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Andrew Buncombe's Asia Diary

The Independent's Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.

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Delhi bulldozes its poor. Literally

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Friday, 12 March 2010 at 10:03 am
  
The wretched cluster of shacks squeezed tightly together is known both locally and officially as the Coolie Camp. For more than 20 years, hundreds of people have lived in this makeshift slum at the junction of a road located between Delhi's progressive and politically-astute  Jawaharlal Nehru University and the upmarket Vasant Vihar neighbourhood where apartments for diplomats and foreign businessman are rented out for up to $8,000 a month.
 Unlike the well-tended streets of Vasant Vihar, where every house has its own guard-box, teams of staff to look after the gardens and sweepers to keep the roads clear, the Coolie Colony is something of an eyesore, People have set up tea-shops and tyre puncture repair shacks on the edge of the colony, families cluster around the handful of hose-pipes to gather their water and children shit on the edge of the road. [There are no proper toilets here and adults have to make use of the scrubland behind the shanty.]
 This "unauthorised" colony - which has both practical and legal status and where many homes have metered electricity - is also located on a stretch of road the authorities wish to widen in advance of the Commonwealth Games.
And so this week, without a word of notice to the residents, the authorities sent in a bulldozer to tear apart the "commercial premises" of the shanty. I happened to by driving past as it happened and stopped to see what was going on. I stood and watched as a JCB started breaking apart the buildings as people looked helplessly on. There was no need for a JCB. When the authorities talk about commercial premises they mean an ill-constructed shack of bricks and branches from which a poor man might be selling tea and snacks, or else fixing punctures. "I sleep in my workshop," despaired a man called Imam Mohammed, who had three children to look after from the 100-200 rupees he earned a day fixing tyres.
 An official from the Delhi Development Authority who was overseeing the razing of the buildings insisted that they were "illegal" and the government had decided to get rid of them. He said that residential properties - he meant tiny shacks, but that would not have sounded good - were not being moved "for now". When they were moved, around a third of the people were eligible to be moved to a "relocation camp". The remaining two-thirds would have to fend for themselves.
 The official told me quite matter-of-factly that there had been pressure to act "from higher-ups". I asked him directly whether the Commonwealth Games were a factor and he said: "We need to widen the road for the Commonwealth Games. The issue is that".
 He came with me to another property that had been smashed up by the bulldozer. Rakesh, who sold cigarettes, from a window of his shack, was out when the police and the officials came. His wife said that the police were rough with the women when they protested. The bulldozer had smashed up his tiny shop and in one of the most pitiful scenes I have yet to see in India, Rakesh pleaded with the official to allow him to rebuild the shack so that his family could sleep in it. "I will sweep the streets instead. I will not have a shop," he begged.
 There appeared to be no joined-up thinking by the authorities. The official repeatedly told me that the buildings were illegal and I repeatedly asked him how the authorities expected these poor people to be able to provide for their families if what little livelihoods they had were destroyed. At that point the conversation turned surreal. The official asked me; "How do you know these people are poor?"


Comments

Where do they go?
livinindelhi wrote:
Friday, 12 March 2010 at 06:57 am (UTC)
This happened to a load of tent-like structures near Shivalik in Malviya Nagar. Families with small children living there seemed to mind their own business and get on with things, but one day they were there, the next they weren't. Where have these people gone?

Re: Where do they go?
abuncombe wrote:
Friday, 12 March 2010 at 09:29 am (UTC)
A very good question. That little camp of makeshift tents near Malviya Nagar was located about 400m from where I live. One evening they were there, the next they were gone and signs had been erected saying "This is government land."
"Beautification"
gabsinnepal wrote:
Friday, 12 March 2010 at 10:56 am (UTC)
This reminds me of Indira Gandhi's "Beautification Programme" in the 1970s - where shacks which the poorest paid rent for were torn down without any warning and the resultant homeless were then "resettled" in labour camps.

That was during the "Emergency", when the rule of law was suspended and widespread human rights abuses were committed. It is disconcerting to see how little has changed 40 years later under polyarchy.

What we don't know is the opinions of those living close by in their $8000/month apartments. The inequality across much of South Asia is enormous and yet there is sadly very little evidence of the privileged few having the slightest empathy for the majority living on the breadline.
daulat123 wrote:
Monday, 15 March 2010 at 11:05 am (UTC)
Dear Andrew:

Very good of you to notice the plight of the oppressed. It's the duty of a journalist.

In Pakistan, though, you boasted of spending your time in swank cafes sipping lattes.

Have you any shame?
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