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Sky Above, Mud Below

The slum demolitions in Mumbai and Delhi are reflective of a deep prejudice against slum dwellers. It is imperative to legislate a national slum policy that respects the right to shelter of the urbanised poor living in slums.

Sky Above, Mud Below

Slum Demolition and Urban Cleansing

The slum demolitions in Mumbai and Delhi are reflective of a deep prejudice against slum dwellers. It is imperative to legislate a national slum policy that respects the right to shelter of the

urbanised poor living in slums.


he demolition drive in Delhi a few months back and in Mumbai last year brings to mind the striking observation of Pierre Bourdieu who said that the underclass is regulated by the “the left” as well as the “right hand” of the state. The left hand of the state manifests itself through education, public healthcare, social security and social housing, while force, coercion and police symbolise the right hand of the state.1 The “right hand” of the state, at least in Delhi and Mumbai, was evident as the bulldozers tore apart some of the slums of Delhi and Mumbai. Nearly 90,000 slum dwellings had been razed to the ground in Mumbai. In the Trans-Yamuna area of Delhi, the Delhi Municipal Corporation demolished 1,000 slum dwellings. The ferocious pace of demolition commenced when the Delhi High Court directed the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to demolish the 18,000 illegal structures, which came up during 2001-05 in violation of bye laws, zonal laws, encroachments on government land and putting residential properties to commercial use.

Interestingly enough, though the Delhi High Court ordered the demolition of both jhuggis and other unauthorised structures belonging to the middle and upper classes (including powerful politicians), the vociferous protests came only from the latter. The media attention was also focused on the anguish of the trading class who were locked out of their shops (the shops were sealed) by the government. The Delhi assembly passed a resolution “directing the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to stop the demolitions immediately”. But the protests were muted, to say the least, when it came to demolition of about 150 ‘jhuggis’ in Mayur Vihar and almost 300 jhuggis in Patparganj (east Delhi colonies). The brutal demolition rendered more than 400 families homeless.2 The same story was repeated with respect to the demolition of 6,000 slum dwellings in Ashok Vihar in a brutal operation. The slum protesters were savagely beaten; both the very young and the elderly were not spared.3But again there was very little public protest.

Indifference to Slum Dwellers’Indifference to Slum Dwellers’Indifference to Slum Dwellers’Indifference to Slum Dwellers’Indifference to Slum Dwellers’

The studied indifference to the plight of the urban slum dwellers by the middle and upper class, and the political establishment stems from the fact that slums are perceived as failed communities representing the “flotsam-jetsam” of failed industrialisation. The truth of the matter is that apart from China, where the engine of manufactured goods exports and vast inflows of foreign capital power urbanisation, the cities in the rest of the developing world lack that stimulus. Notes Mike Davis: “Urbanisation, elsewhere, has been radically decoupled from industrialisation, even from development per se. Some would argue that this is an expression of an inexorable trend: the inherent tendency of silicon capitalism to de-link the growth of production from that of employment”.4 More perverse is the phenomenon that, in spite of urban recession in many parts of the developing world, there was no reversal or slowing down of the migration from the countryside to urban areas. Part of the secret, according to Mike Davis, was that IMF- (and now WTO-) enforced policies of agricultural deregulation and “depeasantisation” that were accelerating the exodus of surplus rural labour to urban slums even as cities ceased to be job machines. Urban population growth in spite of stagnant or negative urban economic growth is the extreme face of what some researchers have labelled “overurbanisation”.5 “Instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity”, the authors of an UN-Habitat report conclude, “the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade”. The rise of the informal sector, according to the authors, is a direct result of liberalisation.6

Compounding the problem of joblessness confronting the slum people, whether in Delhi, Mumbai, or elsewhere in the developing world, is their tenuous hold on land. Winter King, a legal scholar, wrote in the Harvard Review that 85 per cent of the urban residents of the developing world occupy properties illegally. Lacking proper title to land they get into informal arrangements with slumlords and politicians, where there is acquiescence to the illegal settlements, provided there is regular flow of bribes and rents to the slumlords and political bigwigs. With the result, the slum dwellers get into quasi-feudal relationship with politicians and slumlords. Any hint of disloyalty on the part of the slum dwellers would invite swift retribution in the form of demolition of their dwellings.7

