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The ground beneath their feet: Housing rights and resettlement in Delhi

Kalyani Menon-Sen tells the story of resettlement of basti residents in Delhi, a story of grandiose rhetoric in policy documents and diminishing entitlements on the ground

resettlement in Delhi

Yamuna Pushta is history now. Of course the women who lived there still speak wistfully of the “old days”, although such bouts of nostalgia are more and more infrequent as they deal with the daily challenges of life in Bawana. For a handful of activists, journalists and researchers, the Pushta demolition signalled a new and more ruthless turn to Delhi's global ambitions. But for the average citizen, Pushta was just another eyesore that has now unaccountably disappeared.

Pushta was the last large-scale eviction in Delhi, recalling the days of the Emergency with Jagmohan as the presiding deity – 27,000 homes demolished, 150,000 people turned out onto the streets, more than 250 acres of land liberated from occupation and freed up for ‘development’ in just five days in April 2004.

A lot has changed since then. Jagmohan and the cover of impunity provided by the Emergency are gone. Sheila Dixit's government is unwilling to sully its pro-people image by mounting mega-demolitions in the presence of TV cameras and activists. The demolition of the Nagla Machi settlement in 2006 was carried out quickly and quietly, even as protesting activists were being assured that people's rights to life and livelihood would be protected. An estimated 200,000 people were forcibly evicted from their homes during 2009 and 2010 in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games, again in swift and silent operations affecting a few hundred families at a time. The courts have usually provided legal cover for these operations, allowing preliminaries like issuing notices and enumerating affected families to be short-circuited or dispensed with altogether.

Ironically, the Pushta families can consider themselves lucky on one count -- while all those who were evicted for the Commonwealth Games in the last two years have been left to fend for themselves, at least some of the 2004 Pushta evictees were resettled in Bawana. Granted, Bawana was a dreary wasteland on the outer fringes of the city. Granted, they had to fight to lay claim to postage-stamp-sized plots with no more infrastructure than four bamboo poles and a tattered piece of matting. Granted, they are significantly poorer today than they were in Pushta. But they can pride themselves on being among the tiny proportion of basti residents who have been recognised as genuineDilliwalas, with as much right to live and work in the capital as those with more distinguished addresses.

The story of resettlement in Delhi is a combination of grandiose rhetoric in policy documents and diminishing entitlements on the ground. From the perspective of the Pushta evictees – not to speak of the CWG victims -- the 1990 resettlement policy seems like a dream. The policy envisioned well-laid-out resettlement colonies with clusters of four to six houses around an open common courtyard. A pakka plinth of 18 sq metres with a kitchen slab and WC would be provided on which allottees would be free to construct their own house. Loans would cover the cost of a basic single-floored unit, and allottees had the option of building up the first floor using their own resources.  Eligible families – those who could prove residence in the basti on and before January 31, 1990 – had to pay a fee of Rs 3,000 and become members of a cooperative society, which would entitle them to become leaseholders of their own house. Primary schools, open spaces, children's parks, community centres and other common amenities were included in the overall design for the colonies.

This was the policy under which around 50,000 families were relocated from bastis in various parts of the city, to Bhalaswa, Holumbi Kalan, Dwarka, Molar Bandh and other resettlement colonies of the  1990s. Predictably, some of the frills fell off as the proposal moved off the paper and onto the ground. No more than three or four cooperatives were actually formed. The loans did not come through. The cost-sharing arrangements between the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) fell apart and the kitchen slabs and indoor toilets were dropped from the plans. The amount to be paid by the allottees went up from Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000.  Amenities on site were little more than toilet complexes and community water taps.

A High Court ruling in 1993 resulted in a further whittling down of the resettlement policy. Plot holders were to be given licenses rather than leases as originally envisaged. Allottees now had to make a deposit of Rs 5,000 along with a licence fee of Rs 2,000 which entitled them to occupy their plots for 10 years in the first instance. Licences were issued in the joint names of husband and wife, along with a photo identity card.

Even in its trimmed-down form this package, which applied to all evictions from 1992 until 2000, is substantively more generous that what was offered to Pushta evictees. A revision of the guidelines in 2000 extended the cut-off date to 1998, but limited the entitlement of those who cameafter 1990 to plots of 12.5 sq metres against a payment of Rs 7,000. Licences were issued for only five years, with no promise of renewal. Resettlement sites had bare plots rather than built-up plinths. The clusters and open courtyards were junked – plots were now lined up along both sides of narrow lanes. The DDA cited “constraints of resources” because of which “the services/facilities to be provided at the site have of necessity to be relatively rudimentary and further upgradation can at best be done gradually.” (1)   

Once again, the High Court intervened to undermine even this limited entitlement. A High Court order of 2002 (2) moved the cut-off date back to 1990 and decreed that squatters on public land could be summarily evicted without the need to provide alternatives.  Quashing the resettlement policy of the Delhi Government, the order expressed the pious hope that this would “help to make Delhi a more livable place and ease the problems of the residents of this city who undoubtedly suffer and are harassed as a consequence of this encroachment of public land.” 

