You Can't Bank By This River
November 20, 2006


Gods or foreign athletes can occupy Yamuna Pushta, but the poor? They just don't make the cut.

India is changing. By 2050, over half of Indians will live in cities. Of these, nearly 350-400 million will live in slums. Relentless urbanisation and a booming economy mean that housing the poor in our new megacities is one of India's most critical developmental and human challenges. Our response so far has been less than heartening. The right to live and belong to the city, whether as a poor rural migrant or a trader seeking commercial space to join our much-touted economic boom, seems to belong to a privileged few. Even these few are chosen by criteria, laws and planning procedures that remain, at best, ineffective and opaque and, at worst, violent and discriminatory.

In 2004, the homes of nearly 40,000 families in Yamuna Pushta, a string of slum colonies on the banks of the river behind Old Delhi, were demolished with little or no notice. A settlement of 1,50,000 people that had existed, in some parts, for nearly 40 years, was labelled an "encroachment" by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the settlement violated the DDA Master Plan. The river bed, they said, was not meant for construction and habitation. Yet this same river bed apparently is a perfect site for a mammoth temple built, yet again, in violation of the Master Plan, as will be the games village and new hotels for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and, in the greatest of ironies, the Delhi secretariat. God and foreign athletes apparently have a (highly subsidised) place to live in Delhi, but the urban poor simply don't make the cut.

Where do evicted slum-dwellers go? Most vanish into other parts of the city, never sure if the roof over their heads will once again be taken away. Some Pushta residents have been settled in Bawana, where each family of five or more received between 12 and 18 square metres of land—that's about 12 ft x 12 ft per person! Going to Delhi is a four-hour, fifty-rupee, three-bus affair, and most people who still work in the city return home only once a week, if that. Most Delhi residents won't be able to find Bawana on the map of the city. From the bustling economy of the old city, these communities now find themselves in an abandoned industrial estate, 50 km from South Delhi. Rickshaw-pullers have no work, neither do the women who once took in craftwork or worked as domestic help. Yet the government claims that these families have been "rehabilitated".

It is this grim and stark reality that Ruzbeh Bharucha so movingly captures. Released along with a film of the same name, the book is a visual and analytical journey through the process of displacement. At its centre are the real stories that find no place in mainstream media—the recently widowed grandmother haplessly staring at her possessions on the street corner; young adults born and bred in the slum futilely struggling for a place in the city; entire families thrown out of their homes with nowhere to go. The evidence is powerful and Bharucha does well to use different ways of expressing it—individual life stories ensure that the reader never forgets that these are real people and fellow Delhizens and photographs unflinchingly show scene after scene of devastation that makes any kind of denial near-impossible. Yet the strength of Bharucha's work is also that he supplements that story of displacement with excellent analysis by many who have been intimately involved in the struggle. The latter section of the book has interviews with activists, planners, sociologists and lawyers that answer many of the questions the first half of the book raises.

What shocks Bharucha is how little people in Delhi know about the scale and realities of the demolitions and this is what motivated him to write. He has told his story well. This is a must-read for any citizen and an opportunity to see how apparently unrelated issues are so closely related, be they traders whose shops have been deemed illegal by the DDA, or poor families looking for a plot of land to call their own. In the end, the question is the same: who is deciding how we shape and imagine this city? Who should be? Perhaps if we ask these questions now, we will live in a city that does not punish its citizens, but instead judges itself by their dignity, no matter their wealth or station.

Gautam Bhan

Copyright 2014 Ruzbeh N. Bharucha.