'We made them criminals' - the failure of a Delhi slum relocation

An ambitious project to rehouse millions of Indian slum dwellers is coming unstuck because the new sites are becoming worse than the slums they are meant to replace.

The Delhi government started relocating people to Banawa in 2003. Originally built for 10,000 people, the slum has ballooned to 60,000.
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An ambitious project to rehouse millions of Indian slum dwellers is coming unstuck because the new sites are becoming worse than the slums they are meant to replace. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports

NEW DELHI // Dolly Bibi limps, dragging her broken leg behind her. She stops to lean against an electricity pole for respite from the pain. She watches two teenage boys, high from sniffing glue, walk past her in the cramped alley.

"My son is a thief," she says. "He steals so he can do heroin, but he gives me some of that money so I can eat. I have tried to break this habit, but this place keeps sending him back to his old ways."

Mrs Bibi, 30, and her son, Ashraf Ali, 16, live in Bawana, a slum relocation project 40 kilometres north-west of New Delhi. They and 5,000 others were forced to move here when their homes in a slum on the banks of the sacred Yamuna river were torn down eight years ago.

A Delhi initiative launched last month - to relocate 72,000 people - hopes to break the cycle of simply moving one slum to create another by this time providing the infrastructure the other programmes lacked.

Five thousand apartments are almost ready. The rest will be finished in the next two years.

The initiative is part of a federal programme called the Rajiv Awas Yojna.

The 1.1 billion-rupee (Dh815 million) national programme seeks to house 32 million slum dwellers in 250 cities and towns across the country with a population of more than 100,000.

But the failure of Bawana is not a good sign.

It was a disaster from the start.

Most people lost their jobs as day labourers or domestic workers because they were relocated too far away from their employers in New Delhi.

The promised schools, shops, and public transport never happened.

There is still no running water, sewerage or electricity.

Drug and alcohol abuse became rampant. Crime is on the rise.

In the 1990s, New Delhi began efforts beautify the city. Central to this was tearing down the unsightly slums.

There were a dozen colonies identified on the outskirts of the city, including Bawana, where slum dwellers were to be relocated.

The relocations began in 2003 and in 2004 the government moved those who lived by the banks of the Yamuna river - mostly domestic workers, rag pickers - rubbish scavengers - rickshaw drivers, vegetable sellers and street sweepers.

Most were migrants from other parts of India, who had come to the capital in search of a better life.

"The words labourer and poor, we have an attitude against that. And Bawana has become a symbol of that," said Sadre Alam, an adviser to the Delhi Young Artists Forum in New Delhi, who teaches art and music to children in Bawana.

Mr Alam remembers his first visit to Bawana, when the first load of lorries carrying the slum dwellers arrived within weeks of their old homes being destroyed.

"There were signs everywhere that said: 'Site for hospital. Site for bus stop.'," he said.

"They moved them to a place where there was no electricity, no roads, no water and worst of all, no houses."

The relocation sites also lack schools. An estimated 15,000 in Bawana are younger than 8. The single public school has room for 300 students.

Mrs Bibi's son, Ashraf, had attended a public school in New Delhi. He was one of the lucky few in Bawana who qualified for a rare place in the new school.

But Ashraf was forced to drop out of school after a few months: all over a bag.

"I did not have the money to buy him a school bag," said Mrs Bibi, who no longer earns the 300 rupees a month she had been making as a domestic worker in the capital since being forcibly moved to Bawana.

"They would not let him attend without the proper uniform, which included the bag. That was the beginning of the end."

Life in Bawana has improved slightly in the eight years since Mrs Bibi arrived.

They have a one-room home of brick and cement. The electricity works - sometimes. There is still no water.

Bawana's roads are bricks stuck in mud. Stinking, milky-grey sewage lies stagnant in gutters clogged by plastic waste.

Children and dogs play in piles of refuse. Men without jobs sit around in groups playing cards.

The Delhi government is still sending evicted slum dwellers to Bawana.

The population of the resettlement area, originally built for 10,000 people, has ballooned to 60,000.

"When you look at Bawana you will fully understand that what we have done to that society of workers - we made them criminals," says Mr Alam.

Najma Bibi, no relation, 25, along with her mother, Ajija Khatoum, 40, sit on a mud floor in their one-room shack made of plastic sheeting, worse than the slum they lived in, sewing jeans.

They earn 2 rupees a pair. The jeans sell for 500 rupees in the market.

"All our neighbours slowly ran away from here," said Mrs Khatoum, who arrived with her family eight years ago. "Some simply abandoned the place but we stayed because we had nowhere else to go.

"We left a slum for a slum.

"This is worse. There is no peace because of the crime."

Rajul Seth, 25, a rickshaw driver, helps pile up the finished jeans.

He often travels to the city to look for work.

Sometimes, he goes back and stands in the spot of his former home on the banks of the Yamuna.

"If I could afford to move back the city, I would," he says.

But with his home gone, Mr Seth has no choice but to stay in Bawana.

"I am like those men now," he said gesturing to group nearby playing cards.

"Our old life is gone, so we sit here and gamble."



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