Bulldozing lives alongside a listless river
Michael Higgins, March 25, 2008

One of the oldest and largest slums in India, the Yamuna Pushta settlement in Delhi, was home to nearly 4000 families, housing more than 1,50,000 people. Ruzbeh N Bharucha's book takes the reader into the lives of those poor families, whose past, present and future, were brutally demolished when the settlement was razed to ground in 2004.Michael Higgins* reviews the book.

Located on a three km stretch along the Yamuna River in Delhi, the Yamuna Pushta slum was one of the largest slums in India. Some 40,000 homes provided shelter for over 150,000 people. Over the course of 40 years, Yamuna Pushta had developed into a thriving community. Schools, crèches, healthcare centres, shops, restaurants and business enterprises sprang up and social organisations worked closely with the local community to bring about improvements in the lives of the residents.

In 2004, in a matter of weeks, this flourishing settlement was razed to the ground. Those who weren't thrown on to the street were forced to relocate 40 km away from the city to a barren plot of land, which lacked even the most basic amenities.

Yamuna Gently Weeps tells the heartrending story of the poor families who lost not just their homes, but their past, present and future, with the callous demolition at Yamuna Pushta. Author, journalist and film-maker, Ruzbeh N. Bharucha was present throughout the demolition process. Shocked to witness such a clear demonstration of the heartlessness of those in power, Bharucha determined to produce a film and accompanying photo-book to "highlight the pain, the agony, the helplessness and the courage of the poor as well as the total lack of respect and profound apathy with which the authorities treat the poor and the helpless of our country".

In the most evocative of manners, through candid interviews with slum dwellers, politicians, town-planners and activists, as well as 200 superbly taken photographs, the author allows us a posthumous glimpse of how the residents of Yamuna Pushta lived, how they reacted to the demolition of the slum and how they now struggle to overcome the devastating effects of its loss.

The work begins with an impassioned introduction by the author. It soon becomes apparent that Bharucha has a heart for the less fortunate. His writing style is edgy, polemical and intensely compelling. The introductory text is complemented by a striking set of contrasting images. One picture, taken prior to the demolition, depicts a bustling, if dilapidated, neighbourhood. The other, taken subsequent to the demolition, portrays an utterly desolate wasteland, reminiscent of Dresden after fire-bombing or Hiroshima in the wake of the atomic bomb.

The book is broadly divided into sections. The first section chiefly consists of interviews with the residents themselves accompanied by pictures from daily life in Yamuna Pushta. The residents talk about their lives in the slums and their fears for the future. One particularly harrowing account is that of Shakir and his family. Shakir was a working man, with four young children going to school. His father was Yamuna Pushta's oldest resident. Beneath the distressing sight of an elderly man sobbing inconsolably, Bharucha tells us that "Shakir's old father was so overwhelmed by the thought of being uprooted from his home – a place he had spent more than three decades and seen his sons and daughters and his grandchildren thrive – that for a long time, he was incapable of speaking. He wept like a child". We are informed that he died just a few months after the demolitions. To make matters worse, we learn that Shakir will no longer be able to afford to educate his children.

Bleak wasteland
This section also takes a look at the vain efforts of those residents 'lucky' enough to be placed in 'resettlement colonies', such as Holambi Kalan and Bawana, to put their lives back together. The author tells the story, or rather lets the residents tell their own story, of what their lives used to be like, of the place and role they had in their community in Yamuna Pushta and how the transition has transformed their lives, invariably for the worse. A common story emerges of a bleak and inhospitable wasteland devoid of schools, hospitals, childcare facilities, adequate sanitation or security, and worst of all in the eyes of the residents, miles away from their livelihoods. The dire situation of the slum-dwellers of Yamuna Pushta is further compounded by the use of Begging Laws to criminalise residents who suddenly find themselves with no home.

The second part of the work primarily consists of interviews with renowned experts, politician, environmentalists, social activists, academics and planners, who provide unique and informative perspectives.

