How Many Demolitions Does it Take to Break a Basti’s Spirit?

But the succession of disasters does not disconcert the people of Shakur Basti—not as much as their daily struggles. Atul Dev
30 December, 2015

Like most of the people now living in tarpaulin-covered shanties around the Shakur Basti railway station in west Delhi, Tinna Khan came from Bihar. “Around 1990,” he told me on the evening of 18 December 2015, sitting on a tattered piece of gunny sack in his tea shop. The space, in the dim light of a dangling bulb, looked out of order: dented or broken utensils strewn about; a cot in the corner, bent out of shape; a pile of biscuits and cream rolls heaped around the stove. Khan’s shop, which is also his home, was flattened during a demolition drive the previous week. On 12 December, the Indian Railways razed more than 1000 such shanties—homes to thousands—lining a three kilometre stretch of the tracks.

The Indian Railway intended to clear the safety zone—a government-defined length of space on either side of the track, in Delhi 15 metres—which almost every house in Shakur Basti violates. There were notices pasted around the area the previous day by Railway authorities, warning people about the demolition, but no one took it seriously. People living here have seen enough notices and demolitions and know that the peak of winter is an unlikely time for such a drive. Khan was still making tea when the police and the excavators reached the cluster. His shop is at the very front of Shakur Basti, so he was one of the first to notice when “four JCBs”—excavating machines—“and hundreds of policemen came with lathis.” He quickly “picked everything [I] could and went out, things related to the shop were the most important and the priority, but there wasn’t enough time—so the charpoy broke, and some utensils too.”

Others had less time, and so their losses were greater. Some lost their identity cards, some their clothes, some their savings—never more than a few hundred. A seven-month-old girl was allegedly smothered by a pile of clothes that fell on her. The demolition was even raised in the parliament, and the Congress party’sAjay Maken filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court to ensure the rehabilitation of slum-dwellers. Like the residents of Shakur Basti, the court was appalled at the timing of the demolition: “What was the tearing hurry to demolish in December?” the bench asked the counsel of the Railways, and ordered the involved parties to “ensure that relief and rehabilitation are given to persons who lost their homes.”

On the day of my visit, most of the homes in the basti were already back up, at the very same place where they were demolished. Inside the slum, in their homes, people were cooking in newly and neatly rearranged corners. In the open spaces, bonfires were burning amidst casual conversation. Children ran about, and when a train passed by, they waved. The slum had sprung right back up within seven days of being razed to the ground—just like it had done dozens of times in the past two decades. What builds its spirit?

Shakur Basti railway station is the bloodline of a city abscessing with construction projects all over: a shopping centre; a metro bridge; those apartment buildings; and so on. It all begins with cement, sacks of which pile up on the station’s platform every day. “Binani, Birla, Chetak, ACC, Jaypee—all of them, tons of cement here every day,” said Siyaram Yadav. He came to Delhi from Bihar in 1983—“one year before Indira died”—and has been living in Shakur Basti since. The railway staff unloads these sacks from the coaches of the goods-trains and leaves them on the platform. Yadav’s job, like that of almost every man in the basti, is to lift the cement sacks from the platform, and load them into the trucks that stand outside, which then deliver the cement to the various construction sites. It takes about 50 steps to reach the truck, with a bag weighing 50 kilograms on one’s back, then a few more careful steps up the elevated wooden plank, leading to the bed of the truck, to drop off the sack and go back to the platform, for the next round. The process may occasionally be reversed, but the money stays the same: two rupees for every round.

Siyaram has been hauling cement in Shakur Basti since he moved there. “There weren’t as many people here back then, but there were some, and one of them was from my village”—Khagaria. Along with 36 other districts in Bihar, Khagaria was among the 250 most backward districts named by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj in 2006, and not much have changed since then. It is also surrounded by seven rivers, among them Ganga and Koshi; “it was often flooded, farming is not a viable option to earn a living.” There is no industry, either. An inordinate number of people I spoke to in Shakur Basti were from Khagaria. “Once I was here, I told others back in the village,” Siyaram told me, “I said, ‘there isn’t much here, but it is better than Bihar.’” Siyaram’s wife is still in Khagaria, along with his parents; his two sons—14 and 16—came to Shakur Basti a few years ago. “They are also lugging cement,” he told me. Having seen it happen dozens of times, he doesn’t think much of the demolition: “There wasn’t a lot that we had in the first place, after the demolition we put the shack up again—the tarpaulin is new, the Aam Aadmi Party people gave it to us.”

