Delhi's Slumdwellers Contesting the State

Hans Schenk

In the years around 2020, three out of every four inhabitants of India’s capital city Delhi lived in hundreds of ‘temporary,’ ‘unplanned,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘informal’ settlements, or so-called ‘transit camps,’ as Sanjeev Routray mentions in the first page of his book.1 The quotation marks are by Routray. The nomenclature of shelter for poor citizens is rich but fuel the suspicion that a deliberate smokescreen has been installed and maintained; at least to prevent a clear sight on the shelter-conditions of selected citizens. The author mentions on p. 25 the existence of even more types of shelter from administrative/political points of view: unrecognized, unidentified, un-surveyed and unauthorized settlements!  This century’s settling, unsettling, and resettling of Delhi’s 15 million urban poor is the overarching theme of this work. In physical terms, these settlements are often described as clusters of ‘precarious and improvised huts,’ locally known as jhuggi-jhopri settlements, or ‘j-j’ for short (p. 2). Such figures and qualifications are more or less known, and they are similar to those in so many other urban centres in India or elsewhere. Yet they are frightening and beyond real comprehension.

Many of these millions of inhabitants of Delhi are considered as ‘illegal encroachers’ in one way or another by a myriad of relevant authorities. Following this logic, they are not ‘eligible’ for formal housing. Hence, an initial form of recognition of these j-j’s existence by a form of legitimate authority, is crucial. This initial recognition is also important in Routray’s book. In the words of the author, numbers are “the primary drive” of such awareness (p. 125). For example, there should be a minimum of 50 households in one settlement for it to gain state recognition. However, in the author’s account, the birth of a ‘j-j’ settlements depends on factors other than sheer size . The specific location of the settlement matters as well, and the urgency of “cleaning up city spaces” varies from one state agency to the other.2 The World Class City syndrome that gripped Delhi’s rulers, especially during the first decade of this century played havoc among hundreds of thousands dwellers of bulldozed ‘j-j’ settlements.  Not surprisingly, political patronage is also key. Routray writes bluntly that it is a Member of the Legislative Assembly who will indicate whether or not the police should leave the fledgling settlement alone (p. 27).

Routray studied three widely different living areas. These ranged from a ‘j-j’ settlement before and after state-recognition (including demolition of the illegal squatter settlement), and the prospect of resettlement in a formal living area for its eligible inhabitants (those who could prove to have lived long enough in the informal settlement) via a transit colony inhabited by yet unsettled though eligible ‘j-j’ dwellers, and finally, a far-off resettlement colony. State recognition of a settlement, selection of its eligible inhabitants for resettlement after a period in a transit facility on the one hand, and the demolition of the illegal settlement on the other, are parts and parcels of the state involvement of the provision of housing of Delhi’s poor citizens. At least, this is a reality on paper. In the first part titled “The Politics of Planning,” comprising two chapters, Routray gives an unusually detailed analysis of what happens in the field.3 Delhi’s ‘slum policy’ has been much debated in both scholarly and other books and articles. Routray’s account is however outstanding in its details.  This analysis gives a sturdy and useful body of facts about the settling, unsettling, and resettling of ‘j-j’ dwellers. It is, moreover, devastating, as just some mentioned numbers show.  About 1.3 million citizens have been displaced between 1990 and 2009, the heydays of Delhi’s cleaning up actions, in order to reach world class status. Only one quarter of these were found eligible for resettlement. Routray adds that many eligible persons were still not provided with shelter or a plot in a resettlement colony after many years and stayed – seemingly forgotten - in a transit camp, on a 10 square metre plot. Those who were actually resettled got a 12.5 square metre plot on hire-purchase basis, far away from the city and their jobs. Obviously, many left. Furthermore, Routray concludes that resettlement in Delhi is not much more than ‘the myth of resettlement,’ as it was coined by Ayona Datta, who studied another resettlement camp in Delhi.4 Ayona Datta, The Illegal City, Ashgate 2012, p. 40.  Even the “small minority of formally resettled citizens remain ‘transitory encroachers’ in the imagination of the middle class residents” of the city (p. 99).5 Much later in his book writes Routray of the: “unbridgeable gap…  in terms of social location and lived realities” between even well-intentioned middle class activists and poor people (p. 239).


