By Manira Chaudhary:
A big cloud of sand and cement dust is what greets me when I enter Shakur Basti where a demolition drive was carried out a week ago by the Railways.
Residents whose houses and belongings lie broken and strewn can be seen scampering to get in line to collect the boxes of railway food as they arrive on a small truck. A few others are queuing at the back door of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) control room to receive the promised ‘two blankets per family + 5kg flour, 3kg rice, and some vegetables’. Every couple of minutes, however, the door is shut and the security called in to control the crowd. Many residents claim that they have not received the material while the Department of Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) officials blame the residents for creating trouble by getting in line to receive the blankets more than once.
Monu, a resident of the basti, closes his box of lunch back after taking a bite. He does not look in the mood to eat any further even as others around him sit on their haunches and start eating.
Until the 19th, the responsibility of distributing cooked food thrice a day was with DDMA. A makeshift mess was set up next to the control room where fresh food was being cooked and distributed on time. Now, the railways officials, after receiving stern directives from the court, have made arrangements to distribute small boxes of prepared food which many refuse to eat as they find it cold, soggy and inedible. In fact, a couple of minutes after the first lot of boxes arrived, about 300-400 of them are hurriedly packed up and taken away as they were found fungus-infected. At the time of writing this, the boxes had been sent to a forensic lab for testing. A DDMA worker looked markedly miffed with the railways for hurrying away with the boxes before consulting anyone.
A day after the demolition and the dramatic midnight visit by the Chief Minister, the control room or Niyantran Kaksh was set up overnight by DUSIB as it swung into action along with the DDMA which took the responsibility of distributing relief material and maintaining law and order in the area. Tarpaulins were also distributed to the displaced families to provide them shelter from the biting December cold.
Media reports differ on the number of jhuggis which were demolished, but a DUSIB official has confirmed that over 1500 houses were razed down with an average of 4 people residing in each jhuggi. Confusion and conflict between the residents and the officials run high as many claim that about 150-200 jhuggis have arisen covertly overnight by outsiders to avail the benefits being given.
“In the past two decades that my family has lived here, we have seen such demolition drives being carried out twice every year by the Railways. The police harass us for days after the demolition and it takes us at least a month to build and settle back into our homes,” says Vivek, an 18-year-old who runs a small tea stall.
It is a natural instinct to wonder why the railways would carry out such drives so frequently, displacing a large number of families, more than half of which work on the railway platform as cement siders and then conveniently allowing them to settle back again. It almost comes across as an exercise undertaken every couple of months at leisure or maybe, at best, to reinforce their authority over the land.
But, if the DUSIB officials are to be believed, they were not consulted by the railways before the demolition took place. “Even though the land does belong to the railways, they shouldn’t have carried out demolition in this manner. We had no clue that something like this was about to happen. If we were consulted, we would have helped them come up with a proper scheme. And their way of informing people beforehand was also shoddy. Putting up small pamphlets sporadically in the area where 80% of the population is illiterate does not make sense,” says a senior DUSIB officer on condition of anonymity.
There’s a very evident gap in communication between the two departments as the DUSIB and DDMA officials seem mostly unaware and out-of-touch with the railways’ plan.
On the court’s orders, 12 survey teams are carrying out surveys for rehabilitation, an exercise which should ideally be carried out before demolition, which are due for submission in the court this week. To make sure they are included in the survey list of entitlement, all the families have re-erected their homes over rubbles of rock and cement, with the tarps distributed by DUSIB. They do not understand the combination of letters and numbers now adorning the top of their jhuggis by the survey teams and just want it all to be over soon so they can head back to work.
With shelter off their heads, the only validation that people have is their voter ID cards which they keep firmly secured, at times wrapped in plastic, in their shirt pockets. It is their token to everything. However, a stark irregularity can be seen in the cards of different residents. ID proofs which were renewed in 2013, have “Homeless” printed on them instead of their jhuggi numbers which were mentioned earlier. When the only proof of their existence has already declared them homeless, is there a possibility of them getting secure shelter over their heads which won’t be razed to the ground every couple of months?
Mohammad Alam, a 55-year-old laborer, seems amused, “We have never received such attention from media. Our homes have been demolished earlier too, but we had never seen any officer visiting us and doing anything about the situation. It is only because of Kejriwal sahab that so much is happening here this time.”
A subtle indifference has settled amongst the residents. They are slowly getting back to their regular work. A week-long hiatus has already cost them a lot from their limited savings. There are questions writ large on their faces as they wait for the court’s next directive but there’s an unspoken understanding that ultimately, they will remake their houses here only till the time of next demolition comes when the whole process will be repeated.
Living in Shakurbasti is a case of ruin, wrest and repeat for them.