The withdrawal of the state from urban planning represents a crisis of unparalleled dimension. According to Adhikari, “the state is unable to undertake long-term rational plans for the development of the city and for controlling the urban chaos because of lack of adequate resources and due to the general contradiction that exists between rational planning and interest group politics. …Thus in most of the third world countries, in the name of urban renewal programme, one of the most sort after solutions by the policy-makers, for making the urban areas a better living place, is an increase in slum demolition activities. This in turn leads to a continuous struggle for survival of the slum dwellers who have to wage a daily war to hold on to their tenements, which are often unauthorised settlements on government or private lands”.8

Veil of PrejudiceVeil of PrejudiceVeil of PrejudiceVeil of PrejudiceVeil of Prejudice

In the absence of sensible urban planning the steady encroachment of land by the urbanised poor becomes inevitable. The urban poor are forced to settle on hazardous areas such as toxic dumps, near refineries, near railroads and highways. The slum habitats have no infrastructure to speak of. There is no sanitation facility and no provision of drinking water. In Mumbai the sanitation ratio is one toilet seat per 500 inhabitants. The contamination of water by human and animal waste is responsible for the scourge of chronic diarrhoea, which kills infants. In the slums of Delhi there are 1,500 shanty colonies

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

Ministry or RDMinistry or RDMinistry or RDMinistry or RDMinistry or RD

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

housing over three million people with the average population density of 3,00,000 people per square kilometre.9

The magnitude of squalor in slums is so mind numbing that it lends itself to the trope that slums are synonymous with “rackets” or “criminal trade”. According to Rajindar Sachar: “A false impression has been created that pavement dwellers are unsocial elements; that a majority of them are criminals and unemployed. This is sheer slander. Pavement dwellers are an important part of the daily economy of city life. They are in reality the victims of an unjust social order.”10 In the city of Delhi alone about 40,000 children are labourers, 30,000 assist in shops, another 30,000 work in teashops and 20,000 work in repair shops. Around 1,00,000 children work as domestic helps in well to do homes.11 The Global Report on Human Settlements estimates that the informal workers constitute “two-fifths of the economically active population of the developing world.”12 As lowly paid workers living on a meagre subsistence they offer critical support to the formal sector of the economy.

Concerted public action is possible if one pierces the veil of prejudice against slum dwellers. It is imperative to legislate a national slum policy to provide the right to shelter to the urbanised poor living in slums. The legislation should also provide that no demolitions should take place unless proper show cause notice is issued to the affected parties and alternative means of accommodation provided. India being a signatory to the Istanbul declaration of 1996 which states that “Adequate shelter and services are a basic human right which places an obligation on governments to ensure their attainment by all people” makes demolition by the state without providing alternative accommodation to the evicted slum dwellers an unprincipled act. The national slum legislation should enshrine the principle enunciated in the 1956 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states that “Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State Party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available.”12

Urban apartheid, which divides the villas and spanking new shopping malls from the ‘zopadpattis’ of the urban poor, needs to be overcome. This requires an attitudinal change. Slums should no longer be viewed as festering wounds of disease, crime and wretchedness. As Davis reminds us: “The demonising rhetoric of the various international ‘wars’ on terrorism, drugs, and crime are so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around gecekondus, favelas, and chawls that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion.”14 For it is only by breaking the epistemological walls that divide us from the urban poor shall we have taken the first steps to regain our humanity.




1 P Bourdieu (1999), Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market,Polity Press,Cambridge.

2 Amit Bhaduri and Arvind Kejriwal, ‘Whose City Is It Anyway’, The Times of India, December 29, 2005.

3 ‘Senseless Demolition by the Government of Delhi’, Trishna, Volume 1, Nos 17 and 18, November 24, 2005.

4 Mike Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, New Left Review,

26, March-April 2004. 5 Ibid. 6 UN-Habitat, The Challenge of the Slums:

Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, London.

7 Winter King, ‘Illegal Settlements and the Impact of Titling Programmes’, Harvard Review, Vol 44, No 2, September 2003.

8 Sanchayeeta Adhikari, ‘Urban Planning and Politics of Slum Demolition in Metropolitan Mumbai’, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay.

9 ‘Delhi Slums: The Reality’ at 10 Rajindar Sachar, ‘Civil and Political Rights of

Slum Dwellers’.

11 Delhi Slums, op cit.

12 UN-Habitat op cit.

13 Rajindar Sachar, op cit.

14 Mike Davis, op cit.

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

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