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Concrete dreams

In June 2008 India’s Finance Minister, P Chidambaram, offered his hallucinatory vision of a poverty-free India, ‘an India where a vast majority, something like 85 per cent, will eventually live in cities’. He related this inspirational image to the necessary removal of mineral wealth from the sterile inutility of lying buried in Mother Earth, and the orderly concentration of people in cities where their needs may be serviced with industrial efficiency.

Maidservants working in five or six houses, rickshaw pullers, builders of the concrete fortresses of the rich, vendors, sweepers, drivers and cooks have morphed into thieves and criminals

His evocation of this vaporous dystopia ignores the fact that poverty is so deeply attached to those it holds in its spell that it keeps them company when they migrate to city slums. Poverty squats with them beside glassy polluted canals, perches on sunbaked outcrops of rock, in malarial marshes and arid ex-urban dumps.

Chidambaram also seriously underestimates the antagonism of the urban middle class to the poor of what Italo Calvino calls the ‘metropolis in constant eruption’. Public attitudes towards the urban poor have become conspicuously less merciful. This is expressed not only in a widely held conviction that poor people are the authors of their own misfortune but also in the very institutions of the State.

The response of the legal system towards the basic rights of slum- and street-dwellers is more hostile now than it has ever been. Until the 1980s the Supreme Court of India upheld the view that the right to livelihood was inseparable from the right to life, and that proximity of poor people to their place of work was justified, even if they had to live on the pavement to pursue their labour as domestic workers, rickshaw drivers, vendors and labourers.

Punitive tone

Without changing the legislation, a different under-standing has evolved. City planners, professionals and members of residents’ welfare associations have raised their voices against the presence of the urban poor close to where they ‘reside’ (significant verb: the middle class resides, ordinary people live, slum-people dwell); a prejudice echoed by the courts. Even the incorruptible arbiters of justice have been influenced by unacknowledged global campaigns against the city poor. Recent Supreme Court judgments have taken on a punitive tone against those now perceived, not as refugees from spoiled rural livelihoods, but as encroachers, trespassers and illegal occupants of other people’s land.

The attack on the poor is also reflected in official statistical reductions of those living in poverty. Cooked – at best half-baked – figures of those below a ‘poverty line’, a sort of imaginary latitude, a Tropic of Indigence, leap from official documents. The CIA _Factbook 2008_ records that 25 per cent of Indians are in poverty. At the same time, half the children of India are malnourished and a third have low birth weight. Are we to conclude from this that tens of millions of Indian parents routinely withhold from their children nutrients necessary for their well-being; or are the published figures simply a fiction of bureaucrats?

Whatever the explanation, the obduracy of flesh and blood which remains in places from which it has been theoretically banished offends the tender gaze of the well-to-do, and calls for sterner policies. If slums appear as blank spaces on city maps, this may be a warning of their likely fate.

An aspiring middle class is only too ready to call those who serve them usurpers, free-loaders, the cunning transients of unbelonging. Maidservants working in five or six houses, rickshaw pullers, builders of the concrete fortresses of the rich, vendors, sweepers, drivers and cooks have morphed into thieves and criminals. On cue, newspapers tell of servants cutting the throat of an elderly employer for the sake of her jewellery, the looting of the belongings of the lone man whose children are in the US, the ransacking of the home of those who have given them shelter. More rarely reported are stories of the inadequate diet, the 15-hour working day, the burning attic and the draughty verandah, the young girl dismissed when pregnant with the child of the head of the household. It is not that their services are no longer required; but they must cease to impose the ‘eyesore’ of their meagre dwellings and the distressing signs of their neediness.


Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan^±^ have followed the fate of one slum, Yamuna Pushta, where 27,000 families were evicted in 2004 to make way for a riverside promenade, in readiness for the Commonwealth Games. These – to be held in Delhi in 2010, for only the second time in an Asian country – are of great symbolic importance, since the event will confirm Delhi's accession to the league of ‘world-class’ cities. The preparations for this event (it will last 12 days) have been going on for years, and involve a process of ‘beautification’.

This word, when used by urban politicians, should be regarded with suspicion, since it is generally attended by some very ugly circumstances indeed. Contrary to assertions in a UN Habitat document of 2003, _The Challenge of Slums_, which affirms that city governments have largely seen the folly of evictions, the Delhi authorities set about the removal of people from Yamuna Pushta, some of whom had been there for decades, with punishing gusto. The report, _Swept Off the Map_, compiled by a team of local informants and academics, tells stories of deepening misery, declining opportunity and intensifying poverty.

