Erecting monuments, razing dreams

A jaw-dropping sum is spent on a new parliament building, and nothing on shelter for displaced slum-dwellers and other uprooted citizens

Demolition drive in Delhi's Mehrauli area, February 2023 (Photo: Social media)
Demolition drive in Delhi's Mehrauli area, February 2023 (Photo: Social media) Asim Khan

Even as the national capital and the national media marvelled at the spanking new parliament building, in other parts of Delhi, demolitions were being carried out.

Operation Demolition, for the uninformed, has been in progress across the capital city with some urgency for the past several months— because New Delhi will be hosting the G20 summit in September. Mehrauli, Dhaula Kuan, parts of South Delhi and areas inundated in the monsoons by the Yamuna river have all witnessed demolitions of varying intensity.

Not surprisingly, the media had little incentive or inclination to cover or comment on these demolitions. After all, no actual voters were likely to be affected, were they? On the one hand, the new parliament building was being justified on the grounds that the existing building had become too old, and because a new building was needed to make space for more Members of Parliament following the next delimitation of constituencies expected after 2026.

Now, even if the Delimitation Commission submits its report in time for the next general elections in 2030 and a political consensus is reached on it by then, the additional space in the new building of parliament would still be required only seven years later. But it has been built in 2023 itself, with 888 seats for the Lok Sabha and 384 seats for the Rajya Sabha. How the government arrived at these figures remains a mystery.

The modern, forward-looking and scientific government of New India must have reached back for some ancient Vedic maths formulae or divination efforts or mystical writ to arrive at the numbers.

Whichever it may be, the government’s foresight in anticipating the future requirement of space for more MPs is marvellous indeed. The government is ever so sensitive to the needs of MPs not even elected yet. However, it seems oblivious when it comes to the present needs of the slum dwellers in the capital.

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The government failed the sensibility test by not having the foresight to plan for their rehabilitation before uprooting them from their shanties. The Union government shrugged off its responsibility by putting the onus of rehabilitation on the state government of Delhi.

Apparently, the Centre, which controls both the police and land in the national capital territory, can clear the land but cannot rehabilitate the ousted. The paradox is that the Union government does not want the state government to take autonomous decisions, yet it wants the Delhi government to be responsible for people the Centre chooses to uproot.

City slums are of course an eyesore to many. They shame our glorious nation before visiting foreign dignitaries and offend our own sensibilities.

While the prime minister ‘honoured’ workers who made the new parliament building, he does not seem to have spared much thought to the slum dwellers, most of them are daily wage earners. They may or may not have helped build the new parliament—but they do carry bricks, lay cables, repair roads, engage in loading and unloading goods from trucks, dig for new construction and work as carpenters and ironsmiths. Yet to the government and government officials, they clearly contribute nothing to nation building.

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Indeed, the slums are seen as dens of criminals, drug peddlers, alcoholics, pickpockets and smugglers. Slums are a problem in ‘smart cities’. New and gleaming highways, airports, malls and office complexes, we are told, signal that the Achhe Din (the good times), are here. How then can slums be allowed to spoil the aesthetics of such cities?

If we want to make our cities look like London or Shanghai, what option is there but to demolish the slums? The Housing and Land Rights Network estimates that between 2017 and 2021, as many as 191,000 houses were demolished in the country, affecting almost a million people.

In the 19 months between January 2021 and July 2022, the figure was of 62,330 homes, affecting 331,000 people.

Even during the Covid-19 lockdown, when people were being advised to remain indoors, as many as 13,750 Indians lost their ‘home’ to demolitions. Judging by these estimates, each hour we are rendering 23 people homeless.

Even more paradoxical than the Rs 8,000 crore (or is it Rs 12,000 crore?) spent on the new parliament building are the crores pumped in to spruce up the hosting cities and venues for the G20 summit. No other member country in the G20 group, which rotates the annual presidency among members, has made such a song and dance about the summit as we are doing.

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In an effort to look like a developed country, the government is sparing no effort or cost to put its best foot forward. The summit has, ironically, adopted the lofty Sanskrit phrase vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) as its motto, and this is used extensively as this year’s leitmotif in all the publicity material, hoardings and posters promoting G20.

The people uprooted by the demolition drives in the capital can be forgiven for not noticing or appreciating the motif, though the hoardings are hard to miss. After all, they received all of an hour’s notice, at most two, to gather their belongings and vacate their homes.

So what if the dreams of many youngsters living in these slums were shattered? So what if their schooling was disrupted or some of them missed their examinations? So what if they were rendered homeless and thrown out on the streets?

Even more ironically, while most of these slums are said to be illegal encroachments, there is hardly a slum dweller who does not possess an Aadhaar card, which is supposedly their proof of identity and address handed out by a government agency. Many of them have lived in the same unauthorised slums for 40–45 years. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto had famously pointed out that whenever a large number of the poor break the law, it means that the law has no connection with their lived reality. It is the law that needs to be modified then.

The Supreme Court of India also ruled that displacing people without making arrangements for their rehabilitation first is violative of fundamental rights. But the government and government agencies seem oblivious of the ruling and insensitive to the suffering of the people.

Demolitions in Tughlaqabad were carried out with clinical precision. Mobile phones of social workers who arrived at the site on receiving the news were meticulously confiscated. Electricity and phone lines were cut off. Jammers were used to disable the internet and phone signals, making it impossible to inform the outside world, to seek help or intervention of any kind.

In no time, only the debris remained. ‘Housing for all’ was one of the promises held out by Achhe Din, but there is little concern for the staggering number of people rendered homeless in the national capital. In any case, the city has shamefully few shelters for the homeless, too few homes for the destitute.

Out of the nine rain baseras (overnight shelters) in the NCR, only two are meant for women. Even the homeless pay indirect taxes every time they purchase salt or edible oil or atta. They provide useful services and cities will cease to function without them. Surely, they too have a legitimate claim to our national resources? 

(Meenakshi Natarajan is a former Member of the Lok Sabha. This article was originally written in Hindi)

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