The Yamuna Gently Weeps
November, 2006

Ruzbeh Bharucha's book and documentary film, Yamuna Gently Weeps, on Delhi's Yamuna Pushta slum demolition, is the story of faulty urban planning.

Never once when Ruzbeh Bharucha visited Yamuna Pushta, one of the biggest and oldest slums in Delhi that offered shelter to 150,000 people, mostly migrants, did he feel it was a slum. “I always thought of it as a township and a community of its own,” he says. It came as a rude shock therefore to one day find bulldozers crunching the houses to dust and the residents being forced to leave with whatever little they could salvage from their homes. “My first reaction was to document this bizarre incident on film,” he recalls. Then as his interaction with the evicted and those responsible for the eviction increased, he began writing his book Yamuna Gently Weeps, and working on a documentary film that has since been screened at various international film festivals.

“The main issue is not just the demolitions,” says Ruzbeh, who is a journalist and author of a book on mothers and children in Indian prisons. “The point of concern is: Why do we allow a situation to arise where mass-scale and ruthless demolitions have to be resorted to? Why do we force those who are instrumental in building the very foundations of the city, and who work and toil for our comfort and pleasure, to live in the most abysmal conditions? And when it takes our fancy, demolish their humble homes and their very future.”

The book is a vivid and graphic account of the plight of the Yamuna Pushta slum-dwellers whose lives have been turned upside down. The demolition order was served by the Supreme Court that said: “Poverty could not be an excuse for living in slums.” And that “nobody forced you (the slum-dwellers) to come to Delhi… if you are occupying public land, you have no right to stay there a minute longer.”

The reason given for the demolition was that the residents of Yamuna Pushta were polluting the river Yamuna. However, a study has proved that less than 1% of the river’s pollution comes from the slum-dwellers; the rest emanates from the 16-odd drains in Delhi that vomit their waste into the river.

Essentially, the story is one of faulty urban planning that allows slums to come up and then finds ways to remove them. Ruzbeh says: “Apart from the wretched stance on rural development, or the lack of it, the growth and prevalence of slums in most developing countries is due to non-implementation of the master plan. Every such plan has provisions for housing economically weaker sections, mostly comprising the labour force. The problem is that it just doesn’t suit the authorities to implement these provisions.”

Forthright and without beating around the bush, Ruzbeh makes it clear in his book and film that situations like this arise only because of the vested interests of politicians. “Yamuna Pushta did not come up in a flash. It existed in the heart of the capital of India for decades. It existed because of political patronage. It existed because it suited politicians. If you feel the city cannot take in any more, enforce the law then and there. Why did 40,000 homes come up? What was the law doing till then,” he asks.

What takes Ruzbeh’s work several notches higher than mere description of an event is that he lays out the suffering and trauma of the slum-dwellers. There are poignant interviews with people like Pagal Baba who built a temple without any recourse to funds, or Shakeel, an artist, whose livelihood was put at stake, or a single mother who does not know where to go. The book and the film also highlight the work of Navjyoti, a street school concept initiated by IPS officer Dr Kiran Bedi in 1997. Children, mostly working as rag-pickers or doing odd jobs to earn a living, were given the opportunity to go through basic schooling thanks to such schools. This opportunity has now been lost. As Ruzbeh puts it: “No mother wants to bring her child up in a slum. Families live in slums not out of choice but because it is a matter of survival. Demolishing the homes of the poor is not the answer.” 

Huned Contractor
(Huned Contractor is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Pune)

Copyright 2010 Ruzbeh N. Bharucha.