It should not be imagined that the deprived and humiliated will remain forever acquiescent in this, an avoidable fate

This erasure of an established community is characteristic of a new callousness towards the poor, which calls into question the pious declarations of an ‘international community’ on Millennium Goals. These are for public consumption only: on the ground, displacements continue with the removal of people to temporary ex-urban refuges, devoid of amenity and opportunity.

Only 6,000 plots were allotted to the 27,000 families evicted. Those who could prove they had lived on the site since 1990 were entitled to land of 18 square metres, while residents who arrived between 1991 and 1998 received an allotment of 12 square metres. They had to pay Rs 7,000 ($166) for a larger plot, 5,000 ($118) for a smaller one. Security of tenure was for a mere five years. All were compelled to pay more than the official cost. Most people simply went elsewhere, as urban nomads or settlers in other slums, while some returned to the derelict lands they had fled.

Bleak wilderness

The place to which they were relocated is Bawana, a sterile treeless landscape on the far periphery of Delhi, laid out on a symmetrical grid; a bleak wilderness which, on the day I visited, was shrouded in bone-chilling fog. The move destroyed livelihoods, which led to immediate and dramatic impoverishment, particularly for women and girls. There are few work opportunities on the site: some women travel back to Pushta, a two-hour journey each way, to continue domestic labour. The cost in money and time devours incomes already close to survival-level. Some men remain to work in Delhi, returning at weekends or once a month. This leaves many vulnerable women-headed households.

Fewer children are in school than in Pushta, especially girls. The unproductive idleness of young men becomes a useful resource to drug-dealers, petty criminals and property speculators. Health services are inferior, depending largely on private doctors, often with uncertain qualifications. Hostility from the settled village of Bawana, mainly of Jats and Gujjars, creates friction and leads to quarrels and beatings. Ration-shop owners have contempt for their customers: only two-thirds of those entitled to subsidized food actually get their allocation. (In Pushta it was well over 90 per cent.) Police and city officials treat them with disdain and sometimes physical violence. Fires regularly sweep through the slum, destroying hundreds of houses. Some have sold their plot and returned to Delhi. Networks of mutual help and belonging which had built up over the years in Pushta have been broken. Among the victims are disproportionate numbers of Muslims and Dalits.

This clearance of people is represented by Government as relocation from slums to a more salubrious environment. In fact it makes people poorer, less healthy, more fearful, and uses up more of their depleted energies in daily survival. It can be seen here precisely how ‘development’ exacerbates inequality. Those who have struggled for security, even in the most squalid places, are suddenly robbed of everything, and must start once more from an even lower base. Here some of the true cost of India’s economic growth is revealed: while élites get richer, the status of the poor declines. It might have been thought that the last thing India needs at this time is greater inequality. Yet such is the perverse logic of this version of development, that to ancient wrongs new forms of dispossession must now be added.


If fugitives from the desolation of rural life were tolerated for decades, this was because they provided a reservoir of cheap labour, or a source of income to officials, who levied informal taxes by extortion, bribes and illegal fines. The world-class city, however, now has more grandiose designs on their fragile settlements. The hour has come of the developer and the ‘colonist’; the builder and the constructor move in to make their killings, sometimes literally. Reserve labour is, in any case, becoming expendable in a world of intensive mechanization.

Behind the publicly, the professed tenderness for an amorphous ‘poor’, actually existing poor people are subjected to greater insecurity and loss. It should not be imagined that the deprived and humiliated will remain forever acquiescent in this, an avoidable fate. They are taking matters into their own hands – not only in political action (the most benign option) but, equally, in criminal gangs or religious zealotry, which have no scruples about employing a violence equal to that inflicted upon them. Let it not be said that the leaders of India – or the wider world – did not know, were not informed or remained otherwise unaware of the injuries inflicted upon their fellow-citizens – injuries which may, one day soon, demand not redress but revenge.

Chidambaram’s vision is of an India and its people relocated into a thousand carceral cities, interspersed with strips of industrialized agriculture. Whatever the administrative advantages of this malignant transformation, it will certainly not abolish poverty. Like drug-resistant strains of disease, it knows the secret of perpetual mutation and is lying in wait to claim once more the refugees of a demolished rural culture.

*Jeremy Seabrook* is a regular contributor to _New Internationalist_ magazine.

^±^ Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan, _Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction & Resettlement in Delhi_, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2008.

New Internationalist issue 419 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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