Politics of the poor

How do the inhabitants of these illegal, temporary, and resettlements react on the shaky attempts by the State to make Delhi slum-free? In the second part of his book, titled “The Politics of the Poor,” Routray deals with this question. He rejects the notion of passive slum dwellers, victims of a calculating state. Instead, he intends to show that “the poor systematically contest the arbitrary and exclusionary processes of state calculations” (p. 15) and fight for their lives and recognition as citizens of Delhi, using a wide variety of tactics and counter-tactics, rann-nitis in Hindi. This fight may be about threats of demolition, better plots, and facilities in transit camps and resettlement colonies. Their rann-nitis have been categorized by Routray in four categories, which are dealt with in Chapters 3-6. In each chapter, all three particular ‘settings’ are brought to the fore, from (pre)-unsettlement to transit to resettlement. Chapter 3 discusses the capacities of intermediaries (local leaders, social workers, and government employees) to approach politicians and the administration in order to get usually scarce things done for a ‘j-j’ community. Routray concludes cynically, notably in the context of vote-bank politics, that politicians (in order to get elected) deliver: “what rightfully belongs to the urban poor, by virtue of their presence in the city …. while at the same time creating dependencies, exclusions and arbitrariness …” (p. 144).  Eligibility to public welfare services, such as housing requires ‘j-j’ settlers to present the needed documents, such as proofs of staying in a settlement before a cut-off date. This forms the core of Chapter 4. Such documents are sometimes not available (never issued or lost), they may contain anomalies in spelling of names, or are otherwise not accepted as ‘passports’ to eligibility. The slightest pretext will do, concludes Routray. Obviously, one of the rann-nitis is hence counterfeiting documents with the help of local leaders. He mentions not without stressing the irony that it works: “… the forged documents without the errors may have greater force than the asli (genuine) documents with the errors.” (p. 189)

The rule of law comes to the fore in Chapter 5. Inhabitants of the transit camp and the (re-)settlement may clutch on legal straws as last institutional resorts to obtain their rights. However, an anti-poor sentiment that has governed Delhi’s law courts since the 1990s has also found its way to the settlements Routray studied. He followed two cases with much detail wherein poor settlers deploy their rann-nitis to challenge and counter the law. He discusses the verdicts at length, stating: “Legal verdicts are produced by the constraints of social and political settings and through the dynamics of social struggles over legal meanings” (p. 199). He found, perhaps to his surprise,6 Routray remarks: “Fortunately for the residents, two High Court judges known for their sympathy for the urban poor presided over the case” (p. 218).  a ruling in favour of the challenging rann-nitis by the petitioners; and describes it as unique and historic, given the at that time usual anti-poor verdicts by Delhi’s judges. “For the time being,” he concludes, “the case remains a unique example of the legal machinery to rescue the poor.”(p. 230) In Chapter 6, peaceful demonstrations and more militant struggles are discussed. These remain when “most other institutional avenues are exhausted” (p. 232). Peaceful protests include hunger-strikes, gatherings, rallies, conscious-raising street theatres, felicitation ceremonies, etc.  More militant are road blocks and barring persons from leaving or entering a premise (gherao). These rann-nitis serve a purpose anyway, bringing residents together and enhancing solidarity. Resistance  is, thus, an integral part of the “numerical citizenship struggles in Delhi,” as Routray concludes this chapter (p. 263).

Routray presents an enormous amount of detailed descriptions and analyses to substantiate his argument about the many ways in which Delhi’s poor work and fight if necessary to gain an urban foothold. He shows how arduously citizenship is required, in uneven, incremental ways, and protracted by demolitions, loss of patronage, hostile policies and judiciary, or imperfect documents. His presentation, however overwhelming as it is, is not always easy to follow. Routray has chosen to present his data theme by theme, and he therefore hops from one of his settlements to the other in each chapter. Since the contexts of these settlements is quite heterogeneous, he unavoidably produces fragmented pictures of what is going on in terms of state policies and rann-nitis. I wonder whether a clearer picture would have emerged, if he had chosen for a monograph-like approach. But, this is just presentation: the contents are there and compelling enough!