On 30 October, a large force of police officers, members of the paramilitary Rapid Action Force, and Delhi Development Authority officials supervised the demolition of nearly 400 houses in Delhi’s Kathputli Colony. Situated in west Delhi’s Shadipur Depot area, the Kathputli Colony is a slum cluster comprising over 3,000 families. The area has been home to a large populous of artists and artisans for over 40 years. “We are not against the redevelopment of the colony because at this point it’s an eventuality,” Ali Zia Kabir Choudhary, the advocate representing the residents of the colony in an ongoing case in the Delhi High Court, told me. “We are against the haphazard process being followed by the DDA.”
When I visited the colony on 2 November, Haribhau, a 70-year-old resident of the colony, and his daughter Bhumika, were seated among the debris of the demolished homes. Haribhau, a rickshaw puller and a member of the Marathi Samaj—a group of Marathi speakers in the colony—told me that he had been living in the colony for 45 years now. “Of course we want a nicer house, but where is the guarantee,” he said. Bhumika, too, spoke of the concerns that the demolition of the colony raised for its residents. “People cannot honestly tell you that we were living under great circumstances here,” she said. “There was a lack of sanitation facilities. Life in this colony was not what some would have you believe.” She continued, “The problem is that nobody here knows what to think anymore. Politicians, NGOs, the DDA and the builders have all come here and divided people to the point that there is absolutely no unanimity about what the residents of the colony want.”
The demolition was conducted in furtherance of DDA’s Delhi Master Plan 2021, which proposes in-situ rehabilitation of slum areas. In October 2009, the real estate group Raheja Developers was awarded the contract for the redevelopment of the colony. As per the DDA’s rehabilitation policy, the DDA housing commissioner JP Agarwal told me, individuals residing in the area before 31 December 2014 were eligible for in-situ rehabilitation, and those who lived in the colony between January and December 2015 would be allotted alternative housing. However, the resident’s counsel Choudhary told me that this does not appear to have been strictly followed, and that there was little clarity on the procedure adopted by the DDA.
In the last week of October, the DDA put up three lists on its website—one, of 2,800 residents found eligible for in-situ rehabilitation at Kathputli, who were allotted temporary housing at a transit camp five kilometres from the colony, in Anand Parbat; a second, of 492 residents who have been allotted permanent housing in Narela, an industrial area 30 kilometres away; and a final list, of 771 residents who were found ineligible for any alternative allotment. The lists also state the date of the documents that the residents provided as address proof. Based on these dates, there appeared to be an inconsistency with the policy described by Agarwal because several residents, who appeared to have provided documents that were dated before December 2014, were allotted housing in Narela, or included in the list of ineligible applicants. Agarwal told me that these applicants were not included in the in-situ rehabilitation list because it already contained the names of their family members.
During my visit to Kathputli, it soon became evident that Bhumika had accurately described the atmosphere in the colony—the residents were divided on the question of the redevelopment. Most residents seemed to belong to different factions that were loyal to different opinion leaders within the community, and several were critical of NGOs that had been involved in the attempt to halt the project. Numerous residents also claimed that, despite having the necessary documents, they were excluded from both the in-situ rehabilitation list, and the Narela list. “Many people who had documents that proved they lived here before 2011, have still been given flats in Narela, and many others have submitted documents but been told that they have no claim to anything,” Bhumika told me. She asked, “Would you be able to trust an organisation that was doing this?”
On 31 October, the Delhi High Court ordered a ten-day stay on the demolition in the colony, to enable residents who have been found eligible to voluntarily shift to the relocated sites, and to enable those who have been found ineligible to file their appeals. The case is listed for its next hearing on 16 November. Choudhary told me that the DDA had refused to provide any information to the residents about the procedure that they have followed for the relocation, and that it was yet to make a formal submission in court as well. “Residents are unaware to this day about what is being done,” He said. “Several residents have their names on multiple lists, while others don’t appear in any lists.”