Duplicity and intrigue
The questions posed by the author are incisive, do not pull any punches and make for uncomfortable fielding from some of the interviewees, especially those who were keen to support the demolition. This lends the work a very immediate and engaging quality. To be fair to the respondents, even those who face an interrogative grilling provide interesting analyses and perspectives on the destruction of the slums. Even respondents towards whom the author might be assumed to be hostile are given ample opportunity to express their views. Through these interviews a complex story of intense political manoeuvring, duplicity and intrigue emerges. It also becomes apparent that the residents were neglected in their hour of need by the political establishment. Subjects of outright hostility by the BJP and abandonment by the Congress, the residents were left to their own fate.

During his interview, Jagmohan, chief architect of the demolitions, constantly stresses the importance of discipline and vision. In searching for an example of bad planning he refers to a middle-class family's experience in Defence Colony. This shows where his concerns lie. There is no space in his heart for the forsaken residents of Yamuna Pushta. He callously discounts the traumatic impact of their enforced departure. As if it was easy to be wrenched from one life and turfed into another.

The attitude of the Judiciary also comes in for much warranted criticism. Despite much deserved praise for their approach in regard to other fields such as the right to food, in this instance they showed themselves to be completely oblivious to the effect of their judgments on the plight of slum-dwellers. No attempts were made to ensure that rehabilitation measures were in place to provide for the transition. The relevance of the Yamuna Pushta example for today is clear from the fact that the same attitude is now being displayed towards an admittedly more affluent group, the traders, although it must be noted that neither the BJP nor Congress were falling over themselves to seek a halt to the demolitions or compensation for the residents of Yamuna Pushta.

They can portray themselves as simply implementing the law, but why is it always the poor that have to make the sacrifices for corrupt or inadequate planning? It is all too easy for the court and administrators to frame the debate as an encroachment issue and not as an issue concerning the violation of the fundamental rights of residents. The poor seem to be the only ones expected to show discipline. No one is denying that Delhi is undergoing a planning crisis but the completely heartless approach taken by the court, which involved the removal of some residents of 40 years to a distant, barren area with limited amenities, services and livelihood prospects, and the eviction of the other 80 per cent of persons, directly on to the street, is surely an inadequate solution. Jagmohan and the Courts try to wash their hands by proclaiming that they are merely implementing the law. But as Bharucha points out, the law seems to be implemented on a very selective basis. One of the principal arguments for the destruction of the Yamuna slums was that they were responsible for polluting the river. However, experts such as Amita Baviskar attest in the book that the slums were responsible for less than one percent of total pollution. In contrast to the rigour shown in applying the law to Yamuna Pushta, in the case of other developments, such as the Secretariat, the Metro and the Akshardham Temple, there was no urgency shown to enforce compliance with planning standards. The Master Plan is assumed to be sacred only as and when it suits the whims of the land lobby and those in power.

The dire situation of the slum-dwellers of Yamuna Pushta is further compounded by the use of Begging Laws to criminalise residents who suddenly find themselves with no home.

The work is interspersed with striking imagery. The design of the work and the strength of the images attest to the author's talents as a film-maker. The pictures are evocative of the life of the slums, vibrant in colour and brilliantly capture the mood, scene and atmosphere. The work is, after all, a photo-book to accompany the film of the same name and it is the melting of the visual images with forceful text that really sets this book apart. The shots of the demolition are particularly moving. It seems that one is almost present at the demolitions.

This work is noteworthy in that it gives a face and voice to a marginalised people who might otherwise have been neglected. Yamuna Gently Weeps finally allows the residents the opportunity to speak, something which was not afforded to them by the mainstream media, which instead imposed a complete black out of coverage on the demolition of the slums.

Out of sight out of mind
With all the talk of India Shining it suits certain interests to look away from the darker aspects of India's development path. The utter neglect of rural development and agrarian reforms and the complete disregard shown for the concerns of the rural poor has led to the destruction of communities and cultures besides a massive influx of migrants to the cities. Although providing the necessary backbone of the economy, being reminded of how these migrants to cities like Delhi.

The reviewer has done LLM, International Peace Support Operations, Irish Centre for Human Rights, Galway, Ireland.

Copyright © 2014 Ruzbeh N. Bharucha.