Some of them have woven magic with their art form, enthralling audiences in stories of princesses and warriors in faraway lands, told by wooden puppets on strings. Others fascinated us all with their sleight of hand and the many tricks they had up their sleeves. Some left us enchanted with their melodies and their rhythms. Today, they all stand unprotected against the onslaught of the powerful.
Kathputli colony was a neighbourhood like no other. Occupied by traditional puppeteers, magicians and musicians, this was the largest conglomerate of India’s artists. It exists no more. On October 30, 2017, 400 homes in this colony were razed to the ground in a span of a few hours – the neighbourhood swarming with policemen and officials of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
In 2009, a redevelopment project was announced at this site, leading to a protracted struggle. This disputed project – a private-public partnership between DDA and Raheja Developers –finally overcame all protest, and no time was lost in the hasty eviction of the residents of Kathputli colony.
Some residents recalled an announcement being made on October 25, five days prior to the day Kathputli colony was flattened to the ground. People, half confused by what was happening, hurriedly sought to gather their belongings as they watched their homes perish before their eyes. Homes that had been theirs for many generations – that had witnessed the joys of birth and the sorrows of parting – being reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes.
Some tried to resist, but their efforts were quickly subdued when the police used tear gas. A two-year-old child allegedly died in the triggered violence, something which the police would later put in their reports as ‘mild violence involving tear gas’. The residents scurried, trying to desperately bundle their belongings in bins and trunks – clothes, brooms, buckets, a small television, plastic stools, blackened pots, a rusty table fan.
With the things of everyday life went the things of everyday trade. Puppets were hurriedly packed inside trunks – their strings entangled in the rush -along with a dholak wrapped in an old saree, hand painted wall hangings – slated to be sold in the Friday market and all bundled up, for an uncertain tomorrow.
The future remains hazy for the uprooted residents of Kathputli colony. Some families have been promised homes in the ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ (EWS) category of flats, two years from eviction – when Kathputli colony is redeveloped. This, however, is conditional upon the payment of ₹1,12,000 – an amount that is in complete dissonance with the living standards of Kathputli colony’s erstwhile residents. Further, there is a list of 771 people on the DDA website for whom no alternative allotment has been thought of.
The dislodged locals of Kathputli colony have now been sent to transit camps in Anand Parbat and Narela. With families of eight to ten people surviving in eight feet by eight feet areas, there is a severe paucity of space. Some have even resorted to sleeping out in the open air, in the November chill.
As per a recent update by Raju Bhaat, an erstwhile resident of Kathputli colony and a puppeteer of Kayakalp troupe, there are tents for only 2800 people, whereas there are close to 4000 people in the transit camp.
The living conditions in these transit camps are abysmal. Raju Bhaat says “We often have to wait in long lines to go to the bathroom. Sometimes, there are 40 people ahead of us in line. We cannot afford to take baths, as the water is limited. When the women folk go to fill water in their vessels, they are able to fill at most two out of five vessels”.
What lies ahead for these uprooted families is a harsh Delhi winter, in a transit camp that is unsanitary and insufficient by all accounts. In the ruins of what was once Kathputli colony, they have left behind feelings of familiarity and comfort. They look ahead towards a tomorrow riddled with uncertainties – their homes snatched away, their livelihoods disrupted, a deaf ear turned to their pleas.
The redevelopment project of Kathputli colony has incurred a heavy human cost, one that will not find mention in the project’s balance of accounts, but one that cannot be negated.
The lives of the people of Kathputli colony today hang in the balance; their futures deftly altered in the course of a day – much like the puppets they have wielded with such dexterity. This time, the uprooted residents of Kathputli colony are the puppets. And who pulls their strings? The rich and the powerful.
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