Fortunately for residents of the estimated 1,000 settlements on public land, the Supreme Court partially stayed this order, allowing the resettlement policy to operate in a limited way, as in the case of the Pushta evictees.

Much of the blame for the mess around resettlement was laid at the door of the MCD and its Slum and JJ Department, set up in 1962 to implement the Slum Improvement and Clearance Act. This department was batted back and forth between the MCD and the DDA several times with hardly any impact on its levels of corruption and inefficiency. In July 2010, its functions were taken over by the newly-created Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), charged with the task of “improving the quality of life of slum and JJ dwellers”.

Judging from its website, the primary concern of the new Board seems to be to carry out “studies, seminars and meetings and conduct of fresh comprehensive socio-economic surveys” of slums in Delhi. The Board plans on drawing from “various approaches followed by other cities as well as international experience” to draw up a comprehensive strategy to address the problem.

While the Urban Shelter Board organises study trips to glean lessons from international best practices, what of the increasingly insecure residents of the 6 lakh bastis that can make legitimate claims to resettlement? 

The only hope these families have of ever finding a secure foothold in Delhi is the Rajiv Ratan Awas Yojana, announced in September 2007 on the eve of the Assembly elections by Sonia Gandhi who also laid the foundation stone for the first complex of flats in Bawana. Speaking at the function, the chief minister made the scheme sound like something from a private developer's glossy brochure (3). One lakh flats in four-storey blocks were to be constructed, consisting of two rooms, a bathroom and kitchen and with a floor area of 25 square metres. Half of the cost of Rs 2 lakh would be borne by the government, and loans would be arranged for the rest, repayable over 15 to 25 years. Licenses would be issued in the joint names of husband and wife for an initial period of 15 years. The flats would be earthquake-proof and the complex would have parks, schools, shops, community centres, round-the-clock water, electricity and public transport at the doorstep. 

The cut-off date for eligibility continued to be December 1998. In addition to a ration card or a voter card (which were earlier sufficient as proof of residence), applicants were now also required to  provide income certificates and a copy of the voter list bearing their names, as well as get enumerated in a proposed door-to-door biometric survey to be carried out over the next months.

Hundreds of families (including a few who already had plots in Bawana) rushed to put in their applications for the flats. The biometric survey was rolled out and some ID cards issued, but nothing more was heard for almost a year. In December 2008, the government invited applications for 9,800 houses constructed under the scheme. The cut-off date was now stated to be 2002. The announcement created much confusion as people who had applied in 2007 demanded to know whether their applications were valid and would be considered. Officials pleaded ignorance but asked people to apply again to make sure they were not left out. Again, no allotments were announced and there was silence for a year.

In January 2010, a number of reports in newspapers and on TV slammed the government for delaying the scheme and failing to allot the flats, which had been ready and lying vacant for two years. Speaking to the media, the housing minister admitted that very few people met all the eligibility criteria – those who had ration cards did not have voter cards or could not locate their names on the voter list; others who had all the required documents were not covered in the biometric survey; and still others were renters rather than owners of their dwellings.

In February 2010, the Delhi government again announced new guidelines. This time, the cut-off date for eligibility was moved to 2007 and the income limit was raised to Rs 1 lakh, more than doubling the number of potential allottees. It was specified that allotment of a flat could not be claimed as a matter of right. In an apparent attempt to control the numbers, it was decreed that those who were not present in their homes on the date of the survey would not be allowed to apply even if they met all the other eligibility criteria. 

Silence again for the next year, and no allotments. In March 2011, when the uproar around the Commonwealth Games died down and other issues came back to public attention, the Times of India reported that only 87 flats out of the 1,184 flats in Bawana had been allotted, and the complex was crumbling for want of maintenance. The resulting uproar in the Assembly (and a complaint to the Lokayukta) finally broke the torpor. In April 2011, the Delhi Government put out fresh advertisements, announcing that 15,000 flats would be distributed to eligible people from 32 locations. The terms of payment had changed – those residents who had been in their bastis before March 2002 would have to pay Rs 75,000 for a one-room flat, while those who had come between 2002 and 2007 would have to pay almost double the amount. Camps were held in various bastis to verify the documents of short-listed applicants. Around 1,300 applications were finally cleared for allotment.

