a cynical and selective application of laws; while those who are meant to protect them turn a blind eye to reality. Even official data reflects this discrimination. According to the Ninth Plan, the number of urban poor increased from 60 million in 1973-74 to 76 million in 1993-94.

Each migrant offers services, crucial to the functioning and feeding of an economy. While their labour is factored in, no thought is given to the critical question – where are they going to live? The city graciously offers its footpaths to these creators of wealth. Are they to be denied other basic amenities – energy, water, sanitation? Distress migration, urban poverty, scarcity of land, continuously rising real estate prices, irrational controls, are all compounded by a total bankruptcy of ideas and a lack of will in managing simple municipal and estate functions.

Delhi, for instance, is governed by such archaic land laws; the complex intricacies involved in managing utterly obtuse procedures is quite mind-boggling. Since 1908 the land record files for Delhi have not been altered as required by regulations. Delhi is still governed by the Punjab Settlement Act. The government is unable to go by its records in cases of disputes, as they still indicate fields in many areas where colonies have come up. The amorphous delineation of rural, lal dora and urban land, all controlled by separate sets of regulations, end up creating a legalist’s nightmare and a potpourri of delight for the ingenious land mafia.

Take the case of Tughlaqabad. Over the past decade, plots of land in Tughlaqabad, averaging 50 square yards, have been parceled out at Rs 50,000 each to migrants; three residential colonies and a small industrial area containing workshops, godowns, factories, all mushroomed within the walls of the fort. And all this, on ASI designated land; yet no anti-encroachment agency was able to ‘detect’ this when it was happening. Four years ago, a report by the Madan Jha committee named politicians and officials involved in the sale of land in Tughlaqabad Fort. But no action was taken until March 17, 2001, when the first phase of demolitions began, leaving in its wake hundreds of families who watched the destruction of their homes – bought and paid for in what they believed were legal transactions. Those who ‘sold’ them this land remain unpunished. In the current legal contretemps between the two sides, both parties are making use of the muddled records, or lack of them. The government argues that, in the lal dora existing in the 1908 revenue map, Tughlaqabad village comes under 327 bighas of land, with anything beyond belonging to the Delhi government. Opposing counsel, however, claim that the land record shows that the village was 600 years old and had been given to the villagers by Mohammed bin Tughlaq, so that, of the total area of 2,628 bighas, no more than 300 bighas belonged to the ASI.

The Union Urban Development Ministry asserts that its ‘relentless campaign’ has forced the strong land mafia to ‘beat a retreat,’ at least for the time being. But where have these ‘homeless’ people moved? Have they vanished from the city of Delhi? The same minister had carried out a similar drive decades ago. What has changed in the basic situation?

The point is that the city needs land on which its buildings are to stand, and in which people are to live and work. The demand for land must be constantly monitored, rationalized and catered to well in advance in as thorough and legal a manner as possible. Scrounging about in confusion and then randomly legalizing illegal colonies is a senseless exercise. A competent government should have the foresight and the ability to efficiently utilize the resources available to it. A shocking statistic reveals that, as far back as in 1961, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was handed over 19,190 hectares for residential colonies, but has, till date, not been able to build houses on even half of this land.

With the birth of this nation, the right to a life of dignity was enshrined in the constitution. A vast, wandering populace, marked by the rigors of a life of constant strife and struggle; homeless, sleeping on narrow concrete pavements, or in slums unfit for human habitation – they all remain far from that ideal. Today, the state, sends in demolition squads, and at a stroke drives thousands out of their homes. Terrified children are left watching as their parents desperately sift through the debris to retrieve their meagre belongings, their world literally crashed around them. What – where – is the dignity of life?

Chitvan Gill
Published in The Pioneer, May 23, 2001


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