Even among those who had been allotted alternative housing in Anand Parbat or Narela, there were divided opinions about the demolitions. As I found my way down one of many heaps of debris that now characterised Kathputli, I met Mohammed Asgar, a 60-year-old resident of the colony, who had broken his arm while searching through a pile of rubble that, a few days earlier, was his home. “We are gathering our things and we intend on going to Anand Parbat by the end of the day,” he said, in a defeated manner. Asgar had been a resident of the colony for 22 years, and was married. He and his wife have six children. Seated beside him were his eldest daughter Shaheen, a domestic worker, and his son Shehzad, who drives an e-rickshaw. I asked them whether they were hopeful about being allotted a house here once the reconstruction took place. Shehzad said, “All we know is that there is no point in thinking about that now.”
On the other hand, there were those that appeared more optimistic about the rehabilitation. Vinod Bhat, who had been a resident of the colony for 32 years, was commonly referred to by the residents of the colony as “the DDA’s man.” “For anyone to know what the future of the colony will be, we have to stop staying here, and accept the process,” Bhat told me. He added, “There is no point in being stubborn about moving from the colony when 80 percent of the houses are demolished.” According to Bhat, “the romanticization of the colony as an area for artists did not make sense.” He said that people who took objection to the redevelopment of the area into high rise buildings had been “manipulated by NGOs whose careers depend on us continuing to live in poverty.”
Several residents of the colony appeared to harbour distrust towards the NGOs and civil society that had approached them in wake of the demolition. Shaheen told me that “everyone who comes here pretending to help us is only interested in speaking to the artists in the colony.” She added, “The groups that are close to the DDA are members of the Bhat Samaj”—the community of artists. “Even the groups close to the NGOs, which are supposedly here to help us, are a part of the Bhat Samaj.”
When I had started speaking to Haribhau and his daughter Bhumika, she had interrupted me, and asked, “Are you a DU student?” She continued, “Are you also here to take pictures and use us for a project and then never come back? Are you here to make fools of us?” A group of women who had gathered outside a DDA office near the colony, holding placards, were similarly suspicious and refused to let me take any photos. “We do not want to talk to anymore of you NGO representatives, we have done a lot of that,” one of the women said, and politely requested me to leave.
Bhumika told me that the lack of clarity about the rehabilitation policy among the residents had contributed to the prevailing tension in the colony. As a result, she added, the residents have mostly been spectators in a series of inconveniences that they have had to endure since 2009. “Truth be told, many members of the Marathi Samaj that used to live here began to save money and go live as rent payers in other areas,” Bhumika continued. “That is probably the most sensible thing to do.” Both Bhumika and Haribhau said that they did not want to go to the transit camp in Anand Parbat yet. “Since the more recent demolition we have heard that there has been a lot of overcrowding there, we would rather live in a tent here,” Haribhau said. Several residents at the transit camp confirmed Haribhau’s fears—many said that the families that had moved to the camps after the demolitions were being made to stay in cramped and small spaces, with nearly eight people to a room.
I visited the transit camp at Anand Parbat—as the residents had described, it was visibly more crowded than the colony. The first person I met was Noushad Begum, a 42-year-old woman, who said that she had been staying in the camp without having been allotted a temporary house. “The people from the DDA have excluded me from the list because they said that my voter ID card was not recognised,” she said. Shyamlal Hattagade and his wife Shanti, too, told me that they were not being allotted the alternate housing as per cut-off dates of their rehabilitation policy. Shyamlal took me to the shanty where they were staying, and showed me a receipt from the DDA, which listed the documents he had submitted as his proof of residence. These included his voter ID card, which is also the document mentioned in the DDA’s list of residents to be shifted to Narela. However, the list notes that Shyamlal's document is dated “15.07.2010,” which would fall within the cut-off date for in-situ rehabilitation. “I have the pertinent documents, but I am being told that I will be moved to Narela from here in the next few days,” he said.
Arjun Manik, another resident of the transit camp and a member of the Marathi Samaj, who has been living at the camp since 2012, told me that the days following the demolition had been terrible. According to him, people who had moved to the camp earlier were feeling left out of the conversation on Kathputli’s redevelopment. I asked him whether his house in the transit camp was an improvement from that in the colony. “No, not really,” he said. “But maybe now that the others are coming here, we may actually get the houses we were promised a while back.”