Northern Railways carried out a demolition drive in the Shakur Basti slum on the night of December 12th. More than 500 houses were demolished A child died in the process, which caused outrage in the city. The demolition has been condemned by politicians, civil society and even the Delhi High Court, as it has happened in the outset of winter and no rehabilitation has been provided.
What has been overlooked in this narrative is that this is not a one-time event, but just one among the many, which makes the lives of Shakur Basti slum dwellers very unstable and insecure. Most residents of the slum are migrants from Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh. In my visit there, I talked to a group of people affected by the demolition. Many of them had come as long as 25-30 years ago, and have been working as construction workers, domestic workers, cycle rickshaw drivers and street vendors. They have faced repeated demolitions. They have never been given any options of rehabilitation.
Kailas and Rampyari migrated 30 years ago and have worked as construction workers. Rampyari recalls that she has been working since the days when the daily wage was Rs 15 (now it is Rs 250). They have five children, who didn’t go to school because they did not have residence or identification proofs at that time. Their sons are now construction workers and live in nearby slum colonies.
Because of the outrage against the demolition, the slum dwellers have received some relief. They have received tarps to put on their broken houses and some blankets. The residents are not sure who gave it, but think it might be the Kejriwal government. The Delhi government has sent water tankers. Before the demolition the residents had to buy water. They spent up to Rs 100 a day on water, says Jasoda as she washes clothes outdoors. She works as a domestic servant, but she expects to lose her job as she hasn’t been able to go to work since the demolition.
Rama has a similar story. She has five children. Only the eldest son, went to school, that too only up till fifth standard. They faced repeated demolitions, the son stopped going to school because of the instability. The younger children could not be admitted into school; the school turned them back because they did not have birth certificates. The family does have a ration card though. They migrated 16 years ago from Teekamgar district, MP, because of drought.
Another domestic worker Jasoda said that they have lost a lot of their possessions in the demolition – like fans, TV, buckets, vessels, and even atta (wheat flour). Her husband Pappu is a rickshaw driver, who rides a rickshaw on rent. He does not want to buy one of his own, as he doesn’t have space to keep it securely.
People are now busy repairing and rebuilding their houses- but this is nothing new. A street vendor Ravinder (not real name) said that he has witnessed demolitions about 25 times. Just like his house, his source of livelihood – a street food stall – is also under constant threat. The police has repeatedly fined him. Every time he has to go to court and shell out some amount between Rs 100 and Rs 2000. His average daily earnings are around Rs 250. He has four kids and expressed the impossibility of supporting them with the meager income. He refused to give his real name or allow me to take a picture, as he was afraid of getting into trouble and the police seizing his cart. He is a migrant from Gorakhpur, UP, and he came about 30 years ago. He recalled that the space was lying empty back then, and they just claimed some of it to set up their juggi (slum house). All his four sons go to school.
Another migrant from Jhansi, UP is school educated and came to Delhi five years ago as a twenty year old. I asked whether he aspired to go to college in Delhi. But he said he never had any such hopes. He was forced to migrate because there was a drought in Jhansi. Both he and his wife work as contract construction labour for the railways. Their son plays in the dirt nearby as they work. Their daughter has been sent to the village, as there is nobody to take take care of her while they are at work. This year more of his relatives have arrived as it is a drought year. He says there is still space for people to set up juggis.
These stories show us that people are forced to migrate because of agrarian distress. But cities constantly keep them insecure. While one generation has lived and laboured under these hard and insecure conditions, the city has not given a better life to the next generation. They have not received an education and continue to face the same insecure conditions. Northern Railways conducted a similar demolition in Wazirpur last year, again at the onset of winter. The residents of that slum gathered to protest slum demolitions and express solidarity with the Shakur Basti residents. In either case, no arrangements have been made for re-settling the residents. The residents just constantly live under the threat of demolition. In the event of demolition, they suffer losses, and then repair and rebuild.