Pramod Yadav came to Shakur Basti in the mid-nineties from Saharsa, a village not too far from Khagaria, but on the other side of Koshi river. There too, flooding is an annual fare. “Thousands of people in Shakur Basti are actually from areas siding the Koshi river in Bihar,” he told me, and it seemed to be true. Almost all of the people in the basti now have voter cards, given to them by the election commission, with a shanty in Shakur Basti as the address proof. And while the view around the basti has changed almost completely, their villages, they say, remained as they were. “There is no job, nothing to do,” said Pramod, “and the only time I heard about a factory coming up in Saharsa was in 1982-83.” There was excitement in the village, Pramod recalled. There was talk of employing 15,000 people in three different shifts because the machines were going to be running all the time. But none of that happened. “Only the small machines came there, the bigger, more important ones were stuck somewhere on some port, we were told,” Ravi Yadav, a friend of Pramod’s, who is also from Saharsa, told me. The Sanjay Paper Mills building still stands in their town, they told me, with some small machines rusting behind locked doors.

Pramod and Ravi were at the railway station on the day of the demolition. They rushed towards their shed and rescued some essentials. Ravi and Pramod, too, didn’t believe the notice. “Winter is an unlikely time for demolition,” Ravi told me. They were able to save their documents, but a suitcase broke. “The only one I had,” Pramod said, “You know how much a new one costs?” On the day I met him, he had earned 60 rupees; the only work he had found was with a team of five that loaded 100 sacks “very quickly” in a truck for 300 rupees. The truck he had loaded went to Chattarpur.

When you talk to people for more than a few minutes in the basti, the conversation devolves around paltry payments and persistent back problems. After lugging cement for 15 years, Khan couldn’t work any longer, and decided to open the tea shop. Neither could Mohammad Noorana, or Rabinder Yadav. Noorana came to Shakur Basti about ten years previously, from Bhagalpur, and hauled cement for a few years. When his back gave out, he started driving a truck, because he knew “the right kind of people.” “Not many people can do this. Once the back gives up, they go back to Bihar and send their kids here,” he told me.

Roughly four hundred trucks, by Noorana’s estimate, leave Shakur Basti everyday. Loaded with cement, fuelling the city’s vertical drive; they go everywhere: “Gurgaon, Dwarka, Bawana, Narela, Badarpur, Noida,” and so on. Months ago, a realtor had told me in Bawana that there is money to be scraped out of every single step in construction. Cement loading, according to Noorana, is the contractor’s portion. A few of the men also complained to me about truck drivers themselves trying to save pennies in the process. But mainly, as Noorana pointed out, the problem is that “when labour is as abundantly available as it is here in Shakur Basti, the workers themselves keep the prices competitively low to find work.”

Back at Khan’s tea shop, I sat surrounded by men who had all come back after a day’s work. They, like others before them, spoke of the annual floods in their villages around Koshi, when I asked about Bihar. They then talked about Delhi and they talked about the demolitions. But that succession of disasters does not disconcert them—not as much as their daily struggles anyway. Of the five or six men that I spoke to, none had earned more than 400 rupees that day. One of them, Vilas Sharma, was born in Shakur Basti “in 1985,” he guessed. His father went back to Bihar a few years ago. I asked him about the demolition. “First they demolish, then they give tarpaulins to build them back,” he said. “Earlier it used to be the Congress or the BJP, now it is Kejriwal. All of us sitting here will vote, and they know that. They will not send us back to our villages just like that.” “Is it because they want your support to win the elections?” I asked. “And also because someone needs to put all that cement in those trucks,” he said.