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Story Publication logo April 15, 2019

'Did They Send Us Here To Die?': Housing Rights at a Crossroads in India's Capital

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Image by Kiran Misra. India, 2018.
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In her 2016 visit to Delhi, UN Special Rapporteur on Housing Leilani Farha reflected on the 'zero...

A young Indian woman sits in a park in an relocation housing settlement in New Delhi. Image by Kiran Misra. India, 2018.
A young Indian woman sits in a park in an relocation housing settlement in New Delhi. Image by Kiran Misra. India, 2018.

"Why did they send us here? Did they send us here to die?" asks Kanchan, one of the 1.2 million Indians living in resettlement colonies across New Delhi. Kanchan lives in Baprola, a community in South West Delhi, where the government houses several hundred 'resettled' families in orderly rows of four-story brick flats.

In the last four years, families have been sent to places like Baprola after being evicted by the government from their basti or "slum." There are 44 resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city, where land is cheaper and there is empty space for new construction, part of the New Delhi government's plan to find a more permanent solution for the estimated half of the city's residents who live in unauthorized settlements while reclaiming land necessary to undertake urban development projects and make India's capital into a "world-class city."

Kanchan, wearing a light yellow and orange salwar kameez, sits cross-legged on a small woven mat on the floor of her resettlement flat. Each flat has a main room (combination bedroom and living room), a small kitchen, and bathroom. The walls of the main room are painted cerulean, but in places the gray of the cement wall underneath peeks through, the paint worn away by flooding that has plagued many flats in the neighborhood and destabilized the buildings' walls. However, even more pressing than these infrastructural problems is the geographic isolation inherent in living in a resettlement colony.

"We've been denied access to basic services like rations, schools for our children, and hospitals since we were relocated here almost four years ago," Kanchan explains. "There's nothing here." 

"Government officials had been telling us that we were going to be evicted, but in the end, they gave us notice only eight days before [we had to be gone]," explains Sonu, another Baprola resident, of the relocation process. "When our houses were being torn down, we didn't even have the will to eat for several days. So many things are attached to that area—our memories, our friends. Our children lost a whole year of school in being relocated. Where we lived before wasn't a fancy area or anything, but those were our homes."

In a country where people will often ask each other what region, district, or neighborhood their family is from before even asking for their name, ties to ancestral lands are strong. Many of the families in Baprola had lived in Jawalapuri, another part of Delhi, for generations before being evicted.

The language of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) policy confirms as much: "The consent of the residents of the jhuggi jhompri basti shall not be required for the preparation or implementation of such a scheme. Every such scheme shall specify the amount to be paid by the land owner and by the persons to be resettled towards the cost of new houses to be allotted to them and also the criteria for eligibility for resettlement."

For residents in informal housing settlements, this policy means that families actually have to pay money to be forcibly evicted and resettled. A family must pay Rs. 31,000 to obtain a flat, the equivalent of $450, plunging many into debt. Working adults in Baprola, primarily men, earn about between Rs. 100- 250 a day. That is, if they can manage to find work in the area.

"People sold their things, sold their jewelry," explains Sonu. "Lots of people went into debt, took loans. People went to everyone they knew, joined their hands and begged for help." Over generations, families had invested large sums of money in infrastructure and construction improvements, house additions, and more for their jhuggis. Under the relocation scheme, they never received any compensation for these generations of investments, pushing some of Delhi's poorest residents into even further poverty.

"A millionaire could probably find a way to make it work, but how can poor people like us survive here?" Sonu asks. "People like us don't have endless gold and silver they can sell off to keep fixing the problems with these flats." Without anywhere else to turn, the women turned to the law to get their problems resolved.

On the cold winter Sunday that I came to Baprola, women were going from one door to the next, calling those who live in nearby blocks on small flip phones to meet in a central courtyard of the colony. Silan, or flooding, was the issue the women were trying to get resolved that morning, collecting information on which households in which blocks had been experiencing flooding problems and for how long, as a part of a petition to present to the local DUSIB representative. With a written petition and the list of signatures, the women marched to the DUSIB office in the colony, where a group of men were sitting outside in the December sun and chatting among themselves.

One of the surprising outcomes of the resettlement to places like Baprola, areas plagued with hydra-like infrastructure and access issues, is the rise of female activists who are taking on issues of government negligence and redefining "women's issues" in the process. Women in the relocation colonies often are the most affected among Baprola residents.

Puja, a young woman about to give birth, wasn't able to get any form of transportation to take her from the remote colony to the hospital during her delivery so two neighbors ended up delivering her baby in her living room without the expertise of any medical professionals. Rajkumari, a woman who was completing household chores in her flat one day while her husband was at work, heard the ceiling in her flat start to collapse and moved aside as it fell in, barely surviving. This tends to make any issue in the community into a "women's issue," and one the women of the community are committed to solving.