Unfortunately, the Delhi Lokayukta put yet another spanner in the works by recommending action against the chief minister for using the Rajiv Ratan Awas Yojana as an electoral lollipop. The Delhi Government has challenged this order in court, and the case is grinding on. The allotments are frozen until the case is resolved, although there is no official acknowledgement of this situation. Instead, the government is trying to pacify eligible beneficiaries with ever more effusive promises. The latest is an announcement that they will be given ownership of their flats after the mandatory lease period of 15 years (4). There are also plans to tag the “real beneficiaries” through biometrics and Aadhar cards, which will be re-verified every year to make sure that the rightful owners have not been displaced.
 
Meanwhile, the 87 families who were lucky enough to be relocated from Sarojini Nagar, Netaji Nagar and Gole Dakkhana to the flats in the Bawana complex are now desperate to escape (5).  They are disgusted with the isolation, lack of amenities and poor connectivity to the city.  The nearest school and hospital are 3 km away. The government primary school refuses to enrol their children in the middle of the year. Some children have dropped out, some leave home at 5 am to attend schools in Delhi. There are no jobs for women in the Bawana Industrial Estate. Commuting is expensive so men who have jobs in the city come home to their families only on weekends. Women are finding it difficult to climb up and down the stairs. Water is supplied for only 30 minutes a day. The construction is of poor quality -- walls are peeling, roofs are leaking and there is no one to attend to complaints. 

Ironically enough, these families find themselves in the same situation as their predecessors in Bawana, the Pushta oustees who were swept into near-invisibility seven years ago. The economic and social consequences of the Pushta relocation have been disastrous, and have been extensively documented (6). It is difficult to believe that the CM is unaware of these histories. It is equally difficult to understand why she and her government are bent on replicating these outrageous violations.

Shiela Dixit has so far had a charmed innings as the chief minister, but her teflon coating is showing some cracks.  The lokayukta order was followed by a sharp rap on the knuckles from the Supreme Court for the continued failure of her government to provide shelter to the homeless in the bitter Delhi winter. The latest blow is the CAG's refusal to accept her explanations for the financial shenanigans around the Commonwealth Games.

The upcoming municipal elections will be crucial for the Congress and for the CM personally. Predictably, she is now making a determined effort to win back the support of her old votebank in the bastis.  Undeterred by the lokayukta's scrutiny, she has announced a series of lollipops for the poor. In September 2011 she announced that flats would be given “nearly free” to SC/ST applicants who fulfilled the eligibility criteria (7). In November, this was broadened to cover all families below the poverty line (8). There is some talk of an employment scheme for youth in resettlement colonies. A Group of Ministers has been constituted to look into the problems of unauthorised colonies and resettlement colonies, where only 14% of allotted funds have been spent. The CM has even declared that she is approaching the Planning Commission to revise the poverty line for Delhi and make it “more inclusive” (9). 

Come April and the municipal elections, we will see if the people who voted Sheila Dixit into power three times are willing to give her one more chance. But will the frustrated beneficiaries and would-be beneficiaries of the Rajiv Ratan Awas Yojana be among those lining up at the booths? Will anyone notice if they don't? 

Endnotes

1)  Delhi Urban Shelter Imporvement Board. “Relocation policy since 1990-91 to 19/02.2010” <http://delhishelter.nic.in/Policies/Relocation_Policy_since_1990-91_till_19.02.2010.pdf>
2)  CWP 4441/1994 Okhla factory Owners' Association versus GNCTD and others and Wazirpur Bartan Nirmata Sangh
3)  See for instance news report at <http://www.projectsmonitor.com/detailnews.asp?newsid=14561>
4)  Economic Times,  January 16, 2012. ‘Delhi slum-dwellers to get ownership rights of flats’.
5)  See for instance Times of India, March 7, 2011 ‘Dream home a far cry, new flats barely liveable’. Ambika Pandit TNN 
6)  See for instance ‘Swept Off the Map: Surviving Evictions and Resettlement in Delhi’. Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan. Yoda Press. 2009
7)  Indian Express, New Delhi, September 20, 2011. ‘SC/ST slum-dwellers to get flats nearly free of cost’
8)  India Today,  November 14, 2011. ‘2012 MCD elections: Delhi government stirs poll pot with sops for BPL families’
9)  India Today, November 14, 2011

(Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist activist and writer based in Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, January 2012