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

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

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.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: slum railways shakur basti Ajay Maken