While pradhans and sarpanchs, the local government leaders in areas like Baprola, are predominantly men, housewives and mothers are more intimately familiar with each and every issue faced by their neighbors. With the help of nonprofits like Nazdeek, a legal empowerment NGO based in Delhi, they are training to become paralegals and to hold the government accountable to promises enshrined in laws, schemes, and legal cases.

These women have achieved some big victories in the past few years, from getting an Anganawdi (early childhood center) constructed in the colony and gaining access to rations (government fair-priced grain). They've advocated for access to unpaid maternity benefits and education for their children. For women who often have little formal education, the significance of these wins can't be overstated. However, not every problem can be solved by the tenacious efforts of these sari-clad activists. Chief among them is the sheer distance between Baprola and places like markets, hospitals, and schools that comes with living in a remote resettlement colony.

Reaching Baprola is a challenge. Getting to Baprola from central Delhi requires taking the Metro from the city center for nearly an hour to the Surajmal Stadium Green Line station, then hailing a cycle rickshaw to a junction to flag down a shared jeep and reach nearer the colony. From there, residents and visitors can take an e-rickshaw that will drop them at the relocation colony. For the people in Baprola, this journey is a daily reality that keeps the hundreds isolated from jobs, hospitals, ration shops, schools, and more.

In Jawalapuri, residents could easily travel to work from the bus stand in front of their houses. Right next to the neighborhood, there was a vegetable market. In Baprola, not only are these places distant and expensive to reach, they are spread out between nearby neighborhoods. A task as simple as buying grain for the night's dinner can turn into an hours-long ordeal.

For resettlement housing residents, this distance can become a matter of life or death.

Ramanand, another member of the colony, explains, "Let's say I get a dog bite here. There aren't any government hospitals nearby and we don't have the money to go to a private one. So in order to go to the hospital to get a rabies shot, I'll have to pay hundreds of rupees just in transportation. I don't have that money. So, a poor man would just die here from something as treatable as a dog bite."

"Day laborers can't make it living here," he continues. "In Jawalapuri, we used to have daily work and earned enough to live a good life. We used to sort plastic, do manual labor, work in peoples' homes. I used to sell things in the market near Jawalapuri. All that is gone now. I don't have the money for transportation back there every day, so I just spend my days at home now. We didn't want to come here, but what could we do?"

"At least half of the people who live in these flats are dying of hunger because they aren't earning," adds Sonu.

As with every conversation in India, the conversation among residents that morning eventually turned to politics, with residents hopeful, but skeptical that things could change with the upcoming national elections. If Baprola residents weren't already wary of the promises of those who came to the area seeking their votes, they certainly are after going through the relocation process.

"Government officials who were coming here to get votes ensured us that a school was being built here for our children to attend," Sonu says. "Now they've made it a private school. They lied to us. In Jawalapuri, our children used to be able to walk to school. Now, if we have the money that day for transportation to send our children to school, we'll send them. If we don't, the child will just sit at home that day."

"The Modi government is killing poor people," Ramanand explains. "And when we go to the polls, we will remember what was done to us here."

However, residents like Ramanand are still among the lucky ones. In areas like Gole Market, another part of Delhi, 75 families were promised relocation housing which was never provided to them. These families have been living in a vacated wedding hall and are still waiting for relocation seven years later. Most of the families were found eligible for relocation housing but have yet to be provided flats.

Even for those provided with flats, relocation feels like a lose-lose situation. For this reason, most housing rights activists are demanding an end to relocations and a policy of en situ rehabilitation, in which homes are upgraded without uprooting people from their communities, livelihoods, and important community sites like places of worship. After years of activist pressure, in 2017 the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government released the 'Delhi Slum and JJ Relocation and Rehabilitation Policy' which mandates rehabilitation of informal housing residents within five kilometers of their previous location.

The first en situ redevelopment project came soon after, in Delhi's Kathputli Colony. Kathputli Colony residents have yet to see the benefits of the policy, living in makeshift housing for the last two years while their homes are being rebuilt. However, the insistence of AAP Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal that landowning agencies in Delhi follow not only the letter of relocation law, but also the spirit, with instructions like those to not conduct any new evictions during the cold winter months has earned him the support of many Baprola residents, who expressed their commitment to vote for the AAP in April.

The contract for residence in a relocation colony flat lasts five years, at which point DUSIB is no longer accountable to fix any lingering problems in the colony. Many people in Baprola in their fourth year of residence in the colony, unsure whether they will be staying, will have to pay more money to continue living in the flats, or may even be relocated again.

Despite this uncertainty, the residents have made these units their own in ways big and small. One flat has a meticulously hand-crocheted orange and white banner above the door, adorned with small crocheted rosettes to welcome guests. Another has a Rajasthan Royals sign outside, declaring the household's allegiance to the popular cricket team. Some have turned their front windows into small shops, with strips of paan packets and other small goods for sale. Others have personalized their units with bright neon paint, covering the outside brick facades.

For now, Baprola is home.

(Editor's note: The women in this story prefer to be identified by their first names only.)

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